Just over 10 years on from a Taliban bomb which changed his life, Andy Allen tells GRAEME COUSINS how he stays positive as he looks ahead to the Warrior Games in Tampa, Florida
Former Royal Irish soldier Andy Allen – who returned from Afghanistan without his legs or his eyesight – considers himself to have been given a second chance at life.
An incredibly positive individual, the Assembly member for East Belfast says he has ‘played the hand he was dealt’ and rebuilt his life after being left with no option than to give up his military career.
At the end of last month the 30-year-old was selected to represent Team UK at the Warrior Games, an Olympic-style competition for injured veterans out of which the Invictus Games originated.
He said: “I’m working hard in the gym, doing a lot of strength and cardio stuff.
“In the 10-year window since being injured I went through a lot of rehabilitation, but that faded after two or three years and I got into a rut. Due to complications I can’t get up on the prosthesis so I’m limited to what exercise I can do.
“In the military we’ve always learned ‘adapt and overcome’ so if there is a barrier instead of just looking at it and saying, ‘I can’t do that’ and giving up, we’re always taught to constantly think how we can adapt and overcome.
“I tend to approach a lot of things in life like that.
“I’ve felt better in my own self physically in the past five or six weeks because of the training.”
Having gone through a selection process, the former soldier, who was seriously injured by a bomb in Helmand province in 2008, found out that he was one of 20 athletes selected to represent Team UK at Warrior Games in Tampa, Florida from June 21 to 30.
He said: “Last weekend I went to a multi-functional training camp in England.
“We tried out prospective sports we’d be training in plus tried out additional sports that we perhaps have never tried before.
“I’d put down to compete in powerlifting and indoor rowing, that’s now been extended to visually impaired archery and also some field activities – shotput and discus hopefully.
“At the Warrior Games there’ll be opportunities to share knowledge of our own respective recoveries. That’s what I like about it. Through our own experiences we all have something to share which may help all of us on our roads to recovery.”
Recalling the life changing moment on July 14, 2008 when as a 19-year-old he was injured by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) left by the Taliban, Andy said: “I don’t even remember the blast. One minute I was a young and fit soldier fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, the next I was in hospital in Birmingham coming out of a coma after eight weeks.”
He said: “Forty eight hours after the incident I was flown back to Selly Oak Hospital where they had me in a medically induced coma for eight weeks, fighting to keep me alive. When I woke up my younger brother Christopher was with me, he said, ‘you’re okay, you’re safe’.
“My family had been taking it in turns to be with me there. They were as much in the dark, they didn’t know if I was going to pull through or not. They had to take each day as it came and hope for the best.
“When I came out of the coma I knew straight away my legs were gone. I couldn’t see either. As you can imagine there were all sorts of thoughts – I was frightened, I was just very scared.”
He continued: “The right leg was taken off in the blast and they surgically amputated the left leg due to severe infection. When I came round and they got me up and about in the wheelchair, they got me to Headley Court, the main military rehabilitation centre in October 2008.
“I got home for a long weekend, the second weekend in November, it was actually the weekend after the homecoming parade in Belfast. It wasn’t until Christmas that I actually got home properly.”
Of his Army career he said: “Everything was very much still up in the air for a couple of years after that.
“The military were still very much contemplating what my future would be. It wasn’t until about 2010 through Blind Veterans and Help For Heroes that it became blatantly aware to me that there were service personnel in Northern Ireland who were falling through the gaps. That’s when we looked to try to do something to support them. That’s when Andy Allen Veteran Support was set up.
“We’re now working with Help For Heroes (who are also involved with the Warrior Games). They run their own photography class with us.”
He commented: “Deep down – although I didn’t really say it to anybody – I thought, ‘what am I going to do – my life is over’. Although I was always upbeat and optimistic. It was through that vocational training that I saw that I still had a lot to offer to society.”
There’s always a winning outcome in every hand
“Afghanistan had an effect on anyone who was out there,” said Andy reflecting on the military campaign there.
“What happened to me there will be with me for the rest of my life. I don’t dwell on it. It is what it is.
“I look at it as I’m playing the hand that I’m dealt. There’s always a winning outcome in every hand, you just have to see what it is.”
He added: “I do have dark times. I suppose for me I feel I’ve got a lot to be positive about. First and foremost I came back from Afghan and was given a second chance at life. Unfortunately many didn’t get that opportunity.
“I’ve got a great family support base and network around me to encourage me to continue on.”
Asked if he went to Afghanistan thinking that he may not come home or sustain serious injuries as he did, Andy said: “The era in which I joined the military it was well known that the likelihood of getting injured or worse could occur. I joined in 2006 – you had Iraq in full swing and Afghanistan coming to the fore.
“From my perspective I was fully cognisant as to what the risks were. It didn’t put me off. I enjoyed my time in the Army. I had as many ups as I had downs. What employment doesn’t.”
Asked would he still join the Army in hindsight, Andy said: “If I had to do it again I would still sign up. I signed up when I was 17. I began the process more or less when I left school. It’s what I wanted to do.
“Before my injuries I was into football. Me and my mates kicked football all over east Belfast. I’d have been into running as well.
“I was fit and agile. That complimented going into the military.”
He added: “Losing my legs was devastating, I’d love to be able to kick a football with my son, he’s big into football now – but for me the legs aren’t the hardest part, it’s the eyesight that’s the hardest.
“I’m registered blind. I’ve about 30% vision, I can see blurred distorted colours. It’s like looking at things on a foggy day.
“Using a computer or a phone you just get a constant migraine from focusing on the screen, you have to be so close.
“I’d just learnt to drive before I lost my sight. That’s a huge loss of independence.”
Of his disability he said: “I often look at it that I’m only disabled when there’s barriers in place. Whenever there’s measures put in place I’m enabled to partake in all the functions that people who don’t have a disability can do.
“Thankfully the stigma around disabilities is being broken down. You’re seeing more and more people who have disabilities being accommodated with structures being put in place to allow us to play rewarding and fulfilling roles in wider society.”
Andy, who will celebrate his 10th wedding anniversary to Natalie this coming October, has three children – Carter, 10, Chloe, 6, Tyler, who is five months.
He said being a dad in his physical condition was “demanding”, adding “it’s testament to Natalie – she’s brilliant with the kids”.
In terms of any of his children following him into the Army, Andy said: “Carter has talked about the Army as a potential future career. If that’s something he chooses he’ll have my full support and encouragement.
“I’ll support my children in whatever they want to achieve and do everything in my power to help them achieve it.”
Political barriers proving more difficult to overcome
Reflecting on his achievements since almost losing his life in Afghanistan, Andy said: “I’ve done a lot since being injured. I’ve had the opportunity to set up AAVS and help other service personnel with a dedicated team of volunteers, I’ve got involved in politics and through it all it’s great to be able to help others.”
While helping to break down barriers for disabled people like himself, Andy said it was frustrating, as an MLA, that he was unable to remove the barriers which prevented the NI Assembly from returning.
He said: “Those boundaries are boundaries that I can’t overcome. It’s within the gift of another party to allow us to come back.”
Of his constituency he said: “East Belfast is a great part of the world, of course it’s not without it’s problems. It’s where I grew up.
“The opportunity arose to represent east Belfast and it’s an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.
“There’s a lot of different things going on to improve and regenerate the area like the greenway and CS Lewis Square – there’s still a long way to go but we’ll continue to work at it.”
As a Manchester United fan Andy got to meet some of his heroes as he began the road to recovery: “When I was injured I had a tremendous opportunity. They brought me down to Carrington (Man Utd’s training ground). I met Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez and Giggs in 2008. It was awesome.”
About the Warrior Games
The US Special Operations Command will host the 2019 Department of Defense Warrior Games from June 21 to 30 in Tampa, Florida.
Approximately 300 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans will participate, representing the UK, USA, Canada and Australia.
The Warrior Games were established in 2010 as a way to enhance the recovery and rehabilitation of injured service members and expose them to adaptive sports.