AS Reverend John Chalmers rushed home, he tried to blank out the appalling images that kept filling his mind.
Just moments before he had been winding up the proceedings of the final day of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, looking forward to a relaxed evening, when he took an urgent call.
It was his eldest son David telling him two men from the Ministry of Defence were at the door of their family home in Dunfermline.
It could only mean one of two things: his youngest boy John James, a 23-year-old Lance Corporal with 42 Commando serving in Helmand Province, had been killed or was injured.
“They had come to tell us, if not quite the worst news, then close to it. JJ had been injured in a bomb blast and was on his way to hospital in Bastion. The blast had killed two of his colleagues and one of the Afghan soldiers with them.
“When you get the news, for a moment or two you feel very empty. You’re so anaesthetised that you’re not thinking about where God is, or where you are. You’re just thinking about your son, about wanting to see him and that there’s 3500 miles between you.”
Sitting in his office in the Church’s George Street headquarters, Rev Chalmers, a minister for years in Palmerston Place Church and now the Kirk’s principal clerk, speaks softly and with some hesitation about the impact of that terrible day on May 27, and its ongoing aftermath.
JJ was so badly injured the right hand side of his face had almost completely collapsed. His arms and hands had taken most of the impact of the roadside bomb – so much so that two fingers were gone while others had to be wired back on. His right elbow had disintegrated and doctors later had to graft his arm to his stomach to ensure a regular blood flow while they tried to repair it with titanium.
“But unlike his two friends, JJ was alive and his attitude from the moment he woke up was ‘head down, get on, this is my job, I need to be back to normal’. He has spent 60 hours in theatre since he’s come back. He has been amazing.”
The Reverend’s pride in JJ and the way he has fought back to health is tangible, but it is tinged with the sadness of a parent who has borne witness to the effects of the horror of war – the sight of their child’s torn face and mangled body.
It’s a moment he’s been reliving as he and his family have recorded a BBC Radio Scotland programme about the events which have changed their lives.
“That moment when the MoD are at the door . . . well, you do think the worst. And then you don’t hear much. We knew he was in hospital in Bastion, and 12 hours later got an update that he was sedated but stable.
“Once he was stable for 24 hours he was sent home to the Queen Elizabeth military hospital in Birmingham just clinging on to life. It’s every parent’s nightmare, and always in the back of your mind when you have a child in the armed forces, and we were thrown into it. But you get there and you realise you’re not the only family going through this. This, and worse, is happening to families every week.
“He was critically injured and for ten weeks he was in intensive care and high dependency. His face was reconstructed and although at one point they thought he’d lose the sight in his eye, the doctors managed to save it.”
JJ, a former Stewart’s Melville pupil had been a reservist after his intensive Marine training, working full time instead as a design technology teacher at Balerno High. However, when his papers came through, he never thought twice about heading to Afghanistan.
Now almost six months on from the bomb, he’s so well recovered he’s hunting for a flat with his girlfriend Kornelia Chitursko, who was by his bedside almost solidly for the ten weeks.
Today he will put on his uniform and green beret for the first time since he was injured, as he rejoins his unit to take part in an Armistice Day parade in Plymouth, where he’ll also receive his Afghan Campaign medal.
He says: “The mind is such an amazing thing, that even though I was conscious for the whole time after the bomb exploded, I can’t really remember much. It’s been blocked out. When I see the lads again it might come flooding back.
“I knew when it happened that I would be put to sleep and shipped back to the UK, so I knew just to grit my teeth and it would soon be blocked out and that my family would be there when I woke up. It was seven days though before I did, but seeing them all was a huge relief.
“I woke up confused, but I knew I’d been blown up. I never had a point where I thought ‘this is terrible’, it was always ‘let’s get on with it’, but then I don’t think I really realised how bad the injuries were.”
JJ says it was a few days before he realised his friends and fellow Marines Sam Alexander and Ollie Augustin were not in the hospital. “I thought they had to be there, I eventually I asked and was told they’d died. I realised how incredibly lucky I was to be there at all. There is so much chance and luck involved. When I met Ollie’s family I really didn’t know what to say.”
Despite it all, JJ says the Marines is “the best job in the world” and that you “have to take the good and the bad”. “You’re doing it for each other, for the guy next to you. When you’re in the thick of it that’s what matters.”
He adds: “The doctors and nurses are just amazing, what they’ve done for me is astonishing. I can put a suit on and have a couple of fingers missing and some stitches in my face and I look alright. I have half my stomach missing but I never think about it.”
Rev Chalmers admits he was never too keen on JJ entering the forces, but shrugs as he says: “You can’t stand in their way if that’s what they want. You just hold your breath and hope you won’t be one of the families who gets a knock at the door.”
He also says that the injuries to his son, who is being rehabilitated at Headley Court in Surrey, did not test his faith. “But you become aware of the people around you who want to give you the strength you don’t have,” he says. “And you discover just how much family means to you. In a sense that’s what gives you faith, rather than questioning it. You wake up to the fact that it’s the simple things in life that make life good.
“You become grateful for the small things, and small advances in progress. And you become aware of the miracles that those in the hospitals are working.”
The Family Have Been Informed: Letters from the Heart will be broadcast on Radio Scotland on Sunday at 10.50am.
Giving vital care
THE sound of helicopter blades chopping through the air is one that Helen Singh will never forget. Or the screams and moans of pain from soldiers and civilians, the victims of Taliban bombs, lying on stretchers waiting for damaged limbs to be amputated.
Serving in Helmand Province as a nurse is a far cry from her day job, as an advanced nurse practitioner in critical care at Edinburgh’s Western General and Royal Infirmary hospitals.
But last year Helen was stationed for three months in Camp Bastion, as part of the 205 (Scottish) Field Hospital (Volunteers), there to care for the wounded – be they British soldiers, enemy fighters or the civilian men, women and children who would be routinely injured in the fighting.
And as a result of her work the 45-year-old from Duddingston, who has been a nurse for 24 years, will next week be presented with an MBE at Buckingham Palace.
“It’s really an award for the whole team,” she says. “Working somewhere like that is all about being part of a team. It’s great to get it, but it’s really for everyone who was there.”
The facility in Camp Bastion has around 50 beds and nine trauma wards, and Helen says she had to learn much more about paediatrics as many of the injured were Afghan children.
“We made sure we had our skills up to scratch so when we were there we just put them into practice. The thing that will never leave me is the guys’ courage and determination. I suppose it’s part of their make-up, a robust mind set, but it was a real privilege to look after them.”