A war hero who lost both his legs after being blown up by a car bomb in Iraq is close to achieving his dream of teaching other wounded veterans how to scuba dive.
Double amputee Neil Heritage, from Poole, is training to be a scuba diving instructor with the British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC), as part of a project funded by Help for Heroes.
Neil, 35, had to have both legs amputated above the knee following an attack by a suicide bomber while he was clearing a route in Iraq. Neil was serving as a Corporal in the Royal Signals, November 2004. He was forced to leave his military career behind and focus on his rehabilitation and recovery.
He first learned to scuba dive three years ago during a Help for Heroes funded expedition where he gained his Ocean Diver qualification with the Army-Sub-Aqua-Diving-Association, a BSAC special branch.
Since then, the father-of-two, who works as a boot camp fitness instructor in Bridport, Dorset, has been working hard towards his instructor licence.
Now he has passed his Dive Leader qualification following a further week-long ASADA training expedition this summer, thanks to the Help for Heroes Sports Recovery programme. It is a vital step in the journey to becoming a fully qualified BSAC scuba diving instructor, and eventually he hopes to train other veterans who have been through similar experiences to himself, through ASADA.
Neil was one of eight former servicemen and women to embark on the dream scuba diving mission to the island of Gozo in Malta.
He said: “It was a great experience. When you’re in the water, you’re more mobile because of the weightlessness and you don’t have the same restrictions. There’s a sense of freedom.
“It’s amazing to see the progress made from day one to just a few days into the trip, and how people can improve and gain confidence.
“When you leave the forces you miss the time spent with military people. It’s beneficial to spend time with like-minded people again and get that back. There’s a shared sense of humour.”
Neil, who joined the Army as an apprentice straight from school at 16, first became involved with Help for Heroes through their Band of Brothers organisation – a support network of other wounded personnel.
The charity helped to fund new sockets for his prosthetic legs after he encountered mobility problems. The new sockets meant he could do more activities with his children, enhance his fitness and continue to lead a normal life.
“Help for Heroes and Band of Brothers has been a massive support to me ever since the early days," he said.
“I was injured before Help for Heroes was created, but came into contact with the charity shortly after they set up. They’ve helped me in all sorts of ways.”
“Practically, they helped fund my prosthetics but they also helped by organising events with other people in the same situation which gave me a great boost.
“Some people like to talk about their experiences, others don’t. For some, it helps them to talk over what they’ve been through.
“This trip delivered different things for different people. I enjoy pushing the boundaries.
“I think it’s a common mentality among people who’ve been wounded like me. I think everyone on the trip was very similar and pushed on to see what they could achieve.”
So far, 17 similar diving expeditions have been organised in collaboration between Help for Heroes and BSAC’s ASADA branch, resulting in 80 qualifications.
All former soldiers selected for the training have been discharged from the Army as a result of life-changing injuries or health conditions and are put forward to push the boundaries of their endurance and abilities as part of their ongoing recovery.
John Gibbon, Vice-Chairman of BSAC special branch ASADA, responsible for the veterans’ training and organisation of the dive trip, said: “The Help for Heroes veterans are a great bunch to work with and always take a real ‘can-do’ approach.
“One of the key features for these trips is the camaraderie. Having come from a military background and been removed from that environment without a choice, they enjoy being back in that situation again, working as part of a team of people with a common purpose and background.”
Gaining his Dive Leader qualification marks the latest in a long line of triumphs throughout Neil’s recovery battle.
Previous accomplishments include a seven-and-a-half-week, 3,000-mile rowing challenge across the Atlantic to raise £1million for wounded comrades and the Help for Heroes Bridge Too Far Bike Ride on which he rode 350 miles on a hand-powered bike from Brussels to Arnhem.
Neil, whose current job as a boot camp trainer involves helping people to lose weight and become healthier, admitted his interest in fitness only arose as a result of needing to gain strength following his injury.
“It’s incredibly difficult to get from the stage of being a full-time wheelchair user to a full-time prosthetics user,” he said.
“I wasn’t really into fitness before that. It took me about five years to get to the stage where I was mobile. It’s difficult learning to walk on prosthetics - they basically replace your feet, ankle and knee joints and it requires a lot of energy.
“It’s also common to have problems with your stump in the early days. They change a lot over the first few years and consequently you encounter problems.”
Neil hopes by next year he will have gained enough experience to take his BSAC instructor qualification and if successful has plans to use his skills and experience to teach other wounded ex-Servicemen and Women.
“Life has been good for several years now. Hopefully I’ll be able to encourage other people to do a bit more and reach for a goal,” he said.