Sunflowers for Soldiers: a walk for the wounded and our armed forces


Sunflowers for Soldiers

‘Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.’

Nelson Mandela

Recession, shattered career plans and 5 fractured vertebrae later the bite of conscience grips its teeth into this aspiring Army lawyer and serving reserve soldier.

I was obsessed with the camaraderie and challenge of recruits course 062 and dressed head to toe in green I finally felt at home.  Dedicated and driven to achieve my future career choice as an Army Lawyer I was focused on playing my part in Afghanistan when I qualified.  

My section, Recruits Course 62 Final Exercise

Unfortunately I didn’t achieve that goal. My aspirations were halted one morning when I was badly injured exercising racehorses. I had been granted permission from the Commanding Officer to represent my Regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company, in the Royal Artillery Gold Cup, an amateur jump race for service personnel, at Sandown Park and I came well and truly unstuck. My military career was over.

5 years later and with a heavy, guilty heart it was time to say a personal thank you to our soldiers, those that came home physically and mentally wounded, that did serve in the Afghanistan campaign.

Sunflowers for Soldiers was born:

sunflowers soldiers
Minehead: the beginning (end) of the South West Coast Path

A 630 mile walk along the South West Coast Path, the UK’s longest National Trail. The equivalent distance of around 5.5 times the M25, spanning 4 counties and the equivalent climb of approximately 4 Mt Everest’s.

Along this path I would plant a sunflower seed for each of the 616 severely wounded soldiers and their families from the Afghanistan campaign. 

Why the sunflower? Because they are a symbol of longevity, energy, warmth and happiness and they always face the sun, the symbol of life itself.

The Charity

Moved to tears by LCpl Jason Hare RM’s speech on the value of horses at the World Horse Welfare conference I was alerted to the most wonderful charity Horseback UK . Established by a veteran Royal Marine, Jock Hutchinson and his wife Emma.  It aims to take wounded soldiers and…

Through working with the horses amongst a like minded group, service personnel who had been mentally and physically scarred could regain their confidence, dignity and especially in the case of amputees, mobility.

Horseback UK went one step further and now utilise the services of wounded soldiers to deliver the courses it provides. Wounded helping the wounded to come to terms with their injuries; visible and invisible. 

Horseback UK could not have been a more poignant charity for me to walk for. My life long obsession with horses and riding had prevented me fulfilling my goal of joining the regular Army and yet here this charity and its horses were helping those that did serve and pay the price physically and mentally.

Image courtesy of Horseback UK

The Walk

The intention was to be gruelling. A metaphor for serving in harsh conditions and recovering from serious injury. 

I hadn’t done a huge amount of planning for this trip, it was quite last minute and it hadn’t crossed my mind to organise support. However, as soon as the idea fell from my lips my long suffering father and his partner Katie had signed up as support.

We have family friends who have served and been killed and I know how much our soldiers meant to him. His late father, my Grandfather, was a Paratrooper.

The Gang – Taff, Dad, Katie, Tom,Werner

We met on a miserable, damp and grey day in Minehead, where the path either begins or ends.

Tim, from Forces TV, came to film the beginning of my walk. He followed me as I planted the first sunflower seed for LCpl Hare RM from Horseback UK.

From that point I chewed up the 630 miles. The dynamic environments of the South West peninsular are simply breathtaking. From the rocky bays and headlands and wild seas on the North coast to the vulnerable soft jurassic landscapes and calm waters of the English Channel on the south coast.

The path is physically challenging and demanding on the body, exactly what my mind required. The tranquility and therapeutic nature of my surroundings rendered the physical exertion insignificant and proved a wonderful tonic, even in the rain. 

As I slowly progressed with the sun on my back along the path the atmosphere would change with the landscape and the rich history of our past was very apparent. The first couple of days were damp but that didn’t matter, it is what I signed up for. In my mind enduring hardship might fulfil my need to feel what our soldiers might have felt on duty.  Minus the Taliban, firefights and IED’s of course.

sunflowers soldiersThe People

This path attracts people from across the globe. Those that I engaged with would plant sunflower seeds and share with me their tales and personal associations with Afghanistan.  The first couple I met would plant a sunflowers for our soldiers and also the son that they had lost the year before. A doctor from Australia explained that he had lost a patient, a headteacher from Cornwall had lost two pupils and a golf club had a wounded veteran player. An American couple took several seeds back to their farm in Virginia. My friend would plant one in her garden. 

Thanks to a dear old friend of mine, a serving Royal Marine at the time, Rob, aka Skinny Bob, I happened upon Taff. A veteran Royal Marine who, as you would expect, is Welsh but ironically boasts a fine Scottish accent. Rob told me to visit the Williams Arms, Chivenor, where Commando Logistic Regiment are based. 

I stumbled in exhausted and dishevelled from a good 20 miles walking in the rain. Enquiring after Taff, the barmen looked at me blankly. From behind I heard the soft burr of an African accent, the Padre, Janice, and a gang of Commandos, ‘are you looking for Taff?’ were sat together, Taff had already gone to bed.

They fed me tea and bought and bought me crisps as I explained what I was up to. By chance our paths had crossed and that was it, for the next 10 days we would be taken in by HM’s Royal Marines.

Robert and I

Taff was walking from John O Groats to Lands End in memory of his wife who he lost to cancer several years ago. We picked up Werner, from Germany, and Tom, a Londoner on a sabbatical. A gang of waifs and strays all taking on this path for our own personal reasons.

sunflowers soldiers
Waifs and strays

Taff was supported by the Royal Marines Commando Logistic Regiment, 42 Commando and Royal Marines Association North Devon. By right of passage and a chum of Taff’s we were all supported down to Lands End by these gentleman warriors.

sunflowers soldiers

In that time I walked and talked with around 30 veteran and serving Royal Marines and it was a privilege to walk with Richie on his last day in the Corps. These lads took a knee and a moment to plant a sunflower seed or two for a wounded or fallen comrade. Alan who served in World War II took a sunflower seed home to plant.

They would tell me about the men that they planted the sunflower seeds for. What they were like and how they had been killed or injured. Behind their smiles and deep in their eyes the sadness was only to real. I could only imagine what it is like to lose a friend in battle.

sunflowers soldiers
Corp Regimental Sergeant Major Phil Gilby plants a sunflower seed

At a request from a close friend I planted a sunflower seed for his cousin, Conrad Lewis, a paratrooper KIA, overlooking the beach where they used to play as children. I planted a couple.

Planting a sunflower seed for Conrad Lewis

On one occasion I was in an isolated cove and there was a beautiful white church on the headland. I began to chat to a man that was walking, I asked if he would plant a sunflower seed. He wouldn’t.

He didn’t believe in war. Expecting to cross paths with several people who might not agree with my objective but it didn’t prevent me from being lost for words.

I didn’t say much too him. I didn’t see the value in getting into a debate and if I’m honest I was too surprised to say anything remotely intelligent. I thought a lot about that conversation.

When you’re spending up to 10 hours a day alone you have an awful lot of time and space to think. War is a reality whether you like it, believe in it or support it. It is the people who are willing to put their lives on the line which allow people like him the choice and freedom to hold those views.

Royal Marines Glenn and Van who walked with me in their spare time

Rest in Peace

A couple of days into this walk one of the soldiers that I was walking for, L/Cpl Michael Campbell of 3rd Battalion, The Royal Welsh, died. He had sustained wounds to his stomach 3 years earlier. A stark reminder of the continued fallout and suffering from this war and those that went before.

The outcome?

This walk was about thanking our soldiers and trying to fulfil a missing part in myself. I had thanked our soldiers in my own way and shared it with those that I met and I was relatively happy. But still I feel I could do more, nothing ever really being enough.

I met a lady in the Australian Airforce, and after chatting together for a couple of minutes she said, ‘whatever role you play, serving in the military will affect you deeply.’ So true.

There was a hope this walk might help put to bed some of the feelings that I was battling with of not going to war. Unfortunately it didn’t. It didn’t fulfil the gap of not serving in Afghanistan, of course it didn’t. However it was the beginning of an insatiable drive to help and support our soldiers in the best way I can.

Once the media dies down we all plod on with our lives and perhaps forget about the scars that so many still bear. Not just the soldiers themselves but their families and loved ones too. We can forget that our Armed Forces are still busy working in preparation for the next conflict or trying to keep the peace. The cogs are always turning.

I don’t want to forget.

If you would like to donate to Horseback UK please click here

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