A former soldier is proving that jobs for ex military are very much achievable. Matt O'Neil faced having his leg amputated after his vehicle was blown up in Afghanistan. He is celebrating a major recovery milestone as he trains to become a scuba diving instructor thanks to Help for Heroes support.
Matt, a former corporal in the Royal Corps of Signals, was in the Territorial Army (TA) reservists when he was called up to serve in Helmand Province in 2008.
During a routine vehicle patrol, his vehicle was ambushed by a rocket propelled grenade, killing two Afghan soldiers and injuring others including Matt, who’s right leg was shattered from the knee down.
Doctors said it was too severely damaged to save but the 41-year-old fought to keep it and has battled ever since to regain use of his leg. Now Matt is finally fighting fit again and is celebrating completing his Sports Diver qualification with the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC). It follows a long rehabilitation battle involving numerous metal implants and skin grafts, during 12 operations within the first six months of his injury.
The father-of-two, who served in the Army for seven years prior to joining the TA, now wants to become a scuba diving instructor with BSAC. He has just returned from an expedition to Malta run by BSAC club the Army Sub-Aqua Diving Association (ASADA), and funded Help for Heroes as part of a recovery programme for veterans recovering from serious war injuries and other conditions.
Matt, who works as a physiotherapist for the NHS, first joined the H4H team three years ago. He went on to achieve his BSAC Ocean Diver and BSAC Sports Diver qualifications, on two previous trips to Malta with ASADA.
Now, he’s just completed his BSAC Dive Leader training, following his third trip to Malta with ASADA, this summer, which qualifies him to start training as an instructor.
He says scuba diving has restored his confidence, and he now hopes to inspire other wounded servicemen and women in the future by teaching them to scuba dive.
“It was a brilliant experience,” he said. “There were always lots of these things going on and I’d never been able to do them before because of all the metal work and plaster on my leg. It was always considered an infection risk. It was a relief do be able to do something physical.
“It was very inspiring. They’ve asked me to carry on with the qualifications with a view to next year doing the instructor qualification. The idea is that we will become part of the training team.
“I think you can relate to the wounded a lot more when you’ve been through similar experiences yourself. It’s working with lads and lasses again who’ve served in the Armed Forces and remembering how I dealt with it all and the worries I had. Having gone through that you appreciate everything much more and you’re a lot more understanding.”
Matt, who grew up in Darlington, County Durham, and attended Eastbourne Comprehensive School, joined the Army at the age of 16, initially completing training with the Royal Corps of Signals in Harrogate. He served for seven years, travelling to Germany, Northern Ireland and the Falklands before leaving to embark on a new career in IT.
In his third year as a reservist with the TA, he was called up to serve in Afghanistan. Within just a few months, in August 2008, he was blown up while on patrol.
“It was a rocket propelled grenade and came through the side of the vehicle,” he said.
“My leg was so badly mauled. When the vehicle went up everything we were carrying landed on my leg including the battery acid. It was so badly contaminated. I was rolling around in the dirt under fire.
“I was operated on in Camp Bastion and they were going to take my leg off there and then but luckily I had an anaesthetist with me and before the operation I’d told him to make sure they kept my leg.”
Matt, who is married to Liz and has two sons aged 15 and 16, spent the first six weeks in hospital followed by a long and psychologically challenging recovery process. “For six months, I didn’t walk at all as the bone didn’t heal,” he said. “I had to have skin grafts from my thigh, bone grafts from my hip and I had half my stomach attached to my leg. “Nothing appeared to have worked. They threatened to take my leg throughout this period but I had another surgeon who suggested using another bit of metal in a different way.
“It was a year before I thought I’m actually going to keep my leg. That’s when we started to see the bone was healing. I couldn’t feel my leg from the knee down before that point.”
However, disaster struck again in July 2011 when Matthew broke his leg during his rehab.
“When I started walking again I was too keen and doing lots of things,” he said. “After I broke my leg again, it was a definite low point. That’s when Help for Heroes came in and asked me what I wanted to do and how could they keep me motivated.”
Help for Heroes arranged for Matt to complete a year-long access course at Brockenhurst College in the New Forest, Hampshire. The course secured him a place at Southampton University where he studied a degree in physiotherapy and he later took up work in Hythe Hospital in the city.
“Help for Heroes were very good to me,” he said. “The Band of Brothers network always kept in touch with us about the group activities they were doing. The email came around to say they were going on another scuba diving expedition and I said I wanted to go.
“After breaking my leg again, I was a nervous wreck even stepping off the kerb. Scuba diving involves a lot of heavy work but you’re in a group situation. It was quite scary for me initially.
“You gradually do more and more and you realise you can do it. It built my confidence up again walking around and using my leg. You have to carry around 30kg of kit and there’s a lot of weight bearing.”
So far, 18 similar diving expeditions have been organised in collaboration between Help for Heroes and BSAC’s ASADA branch, resulting in 80 qualifications.