“I feel like a soldier but I’m not. Once it’s built into you, it’s drilled into your head. You’ll never get it out.”
That is the sentiment of former Rifleman Ash Coles whose military career made a promising start when he passed out with the best shot in his platoon. But a serious car crash in 2010 cut short his life in the Army before he ever saw an operational tour.
But Ash refuses to dwell on the past and focuses on typical soldier attributes such as determination, courage and overcoming adversity to help play the cards life has dealt him.
Barely through his training in Catterick, Ash was driving home from a doctor’s appointment on 1 October 2010 when he collided with another car. The impact of the crash threw him out of the windscreen and he sustained a traumatic brain injury. The right side of his body was severely affected, along with his memory and speech. It happened just two weeks before he was due to be posted in Afghanistan.
He was in a coma for two months and spent a further four months in hospital, undergoing intensive rehabilitation.
“Looking back, I realise I should have been dead. I feel very lucky to be alive. But I’m still here and doing what I enjoy doing best.”
For Ash, that means sport. He competed in the Invictus Games both in London 2014 and Orlando 2016 in Athletics and Rowing.
“Sport gives me the best feeling in the world, it’s changed my life” Ash explained. “Sport is like love to me. It’s helped me so much and makes me feel on top of the world. Being part of the UK team for Invictus makes me feel proud.”
Six years on since the accident, Ash still lives his life as a soldier.
“If I’ve got clothes I want to wear, I pick them out and I’ll iron them and put five t-shirts all in a line, just like I was in the Army again.”
Although he feels in a good place physically, he said re-healing his mind would be a longer process.
“It will take a long time for my mind to heal and I know it won’t ever be back to the way it was.
“Sometimes I’m glad I don’t remember the accident because I think I’d have nightmares otherwise. I don’t remember much about my rehab journey even. I do remember my right side was pretty much dead so I used to sit there and try to squeeze a ball. All I can remember is finding that really, really hard.
“The past is gone, time to look forward. I take every day as it comes. I’m a better person now than what I ever was. I’m doing things for my country which I never thought I’d be able to do. I’ve proven a lot of people wrong.”
Ash, who was put in touch with Help for Heroes through his Personnel Recovery Officer, is a weekly visitor to Help for Heroes Recovery Centre, Tedworth House, where he uses the Phoenix Centre gym to train and regularly meets his keyworker who gives him necessary advice on issues such as finances and housing.
“If I ever feel stressed, the first thing I do is go to Tedworth House. It’s helping me build my life back together again. Ever since my first visit, I haven’t stopped going back.
“Tedworth House means the world to me, it’s like my second home. It’s just an amazing place to be, and the staff are the special ingredient. They give me as much help as I need.
“If I didn’t have Help for Heroes or Tedworth House I would be lost. I’ve always got somewhere to turn to if I need help. It’s changed my life.
“Being a Band of Brother is like being part of a massive family. We all served together and now we are recovering together. Once a Brother, always a Brother.”
Ash is now determined to make the UK Team again for the next Invictus Games in Toronto 2017, and said he would train harder than ever to achieve his dream of winning a medal.
“For a long time after my injury I couldn’t do so many things. Now I’m running, rowing and doing things that I never thought I could do again. I know I’m not going to be back to the way I was physically, but I want to try and be as fit and as strong as I can be.
“I’m desperate to win a medal. But in terms of where my recovery journey is going and my end goal, I just want to keep on being happy and live my life.”