A father-and-son wounded veteran duo are to unite on a 350-mile charity cycle ride that will take them past the war grave of their ancestor killed in northern France in World War 1.
And for Portsmouth Navy veteran Johnathon Bulleyment, his role as the Veterans' Team Captain for this year’s Help for Heroes Big Battlefield Bike Ride (BBBR), on the Somme, will be extra special.
Not only does it give the former Leading Hand a chance to give back to other wounded, injured and sick veterans, but it’s also a wonderful way to cement the new-found close relationship with his previously estranged father, Michael, by paying their respects to a lost family member.
Thirty-five-year-old Bulleyment, who suffered a life-changing injury playing rugby in the Royal Navy, took part in Help for Heroes’ flagship event for the first time in 2019 as part of his recovery, and was named as Ride Ambassador for the 2020 and 2021 BBBRs, but both were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Already a keen cyclist, Johnathon was able to rediscover his love for the sport when Help for Heroes funded a recumbent bike. Now, he will be joined on the ride by his father Michael, 55, who lives in Maltby, South Yorkshire.
He is joining his son on the ride as part of his own recovery as a wounded veteran after receiving funding for a recumbent trike from Help for Heroes and the RAOC (Royal Army Ordnance Corps) Association, to help him get back in the saddle after 24 operations on his injured knees.
And it will be the first time in the history of the BBBR that a father-and-son, wounded-veteran pairing will be taking part together.
Owing to family circumstances, when Michael, a former Lance Corporal in the RAOC was discharged from the military, the two lost touch, but things changed when, five years ago, out of the blue, Johnathon contacted his father, and their relationship has gone from strength to strength.
Riding together in the BBBR will be testament to their burgeoning relationship and they are both very excited about doing something so momentous together.
Dad Michael, a former Lance Corporal in the RAOC, said: “When Johnathon called me, I dropped everything to see him and it’s been fantastic to get to know him again, but now as a man.
“It was Johnathon who suggested I get in touch with Help for Heroes, and it is this that made it possible for me to get back on a bike and feel like I used to. I’ve lost two stone in weight in six months, and I feel great.
“When Johnathon was a child, I used to do lots of mountain biking to keep fit and he used to come with me, so doing the BBBR together will take me back to these happy times and it will be fabulous. We’ve done a few rides together at weekends, even though we live far apart, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
The cancellation of 2020’s BBBR will actually make the ride this year even more special for the father-and-son duo. The ride centres around the Battle of the Somme, taking riders down the ‘Old Front’ Line – the British sector of the Western Front during the Great War.
The added poignancy comes from the fact Michael’s great-uncle, George Bulleyment, was killed at the Somme and is buried at Heath Cemetery, Harbonnières, which will be visited on the ride so a wreath can be laid.
George was a Sergeant Major in the 2nd King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and, from research Johnathon has undertaken into his story, is believed to have been shot in the eye by a sniper on 23 August, 1917, while he was rounding up prisoners. He was just 27.
Michael explained: “Although we were initially sad to hear that BBBR 2020 and 2021 were both cancelled, when we realised BBBR 2022 was going to the Somme we were delighted. I have got George’s medals and to be able to visit his grave will mean a lot to both of us.”
Another added benefit of the delayed ride is that they've both had more time to train, although Johnathon stresses, from his experience of the ride in 2019, it is very manageable.
“It’s not a race and is very much about us all doing the journey together. You may be cycling 75 miles in a day, but you have plenty of stops along the way for food and to hear about the history of where you are.
“The camaraderie is also amazing – so, as you chat to other veterans and fundraisers, admire the scenery and get uplifted by people waving flags at you as you go past, the miles just disappear without you realising.”
The extra time has given Michael a chance to recover from several recent operations for cancer and to build his confidence in riding his bike. He’s been training by cycling with another veteran who has taken part in the Warrior Games and Invictus Games.
He added: “I’ve been aiming to do 50 miles in three-and-a-half hours over the past few months and, especially during the pandemic, I have found it a relief and a release.”
Johnathon aims to help raise funds to support other injured veterans and to show them that, with that support, they can live fulfilling lives – and he’ll have the full support of his father when he does it.