Overjoyed with life: War photographer Giles Duley lost three limbs after stepping on a landmine, now he is the only civilian being treated at Headley Court
21:45 GMT, 17 March 2012
22:30 GMT, 17 March 2012
It is an overcast morning and commuters are shuffling along the streets of London. In their midst a man walks tall, his keen eyes taking in life all around him, and there’s a smile on his face. Giles Duley is overjoyed to be alive.
After spending ten years photographing the stars of the music world, he had become disillusioned, put his belongings into storage and decided to do something ‘more worthwhile’. That meant roaming the globe, documenting the plight of refugees and the victims of war.
It was a decision that almost cost him his life. On February 7 last year, he was on patrol with American soldiers in Afghanistan when he stepped on a landmine, suffering terrible injuries that would make him a triple amputee, with just his right arm remaining.
War photographer Giles Duley with his loving partner Jennie Robertson
He later became the first civilian to be cared for at Headley Court, the world-famous rehabilitation centre for the Armed Forces at Leatherhead, Surrey.
A few weeks before the explosion, Giles had been dreading his looming 40th birthday. Today, he can barely contain the euphoria of reaching that milestone, despite the fact that the spring in his step comes from Meccano-style prosthetic limbs, and the neatly rolled left sleeve of his sky-blue shirt reveals a glimpse of the blunt, fleshy stub where his elbow once was.
His triumphant grin belies the pain that comes with every tentative step and the ever-present memory of the instant that brought him close to death.
Giles at a marathon before the accident
‘I remember every single second as if it were happening now,’ he says of the day when he joined six members of the US Army’s 1st Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment on patrol with six Afghan National Army soldiers. The previous afternoon we’d been ambushed a couple of hundred yards from the camp so we set out on foot to investigate.
‘The Americans and Afghans disagreed on our course of action so we paused and I turned to chat to one of the US sergeants. I felt a definite click under my right foot, there was a searing heat and a flash of the brightest white light you can imagine.
‘I was aware I was airborne but felt all the air had been sucked from me. It was like the shock when you jump into a freezing cold ocean. It was strangely quiet. Everything seemed to happen in slow-motion. I saw myself from above – not in a religious way, but in the sense that I witnessed the explosion in a slightly detached way. Then I landed on my side with an enormous thud.
‘It was the suddenness of it all that was extraordinary. If the enemy is firing at you, your adrenaline is pumping. This was different, a quiet moment that was quite literally blown apart.
‘The first thing I saw was my left arm; three of my fingers were just dangling white bones, the remaining skin was smouldering.
‘I couldn’t see my feet, couldn’t sit up and thought I was paralysed. But I was conscious and knew my brain was OK. My right hand seemed to be in one piece, so I remember thinking I could still work as a photographer.
‘I could see a big tree with scraps of clothing and flesh in its branches against a clear blue sky.
‘There was silence, then each member of the team shouted their name to confirm they were OK.
‘It was a while before the medic could get to me because they had to check for secondary devices.’
When help did arrive, the medic tried to keep Giles alert, asking him about American football and whether he had a girlfriend. In fact, before he went to Afghanistan, Giles had struck up a close friendship. Her name was Jennie Robertson. ‘She wasn’t my girlfriend but I really wanted her to be and I’d written a letter telling her how I felt just before I left.’
It was to be weeks before Giles saw Jennie’s reply: her heartfelt email revealed she felt the same way – and it arrived the day he was blown up.
‘I remember picturing Jen and thinking that if she was mine I could keep going.
‘I kept asking whether I was going to die – when you see people around you turn grey looking at you, it doesn’t bode well.
‘I was offered a cigarette and took it. I was determined to do anything that kept me conscious. I knew my chances of survival dropped enormously if I drifted off.’ It was when the tourniquets were applied to his wounds that Giles first became aware of the pain that has now become a constant companion.
Mo Williams and Cole Reece, the US military medics who held his life in their hands on the 20-minute Black Hawk flight to a Nato hospital in Kandahar, were amazed he survived the airlift. ‘They were astonished that I was asking coherent questions about my injuries. They hadn’t seen that before,’ recalls Giles.
His bravery on that agonising flight was captured by a Canadian photographer embedded with the medical team and Giles’s determination has continued to confound clinicians ever since. Two days later he was flown back to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. ‘My father, brother David and sister Sarah were keen to have me home,’ he says.
The hospital is home to the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, a dedicated unit for wounded military personnel which has unrivalled expertise in dealing with multiple amputees. Giles spent 45 days in intensive care. His family were summoned to his bedside several times because it was thought he wouldn’t pull through.
Giles Duley was badly injured after stepping on the IED. He is treated by American soldiers in a Black Hawk helicopter while on the way to hospital at Kandahar Airfield
His kidneys stopped working. His damaged lungs were full of dust which caused an infection so he was put on a machine called an oscillator. ‘It blows air into your lungs hard and fast so your body literally vibrates on the bed. It is traumatic and usually only used for two or three days. I was on it for 11 days – a record,’ says Giles.
‘My temperature went into the 40Cs. They covered me in ice, which didn’t cool me down, so they brought in a contraption called a Bear Hugger, which warms patients with hot air, but someone had the bright idea of attaching an air-conditioning unit to it to blow cold air on to me. It worked.’
Jennie, 26, who is working on her thesis as a trainee clinical psychologist, recalls that she wasn’t allowed to see Giles when he first arrived in the UK – in intensive care he was allowed visits from only immediate family.
She says: ‘I finally saw him six weeks after he was blown up. I wanted him to know I wasn’t put off by his injuries. I wanted to see everything, to understand what had happened to him. One of the first things we discussed was the whereabouts of his feet. Are they in a field in Afghanistan’
Eventually Giles was stabilised and after protracted negotiations between the NHS and the MoD it was decided he should be admitted to Headley Court, the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre.
Giles learning to walk with his prosthetics
‘There was a concern that I might not cope with the military regime at Headley,’ Giles explains. ‘The guys follow orders and can be disciplined if they don’t do what’s expected of them. But I wanted to be pushed hard. I had set myself a goal of walking again within a year and I knew this would get me back on my feet quicker than any other programme, even though it went against everything I wanted in the short term – to live in a house, see my family and spend time with Jen.’
In July, he moved into a four-bed ward at Headley Court. ‘The day starts at 7am when everyone has to get themselves up and to the canteen for breakfast. Staff are constantly trying to make you self-sufficient. If you fall at Headley, generally they will wait for you to get up by yourself, unless you say you are hurt. It’s tough, but it’s what I needed and was instrumental to my recovery. I wanted to prove I could do things. The combat guys never questioned me – if you’ve been on patrol with them, you are one of them – but I didn’t want to be seen as a soft civilian.
‘No one at Headley feels sorry for themselves – every resident is positive about the future. They know they could so easily have not made it. Morale is high. It is very inspirational, full of that very British spirit of onwards and upwards.’
The daily routine was unforgiving: resistance work in the pool, one-on-one sessions with a physiotherapist, time with occupational therapists and prosthetics consultations, plus solo workouts in the gym. Giles also had to have a series of major operations – 30 at the last count – between month-long stays at Headley. In the summer, he celebrated his 40th birthday at London’s Charing Cross Hospital, with a cake baked by Jennie, who has remained at his side throughout.
It wasn’t until last November, nine months after the blast, that Giles first walked again outside. ‘I looked down to see my “feet” in the grass. The last time that happened had been when I stepped on an IED. It was really the only time that I had a flashback and felt uneasy.’
If the days were tough at Headley Court, the evenings were equally difficult. ‘By the end of the day I was absolutely exhausted,’ he says. ‘I could barely talk.’
Shehan Hettiaratchy, Lead Clinician in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at the Imperial College NHS Trust who was one of the consultants instrumental in Giles’s recovery says: ‘He is as tough as old boots. His incredible determination to complete all the operations within a year and to get back to as normal a life as possible was really instrumental to his progress. Keeping up the momentum was key.’
Giles has had surgery to repair his bowel, and has metal plates in all the fingers of his right hand, which was virtually rebuilt. And there were revisions to the amputation sites, as tissue can continue to die. There has never been any question that Giles wants to return to his life as a photojournalist, a passion of his since he was a teenager. He grew up in Somerset and he had hoped to win a sports scholarship in the US but at the age of 18 a car accident put paid to this dream.
However, during that time he discovered a new direction thanks to a gift of an Olympus camera and the autobiography of photographer Don McCullin. Soon his photographs were being published in the NME. He says: ‘Aged 20, I found myself flying around the world enjoying the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, It was amazing. But when I saw injustices in the world, I really wanted to do something more worthwhile.’
Now, he is determined to make a go of his relationship with Jen. ‘When she first came to see me in Birmingham, I was incredibly nervous as I didn’t know how she’d react to seeing me with my injuries,’ he says.
‘It gave me enormous confidence that she was comfortable being with me in that state. One of the key things driving me to get my independence back was to be able to take the relationship forward.
‘I have always assumed I would be able to do everything eventually – it might just take me longer than other people. When I discussed prosthetics, I was adamant I wanted something that was suitable for my kind of work. Something that, for example, if I was in a village in Africa, I could go to a bicycle workshop and get fixed with a spanner and a hammer.’
He adds: ‘I’ve had 12 weeks at Headley, and the last of my vital ops. I’m moving into a rented flat and looking forward to a couple of photographic commissions I have for the Paralympics.
‘I want to get back out there with my camera as soon as possible and hopefully complete a commission I had to work with Emergency, an Italian charity, in Afghanistan. There’s no reason why I can’t continue to try to make a difference.’
l Giles’s family and friends have launched a fund to help his recuperation and pay for the equipment necessary for him to live without full-time care. Visit gilesduley.org