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Brave Lt Dave Henson talks about recovering after losing his legs in Afghanistan
WITH the sound of the explosion still ringing in his ears, Lt Dave Henson dragged his broken body to the relative safety of a nearby wall.
Looking down at the shattered remains of his legs, the 26-year-old Army officer knew in that moment that his life had changed forever.
On February 13 this year, while clearing a compound in the Nad-e-Ali South area of Helmand Province, Afghanistan, Dave triggered a booby trap, detonating an IED.
“We were trying to make the area safe for locals,” remembers Dave, who was on his first tour of duty after joining the Army in 2008.
“One minute I was walking through the compound, the next I was flying through the air. I remember landing on my head.
“When I saw my right leg hanging off and my left mostly gone – the bones poking through the skin at the knee joint – my first thought was of the implications. “The loss of your legs carries a huge price in the army.”
His thoughts immediately turned to his family back home in Southampton and his girlfriend Hayley, 24, wondering how they would cope.
Then the pain set in.
“It felt like being crushed by a massive weight.
There was no burning sensation or anything like that, just this immense crushing pressure,” says Dave, a Royal Engineer search adviser to A Coy 1 Royal Irish.
Within minutes of hearing his screams, Dave’s team were by his side, bandaging his wounds.
“I managed not to cry out because I could see some of the lads were panicked.”
Half an hour later he was in the operating theatre, having been taken by helicopter to hospital at Camp Bastion.
Tragically, both of Dave’s legs were amputated, his left through the knee joint and his right just below the knee (later, his right leg would be severed further up as his wounds failed to heal properly).
He also suffered blast wounds on his thighs, arms and buttocks, and still has scarring.
After his initial treatment Dave, from Bitterne Park, Southampton, was flown back to the UK, where he spent seven days in intensive care and underwent a series of operations to close his wound He then embarked on a gruelling programme of rehabilitation, first at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and later at Surrey’s specialist military hospital, Headley Court.
Incredibly, within just eight weeks, Dave was walking again.
Despite reducing his once 6ft-plus frame to just a few feet tall, his basic prosthetic legs represented the first milestone on his journey to independence.
“After being in a wheelchair it was so good to be stood up. I didn’t care if I was basically wearing buckets on my stumps.”
Since then his progress has been remarkable, rapidly graduating to taller prosthetic limbs with feet, nicknamed “stubbies” before recently being fitted with his “robot” legs – sophisticated hydraulic limbs with an inbuilt computer sensor telling the mechanical knee joints exactly when to bend.
“Coming to terms with what’s happened is a slow process,” says Dave, who is still undergoing intensive rehabilitation at Headley, spending four-week blocks at the hospital interspersed with four-week breaks at home with his parents in Bitterne Park.
The tough military fitness programme includes intense cardiovascular work, circuit training and weight-lifting which, he says, has left him with no time to dwell on his injuries.
It is clear just by looking at him that he remains at the peak of physical fitness.
“I get bored quite easily and I don’t like hanging around. At Headley they don’t give you a lot of time to sit around. There’s no messing. They really push you.”
A combination of rigorous rehab and his own determination has led to an astonishingly speedy recovery.
“Being an Army officer helps,” says Dave who had long dreamt of joining the Army and “serving with the best soldiers in the world”, particularly after the 7/7 London bombings in 2005.
“My Sandhurst training was as tough as it gets so I’m used to pushing myself to the limit.”
But, he says, there have been low moments. “When you’re in rehab with other people in similar situations, you’re cut off from the outside world and what you’re going through seems almost normal. But then you leave hospital and everything’s changed.
Coming home for two weeks before going to Headley was a dark time. “I was in a wheelchair, in a place that was familiar but suddenly fallen out of my wheelchair and was so frustrated.”
The key, he says, is setting manageable targets. “I used to be in a swimming team as a teenager, took it up again at university and took part in regiment competitions before I went to Afghanistan. After the explosion I didn’t hesitate to get back into the swimming.
“When my dad and brothers said they were going to take part in the Great Swim [a series of open water swims for charity] I made it my goal to take part in one of them this September. I ended up taking part in the July swim in London’s Docklands, so I smashed that goal.” He breaks into a broad grin.
In fact, Dave completed the one-mile event in less than 35 minutes, beating his family members and helping to raise more than £9,000 for Help for Heroes.
“It’s so important to have goals other than my walking goals. Sometimes you end up back in the chair for whatever reason and it would be so easy to slip into a depression.
“So I set myself other achievable targets. I told myself I’d be on full-height legs to be best man at my brother’s wedding in September and I’m already on them – so that’s another goal smashed.”
Dave’s emotional and physical recovery over the last five months is inspirational.
“The most challenging thing is adjusting to a totally new life and relearning everything and I do still get frustrated sometimes. But I’m lucky to have the support network I’ve got. Yes, I’ve pushed myself but I could have had worse injuries. Mine are severe but relatively straightforward.
“It’s given me a different outlook on life.
Before, everything was concentrated on going out to Afghanistan. Now my family and Hayley are my priority and they are more important to me than ever.”
The couple hope to get their own place soon with help from the charity Haig Housing Trust, which provides injured servicemen and women with specially adapted homes.
Dave’s new house will be assessed and modified to suit his individual requirements with the addition of specialist equipment such as stair lifts, handrails and a wet room.
“It would mean I could move around with ease and feel like things were back to normal.
“It’s about independence and getting your life back again. The Haig Trust is there to give soldiers the emotional and financial guidance they might need.”
Although Dave plans to leave the Army he still keeps in touch with the team who were with him on February 13. “Those lads saved my life and I’ll be friends with them forever.”
When he is well enough, he plans to get into biomedical engineering, hopefully returning to university to study prosthetic research and production.
“People do treat me differently now,” he says. “But not in a bad way. They look at you as if you’re wrapped in cotton wool and are more careful around you. People don’t always like to ask you about what happened, but I’m happy to talk about it. Children are the best because they are so curious and have no hesitation in just asking me where my legs are.
They love looking at my robot legs!”
For now, Dave is still experiencing phantom pains as his central nervous system adjusts to the trauma his body has endured. He also sometimes has trouble sleeping. “I think back to friends who got killed and realise how lucky I’ve been. I’ve been in rehab with people shot in the head who somehow survived. I know I’m lucky to be here at all.”
The support from the people of Southampton, he says, has been phenomenal.
“People will stop and chat and sometimes shake my hand.
“When someone stops you in the street and says thank you, it makes you feel that what you’ve been through was worth something. You feel better as a person and not just a cripple.”