Dean is rebuilding his life after sustaining physical injuries in Afghanistan. Help for Heroes is proud to be supporting Dean in his recovery, working in partnership with the MoD and the Royal British Legion as part of the Defence Recovery Capability.
Joining the 2nd Parachute Regiment (Paras) in 2003 Dean Middleton had his sights set on a long and rewarding career in the British Military.
Over the next seven years Dean served his country around the world in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. Seeing the horrors of war didn’t make Dean question his dream of long service. In fact, it did the opposite, it ignited a flame and he started thinking about transferring to the pinnacle of the British Military – the SAS. Dean explains: “I found out I was lucky enough to be invited to selection for the SAS. My plan was to pass selection for the SAS and live happily ever after.”
However, living happily ever after took on a whole new meaning when Dean and the 2 Paras deployed to battle the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2010. It was December but the hot, dry desert they were fighting in wasn’t festive; the joy of Christmas was a long way away.
On 21 December the 2 Paras rolled out in their armoured vehicle to patrol the area they were protecting. Dean was on top cover, scanning for threat and ready to provide machine gun fire if they were attacked. Then they hit an IED and his world exploded.
The force of the blast was so strong Dean was thrown clear of the vehicle. But, when he landed in the dirt and dust his body lay motionless – his injuries were so catastrophic he was unconscious. It is hard to imagine, but Dean – who was fighting to just survive – was actually one of the lucky ones. His friend, Corporal Steven Dunn, was tragically killed instantly.
Dean’s body had been battered by the blast and he sustained multiple injuries. But he doesn’t remember any of it. He explains: “I don’t remember anything from the incident – and probably never will. I have post traumatic amnesia, which means my brain has basically lost the memory of the explosion and what followed.”
His surgeon’s biggest concern was that his brain was swelling dangerously fast, Dean continues: “The surgeons had no choice but to cut away half of my skull. I now have a titanium plate instead.”
Dean was now facing a long and uphill struggle to battle back from the injuries that had shattered his dreams. However, his military training kicked in and he used characteristics he learnt in the Paras – hard work, grit, determination and a sheer refusal to ever give up – to help him on his road to recovery.
After time in both the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre, Headley Court, Dean was moved to the Brain injury Rehab trust (BURT). It was here that he learnt how to live with his brain injury. He was also supported by an army Personnel Recovery Officer who introduced him to Help for Heroes, believing the Charity could help Dean find a new passion in life.
When Dean visited the Help for Heroes Recovery Centre in Catterick he was excited to discover the world-class Sports Recovery programme that was on offer. He explains: “Anyone will tell you the most frustrating thing when you're a physically active soldier is sitting around not doing anything. Discovering I could take part in sport with Help for Heroes is one of the things that really helped me rebuild my life.”
What started as a spark of excitement on his first visit to the Recovery Centre has turned into a new passion and purpose for Dean. The staff was so impressed with Dean’s attitude and ‘won’t quit’ mentality that they asked him to join the gym team once he’d passed his fitness qualifications. Dean loves his job, he explains: “I like to think that when lads come in and see me and hear my story it gives them some hope. I am so lucky that I get to see people rebuilding their lives like I once did. I get more job satisfaction now than I ever did in active service.”
Dean has also taken every opportunity that has come along to push himself physically, always remaining thankful that he has been given a second chance at life. He’s taken on countless iron man competitions and, in September 2015, completed the world’s hardest triathlon – the Arch to Arc, which was organised by Help for Heroes.
Competing as part of Team Inspire, Dean said he was ‘living the dream’ as he stood under the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris following three gruelling days and nights of running, cycling and swimming. He continues: “Before being blown up I struggled to swim 25 metres, I scraped through my swim test and now, well, I faced jellyfish, freezing waters and swam the channel.”
Throughout his service, and his subsequent recovery, Dean has been proud of all he has done to protect his country. Before he was injured in 2010, Dean got a tattoo that, after he was injured took on even more significance. It says: “I was that which others did not wish to be. I went where others feared to go, and did what others failed to do. I asked nothing from those who gave nothing and reluctantly accepted the thought of eternal loneliness should I fail. I have seen the face of terror, felt the stinging cold of fear and enjoyed the sweet taste of a moment's love. But most of all, I have lived the times others would say were best forgotten. At least someday, I will be able to say that I was proud of what I was and always be… a Paratrooper.
Speaking about what his tattoo means to him now, after all he has sacrificed because of his service, Dean says: “My tattoo means what it says – word for word. I had it done before I was injured but, actually, the words mean more to me now. I am proud of my service and sacrifice. At heart, I will always be a Paratrooper.”