How a brush with death and life-changing injuries changed Prince Harry and one serving soldier
At the opening of the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto Prince Harry described the life-changing impact of a flight back from Afghanistan with soldiers injured and killed in the line of duty.
‘As I was waiting to board the plane, the coffin of a Danish soldier was loaded on by his friends,’ he said. ‘Once on the flight, I was confronted with three British soldiers, all in induced comas with missing limbs and wrapped in plastic. The way I viewed service and sacrifice changed forever, and the direction of my life changed with it.
‘I knew it was my responsibility to use the great platform that I have to help the world understand, and be inspired by the spirit of those who wear the uniform.’
These were Prince Harry’s comments at the opening of the 2017 Invictus Games. One of the British soldiers listening to this speech was Bruce Ekman. Bruce won a gold medal in the 1500 metres event, a triumph that marked the end of a journey of recovery which began when his foot was shattered by an IED (improvised explosive device) in Afghanistan.
Bruce Ekman, now a Major in the army, had always wanted to be a soldier. Although he was born in South Africa, he applied for the British Army; his mother is British. Bruce’s Christian faith was sparked and inspired when he was training at Sandhurst – he was there at the same time as Prince Harry in 2005. The Sandhurst motto ‘Serve to Lead’ reminds Bruce of Jesus, who laid down his life for the sake of humanity.
A fellow soldier at Sandhurst, called Rob, was ‘an amazing Christian role-model’ Bruce says. ‘He shared his Christianity by how well he did everything,’ Bruce explains. This servant-hearted guy was a great example for Bruce as a Christian. He worked hard to be the best as a soldier and as a servant-leader. ‘I thought, that’s what I want to be like,’ Bruce says.
Life under fire
Bruce’s first taste of battle was in Iraq. Every day they came under fire from up to a dozen mortars: ‘Everyone lived in constant fear.’
At the time he was reminded of the Bible verse which says, ‘The Lord is my fortress’ and he learned to rely on God. ‘I had faith that God would look after me.’ Even though the man-made fortress they were in was being bombed, and he knew that Christians get killed just like anyone else, he says, ‘I know where I am going when I die.’
When he was posted to Afghanistan, the constant danger was highlighted when a good friend died after being injured in an IED explosion. The dangers were further hit home when, on one sortie, Bruce was blown off his feet in an explosion, but that time no one was injured.
Although he was the officer in charge, Bruce normally took the role of ‘Lead Vallon’ – the man walking ahead of the vehicles with a ‘Vallon’ metal detector to check for explosive devices.
‘You park up your vehicle, climb out and walk forward with the mine detector. The enemy would often throw nuts and bolts on the ground to slow us down. You have to identify if it is just a nut or bolt in the sand. But they would place devices underneath those bolts.’
Every day, at least once a day, Bruce walked ahead of the vehicles as Lead Vallon. ‘I was scared to the point of being terrified, every day for those three months.’
On a ‘rest and recuperation’ trip back to see his parents in South Africa, Bruce went to church and someone who didn’t know him gave him a Bible verse: ‘Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand’ (Isaiah 41:10).
That Bible verse spoke volumes to Bruce as he knew what it was like to live facing terror daily. It was as if God was speaking directly to him.
Back in Afghanistan, a few weeks later, he was on the last day of an assignment with the Royal Marines.
‘It was Monday at 7pm and I thought, tomorrow I’ll be back in my base for Chilli Beef Tuesday.’
‘We were driving back on a route we had driven out on. We hadn’t seen a soul, and we understood the route to be clear. There were three vehicles: two armoured personnel carriers and one truck that was carrying stores and equipment. One of our vehicles got slightly stuck, and we used a second vehicle to pull that one out. Then we knew we had a straight run back to base.
Bruce was in the third vehicle when the other two pulled away. ‘I buckled my seatbelt, and we were blown up about a second later.’ An explosive device had detonated underneath them.
‘It was like being launched in a fairground ride. We couldn’t see anything… only dust and smoke. I had blood and what I thought was my mangled teeth in my mouth.
‘All the water bottles had exploded because of the pressure. I found a broken water bottle and rinsed my mouth. I’d still got my teeth – it was just stones and dirt. Then I turned to see what was going on around. One of the guys was screaming as he’d hurt his back. We were undoing our seatbelts. The top cover gunner was on fire. We presumed he was dead. Then the enemy attacked our vehicle. They knew the other vehicles had gone. With our vehicle stricken we knew we had to get out and fight.’
Two of the other guys said they were OK, but when one stood up to get out of the vehicle he fell back down. Seconds after being blown up, they couldn’t yet feel it, but the explosion had shattered their feet.
‘The rounds were coming in. Then we heard lots more fire. I thought that was the enemy coming into the vehicle, but it was the Afghans driving them off.’
They were soon rescued and flown by helicopter to Camp Bastion, where surgeons operated on their damaged feet. Within 24 hours they were on a flight back to the UK, to hospital in Birmingham.
‘The whole time I didn’t think our injuries were as bad as they were. But when they looked at the x-rays, they said they were going to amputate my foot,’ Bruce recalls. ‘I burst into tears.’
There were two hours delay before the operation. ‘In that couple of hours I was at rock bottom, Bruce says. ‘I felt, “I’m about to lose my foot. My career’s over. It’s what I’ve wanted all my life. Just 24 hours ago I was strong and leading my team, and now I’m weak as a lamb about to have my foot taken off.”
‘That was when I remembered the verse that had been given to me: “I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you…”’
It was not under fire in the desert of Afghanistan, but lying on a stretcher in a Birmingham hospital, that he needed that promise from God: ‘Do not fear…’
His sister had driven to the hospital and gave him her iPad. On it was a song by Casting Crowns, a contemporary Christian rock band, which says ‘I’ll praise you in the storm’.
‘I was almost at the point of losing my faith,’ he says. Then remembering the verse and hearing the song he thought, ‘I’m now in the storm. It’s been easy to be a Christian my whole life. Nothing has ever happened to the extent that I doubted my faith. Now I’m in the storm, I’ll praise God in that storm.
‘I went through the operation, woke up and looked down. I still had my foot. I could hardly believe it. They said the British surgeons in Afghanistan had done such a good job trying to piece my foot together. The ankle was shattered. The heel was shattered. Most other bones were shattered. But the surgeons had spent so much time trying to fix the foot, when the Birmingham surgeons came to amputate, they said, “Let’s give this a go.” They told me “You’re probably still going to lose your foot, but let’s give it a couple of days and see.”’
Prayer groups had been alerted by one of his colleagues who had phoned his mum to tell her what had happed. Bruce says ‘People I didn’t even know were praying for me.’
‘I recovered in hospital and went from there to rehabilitation. They kept saying “Your foot’s not going to get better. You’ll probably come back and ask us to take it off.” They’d seen that injury so often.’
Two years after the injury, he was still in pain and went back saying ‘I don’t think I can live like this.’ That’s when he was told about an off-loading brace that had been developed. It’s like a prosthetic limb, but it’s worn on the outside of the leg and takes all the weight off the foot. After an operation to remove some of the metal in his foot, which was causing him pain, he was put on a trial to use the brace.
That was in 2014. Two weeks later he ran in the first Invictus Games in London. ‘I didn’t have a chance to do any training, but I was just so happy that I could run.’
Then his full rehabilitation really began. Soon he was fully fit, fully deployable, able to go on exercises with his regiment, and compete in cross-country races.
The 2017 Invictus Games gave him the opportunity to train properly before the event. Being one of the 90 chosen from the 800 who applied, gave him fresh hope.
He is full of praise for Prince Harry who he describes as ‘an outstanding character and leader’ who took time to speak to many of the competitors at the training camps and during the Games; he talked to Bruce about Africa.
‘This is just my story,’ Bruce concludes ‘but there are so many soldiers with similar stories. In the Games there are people who have been injured and have overcome their injury. If you know someone with injuries; not just physical injuries but mental injuries, my advice would be sign up for the Invictus Games just to get that pride back.’