War veteran reveals his fight back from devastating IED explosion
PUBLISHED: 16:54 22 October 2019 | UPDATED: 16:54 22 October 2019
A former soldier who sustained life-changing injuries and struggled to adapt to life outside of the army has opened up about his physical and mental health battles.
Del Sullivan, from Sprowston, joined the Royal Anglian Regiment when he was 17 and first toured Afghanistan in 2001.
A deployment to Iraq followed in 2004, but disaster struck a year later on his return to Afghanistan when an IED explosion left him with three fractured vertebrae.
Mr Sullivan remembers very little from that fateful day, aside from the terrifying sensation of not being able to move his own legs.
"At first I stood up and had a drink, but I knew there was something wrong with my back," said the 36-year-old. "I went to walk and there was just nothing - no movement whatsoever. It was the strangest feeling.
"I don't know whether I triggered something when I stood up but I just could not move.
"They took me straight to hospital and the doctors were surprised I'd even stood up. It must have been the sheer adrenaline."
Having flown back to the UK, Mr Sullivan underwent surgery at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey which saw part of his spine reconstructed using metalwork.
A rigorous period of recovery followed at Headley Court, the famed rehabilitation centre dedicated to supporting injured members of the armed forces.
"That place is unbelievable," added Mr Sullivan. "You go with a bad back and wonder what you're doing there when you see people with three limbs missing."
Despite no longer being able to serve as a fighting soldier, Mr Sullivan stayed in the army and returned to Afghanistan for three further deployments after regaining his fitness.
A crushing setback followed in 2013, however, when a familiar feeling reared its head during a run in Salisbury.
"I was feeling quite fit at the time and had just done a cross country half marathon," he said.
"I got to the top of this hill and it was the exact same sensation as before. I just couldn't move."
A bolt in the existing metalwork in Mr Sullivan's back had bent, necessitating four further rounds of surgeries in the ensuing three years.
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Attempts were made during the final surgery, in 2016, to completely replace the metalwork, but doctors decided the operation was too dangerous and were forced to replace 30pc of his spine with more metal.
What followed was the most difficult period of Mr Sullivan's life.
"I was in a pretty bad way after that," he admitted. "I had two years where I was wasn't working and hit rock bottom.
"One of the most difficult things to mentally deal with was my son helping me put my socks on in the morning. Your kid - who's four-years-old - getting you dressed. It was degrading. I was thinking 'I should be putting his socks on'.
"We find it quite funny now. We adapted it to become our little thing we did every morning. You just get used to the every day struggles and they become part of your routine."
While recovering from near-crippling surgery, Mr Sullivan was also trying to readjust to civilian life.
"My lowest moment was leaving the army," he added. "You lose that brotherhood and don't know how to look after yourself because they take care of everything for you.
"All I knew was how to make a bed and tidy up, but I couldn't even do that.
"Because of moving around I'd lost touch with all my school mates, so I only had military friends. I went from having a laugh with 100 people a day to speaking to one or two every month."
Mr Sullivan discovered the On Course Foundation, whose primary goal is to support wounded service personnel through playing golf.
Within three months he was playing 18-hole rounds and, in 2017, he ran the London Marathon for the charity before representing Great Britain in the Simpson Cup at Royal Birkdale.
Through his work with On Course, Mr Sullivan saw an opportunity to return to work and landed a new job at Barnham Broom Golf Club, near Dereham.
"A lot of soldiers choose to sit at home living off their pension," he added. "I understand if some people want to do that, but I had to get out and find work.
"I'm so grateful not only to Barnham Broom for taking a risk on me, but to On Course Foundation as well.
"Some soldiers expect people to come looking for them, but you've got to do some research yourself. Awareness of PTSD is obviously huge these days, but these charities aren't going to reach out if they don't know you're struggling.
"Soldiers are a nightmare when it comes to letting their feelings out. That horrible 'man up' saying has caused that."
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