During the worst years of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, hundreds of servicemen were flown to one hospital in Birmingham, where pioneering medics learned to treat injuries previously thought unsurvivable. Their legacy – and a legacy of that war – is the amputee servicemen whose lives they saved. And yet, as they explain, the worst physical injuries remain unseen – and almost always unspoken. Here, GQ hears the stories of men who lost not only limbs but genitalia in service to their country.
Warrant Officer Ken Bellringer of 11 Explosives Ordnance Disposal Regiment (EOD), Royal Logistics Corps, had only been back from leave for two weeks. The respite had been worthwhile physically. He’d also got to spend time with his wife and two young children; ever since serving in Northern Ireland during the Troubles he’d promised himself he would try to take more time off. Yet, if truth be told, his mind hadn’t strayed far from the sandy churn of Helmand province, Afghanistan, the noise of the CH-47 Chinook blades, the waft of the canteen tent and the acrid dust that gets in between every stitch, inside every pore. War isn’t something you’re supposed to miss, is it? Still, as darkness fell in Balderton, Nottinghamshire, he found his mind would drift back east to where the rest of his regiment was under fire and in danger.
Once back “in theatre” it didn’t take long for Bellringer’s reverie to be broken. The moment his plane touched down in Camp Bastion – the British Army base northwest of the city of Lashkar Gah – his duty officer informed him a close friend had been killed that very day. It was the second colleague he had lost since having been deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Herrick XI earlier that year. (GQ ‘Long Reads’, 9th May 2018)