ANDY ALLEN: ‘Do I think the brutal and barbaric Taliban regime have changed? Not one bit’
East Belfast UUP MLA Andy Allen MBE served in Afghanistan in 2008, returning as a double amputee with serious sight loss. As the region falls to Taliban domination, he shares his reaction with Joanne Savage as well as his passion for socioeconomic justice, weight lighting and family life
July 14, 2008 and 19-year-old Ranger Andy Allen was on patrol during his first operational tour of Afghanistan with the Royal Irish Regiment. They were resting near a canal amid the hell of Helmand, when at 07.28am their commander told the battalion to get up and move on.
”I stood up to get my kit and there was an almighty bang. I had triggered the main device in what was like a daisy chain of IEDs - although I only know this because colleagues have told me - I have no personal recall of that day. “The blast flung me into the canal a few metres away. A number of my colleagues unselfishly rushed to help me and started administering first aid, and otherwise I would not be here today. They stabilised me as our other team came under sustained attack by the Taliban as my colleagues were helping me. They had to come back on themselves out of the enemy’s firing line. The team took me in a chinook from Musa Qala to the treatment centre in Camp Bastion, and I remember nothing, even though they tell me I was conscious and talking to them.”
Allen was quickly transferred to Sally Oaks Hospital in Birmingham, waking up with life changing injuries, his world plunged in darkness.
He recalls: “I woke up feeling the most frightened I have ever felt in my life. It was a total state of fear. The last time I had been awake I had heard a blast go off, the next thing I am in hospital in Birmingham after eight weeks in a medically induced coma - it was touch and go - and am instantly aware that I have lost both my legs. And I couldn’t see anything. My world was completely black. I felt, what am I going to do? I had gone from being a young, fit and agile soldier to lying incapacitated in a hospital bed. I was completely dependent on others to do absolutely everything for me and I couldn’t even sit up in bed.”
Andy’s agonising recovery, detailed in the BBC BAFTA winning documentary Wounded, shows him trying to come to terms with being left a double amputee and blinded at the Defence Rehabilitation Unit at Headley Court in Surrey: ”When I woke up it was the hardest thing. I was blind for several months. They did an operation on my right eye the same day that my son Carter was born. The blast had formed a cataract in my eye and the operation removed that. That gave me a small percentage of vision, a blurred and distorted view of the world. I had a degree of sight but I couldn’t have read a text or anything and people’s faces were blurred. “In Headley Court, because of my lack of vision, I found myself falling into a world of isolation. After the rehabilitation sessions for the day were done I would go back to my room and just felt myself slipping down that slippery slope into depression. I asked my battalion to post me back home so that I could complete my recovery with my family and friends around me and that support was absolutely fundamental for me. ”
Allen, born and raised in east Belfast, displayed profound determination in recovery and has now regained much better sight through medical intervention, although his vision will never return to normal and the 32-year-old remains confined to a wheelchair due to difficulties using prosthetic legs. He founded AA Veterans Support - a charity dedicated to helping ex-personnel in Northern Ireland with their mental health, respite, pursuing sporting opportunities and providing them with easier access to therapists and counsellors who can help them quantify the hell of their experience. For this he was awarded an MBE in 2019 and today is well established as a socially progressive UUP MLA for east Belfast (he has held the seat since 2015), with a passion for pursuing socioeconomic justice.
Married to Natalie, who he proposed to at his first medals ceremony following his initial stage of rehabilitation in October 2008 (his mum Linda helping him to pick out a ring because he could not see the jewels himself prior to cataract removal surgery) and now father to three (Carter, now 12, Chloe, 9, and two-year-old Tyler), he, like the rest of the western world, has looked on in horror at the unfolding chaotic scenes in Kabul as it fell to the Taliban after a 20 year project of Anglo-American intervention that was ostensibly predicated on establishing a functional democracy in the beleaguered region.
Andy said: “Current events have rightly left people asking what was it all for. What was it all about?
”For me there were two very distinct missions in Afghanistan. One was undermining the threat of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban coming off the back of 9/11 and secondly, as we believed anyway, that we were there to nation-build, to build a better, democratic and sustainable Afghanistan. We were trying as I saw it to give the Afghans the building blocks to build a better country for themselves. That was to remove the vacuum in which Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were able to operate.”
Allen adds: “I can only give my perspective. Seeing what has unfolded in the country now I have a sense of sadness, of course, because we promised the Afghan people so much better.
“To me it appears that Afghanistan is back to square one. The Taliban will do what’s best for them, which I think could be disastrous for Afghanistan as a nation.
“When I fought against the Taliban I clearly saw them as a brutal and barbaric regime. Do I think they have changed? No. Not one bit.
“Not for a moment do I believe that the Taliban want to build a democratic Afghanistan or that they are interested in the rights of the women and girls who live in that country.”
‘I WAS FULL OF FEAR DURING FIRST AFGHAN TOUR AT 19’
Andy, who admits to having not been fond of school, was always in search of adventure and was and remains a diehard football fan, thought about different career paths before he signed up to serve: “I worked in an electrical store house and I tried different things, but it was only when I joined the military at 19 that I really found that sense of get-up-and-go I’d been searching for.”
He continued: “Afghanistan was my first operational tour and what I felt first about it was fear.
“You would not be normal if you did not experience that emotion the first time you are deployed to a warzone.
“I remember going on my first patrol in Helmand and I was full of fear, but you had to learn to put that to the back of your mind because if you had allowed that to take over it would have become all consuming and would have put not only me at risk but also those beside me.
“You had to block the fear out, get on with the job.
“Part of my role was helping to train the Afghan National Army. The Taliban were ruthless and relentless as an enemy. They didn’t let up. They had a bigger mission in their mind that they wanted to achieve.”
‘I WANT PEOPLE TO REMEMBER THERE IS ALWAYS LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL’
Andy is adamant that his recovery was not simply due to the vital medical intervention and care he received, but also the incredible groundswell of support he felt from family, friends and the community in east Belfast which he now represents as an MLA.
“My family drove me on. But then I focused on setting myself goals throughout my recovery process. For example, I wanted to be on my prosthetic legs for my wedding day. I tried to focus first on walking one length of the parallel bars, then trying to build that up to move further. Unfortunately, due to various complications, I am not able to walk on them anymore and am confined to a wheelchair. That is a huge frustration for me.”
Andy founded charity AA Veterans Support when he found many ex service personnel in Northern Ireland contacting him for advice.
“Veterans were speaking to me and telling me they had fallen through the cracks because in terms of government after-care for ex-personnel I think there is still some way to go. I started to lobby for better service provision, support and respite care and the charity grew from there. But when I was awarded the MBE in 2019 that was not just about the work of Andy Allen but also the work of a wider team behind me. To be recognised was incredibly humbling.”
Andy’s vision is about helping veterans find hope again: “To say I haven’t had any mental health challenges would be a lie. What I went through left a mark. Gym time has helped me. Family helps.
“Sometimes we find ourselves in life in the midst of a dark tunnel. But there is always light at the end of that. And sometimes you just need the people around you to help you see that. Family, service charities and friends made me find that light at the end of the tunnel again.”
Today as an MLA he sits on the Communities Committee and for him the most vital issues are socioeconomic: “There are 45,000 people here waiting on Housing Executive lists and I want to change that, passionately. And the £20 cut to Universal credit is disgusting. Why did the British Government decide to build people up over lockdown only to pull the rug out from under them? And Northern Ireland is going to be the region worst hit by this cut.
“Then too we have the issue of fuel poverty and energy companies hiking up the cost of energy by 22%, leaving many families having to decide whether to turn on the heat or eat. Is this really acceptable in 2021?
“If I had a magic wand I would wave it frantically, there are so many socioeconomic and social security issues I would like to urgently see addressed.”
Q&A: ‘MY PERSONAL BEST FOR BENCH PRESSES IS 130KG’
Tell us your earliest childhood memories?
Growing up in east Belfast always having a football close by. I grew up massively into football; I still love it but obviously can’t play it anymore due to my injuries. I’ve supported Manchester United all my days.
School days - what did you excel at?
I didn’t really like school. I got a bit of a reputation for being the class clown. I look back and am not proud of it, and wish I had knuckled down and achieved. I just wasn’t academic, I didn’t enjoy it and was more into the sporting side of things. My sense of adventurousness led me to decide to join the military.
I did enjoy geography though and I made a tight group of friends I am still close to.
Your ideal way to spend a day?
Spending time with my wife Natalie and our three children. We love going to the cinema or maybe for a day out at the beach and then to a restaurant. We have a caravan in Millisle where we like to spend time getting away from it all. It’s been something of a refuge for us as a family during lockdown.
Who in your life makes you laugh the most?
Natalie, my wife. I spend most of my time outside of politics with her and she is my best friend. We met when we were 12 or 13. I was from the east of the city and she was from the north. We drifted apart but then ten or so months before I was deployed to Afghanistan we got back in touch with one another. And the rest is history.
What is the secret of your longevity?
Trying to be honest with each other and living life to the fullest. When love is there it makes it easier, but nothing is without its challenges. What kind of music do you like to listen to?
Imagine Dragons, Linkin Park, some Kenny Rogers, Ed Sheeran, lots of stuff.
What do you do to destress?
I do a lot of weight lifting.
I competed at the Warrior Games organised by the American Department of Defense, which brings together injured service personnel from across the US armed forces, the UK, Canada, a multitude of different nations. The Invictus Games grew out of this contest.
I competed there in 2019 in Tampa, Florida doing rowing and power lifting - the latter being the main focus for me. I developed a real passion for it. My personal best for bench presses is 130 kilos. I get on my handbike at home when work commitments don’t allow me to make it to the gym, and I try to work out several times a day if I can. It makes me energetic, and it’s great for my mood.