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'Our National Debt': The Wounded

This image was used for the iconic H4H logo

When the Wiltshire-based charity Help for Heroes launched in October 2007 it seemed to ricochet straight into the public heart, garnering support across the ages and in the highest places. Four years on and £126 million later, meeting the inspirational co-founder Bryn Parry it quickly becomes clear why H4H has become such a success, not only for its legendary fundraising but also for bestowing heroic status on those who risk life and limb for their country.

More than anything Bryn Parry seems like a man transformed by absolute passion for what he believes in.  Within minutes of meeting him he has made it vividly clear why he and his wife Emma turned their lives upside down to found this ground-breaking charity which has done so much to change our perceptions of modern soldiering and the debt we, the public, owe to the wounded.

Five years ago he and Emma were leading a quietly comfortable life, running a successful cartoon business on the outskirts of Salisbury, the kind of life he says : ‘where I could walk the dogs at lunchtime and be home by six every night.’

Almost on a whim Emma and Bryn decided to do a charity bike ride through the battlefields of France to raise money for the wounded. The idea gathered pace with General Sir Richard Dannatt (then head of the British Army) asking them to raise £8 million to fund a rehabiliation centre at Headley Court.

Emma and Bryn Parry OBE

But, says Parry, it was their visit to Selly Oak Hospital to meet the newly wounded that was the defining moment.

Though Parry, formerly a captain with the Royal Green Jackets (now The Rifles)  had three tours in Northern Ireland and one in Cyprus he was fortunate never to experience any casualities. Now at Selly Oak he met a boy from his regiment who was brain damaged, another who had been shot by an Ak47 into his bicep so that his arm had fragmented into 60 pieces and another whose mouth had been wired shut for 8 weeks. The boy’s mother, says Parry, had lost half her body weight sitting beside her son, hour after hour, feeding him through a straw.

He is such a good communicator that you feel you are experiencing that traumatic visit with him and understand when he says: “When we went to the hospital everything changed for us because it was so devastating.’

“It was the most sobering and humbling thing I’ve ever done because when you go into a room and meet about 30 guys and they are not lying there underneath grey blankets with old fashioned nurses like in a movie but sitting on top of their beds in t-shirts and boxers shorts with their mum and dad who look devastated or a little 16 year old girlfriend and there are get well balloons, teddy bears and football teams and they were all the same age as my children so that was hard….and then you  mix that with this extraordinary old fashioned humour and grit. Every single one of them was determined and self effacing.’

The Parrys were struck by this modern generation of wounded soldiers who revealed extraordinary courage, loyalty and integrity, yet seemed to have no voice.

It was clear that the charity must become everything. They sold their cartoon business, surrounded themselves with a team of equally passionate supporters who were prepared to work for free and on October 1 2007 Help for Heroes was born.

Almost overnight  H4H garnered backing that was as high profile as it was diverse – Princes William and Harry, Francine and Jeremy Clarkson and The Sun. That first ‘Big Battlefield Bike Ride’ raised a staggering £1.4m and in just 8 months the initial ambition to reach £8 million was achieved but the money just kept on pouring in.

Somehow H4H had managed to unleash a huge wave of public sentiment. Back in 2007 universal hatred of the Iraq war threatened to make modern soldiers unpopular yet Bryn and Emma Parry almost single-handedly changed this.

Parry says: “What was happening was what happened in Vietnam - when you get an unpopular war you get an unpopular soldier. “

Help for Heroes had launched with a heartfelt message about ‘our blokes’ as they call  the men and women who fight for Britain. It humanised the soldiers the public had been trying to ignore and gave a face and a voice to the wounded.

Parry is absolutely unequivocal about the nation’s need to take care of the battle-damaged from Iraq and Afghanistan. He calls it our ‘national debt’ and says: 'If we ask young men and women to put on uniforms and fight wars on our behalf …we owe them our gratitude and a debt of support for life.’

The genius of H4H is that, as well as harnessing public sentiment at a time of increasing conflict, it’s motivational ‘do something, do anything,’ ethos was inspiring. The public rose to the challenge with anything and everything from climbing Kilimanjaro to leg shaving and cake sales.

Bryn Parry has made it his mission to understand exactly what the wounded vets needed.

It is touching to hear him talk about many injured infantrymen, who lost not only limbs and career when they were wounded, but also the chance of a good life. Many join the army without training or qualifications and from a disruptive home life where they have escaped the inevitability of crime.

Parry describes it thus: “..so (the infantryman) joins a battalion and he has got structure and friends and a reason to get up in the morning and he really discovers himself and then he goes to Afghanistan and actually although it’s challenging they really love the soldiering and one day he gets injured and all the things that were difficult and bad about his previous life come back but this time they come back with the added problem of long term injury.’

Parry wanted to create ‘support hubs’ which could guide the wounded throughout their whole lives if need be, providing the unfailing advice and understanding of a family.

Aside from Headley Court there are four new recovery centres - in Tidworth, Plymouth, Colchester and Catterick which will all provide Parry's One Stop Welfare Shop Concept.

What you understand meeting Bryn Parry is that there could be nobody better placed to understand the challenges of providing long-term care for Britian’s wounded.

An ex-serviceman, whose father died in service when he was just four and whose 26 year old son Tom is in Afghanistan for the second time since 2009, soldiering is in his blood. He has watched Tom lose friends and see others severely injured in the recent atrocities.

"My son was in the most dangerous place in Afghanistan in 2009; he’s lost five friends which is extraordinary for a man of that age (26). We know boys we’ve known since he was at university who have lost limbs and been injured but it does mean that I can understand how other parents feel."

Losing a father to military life and with a son fighting in one of the most dangerous war zones has unquestionably been an igniting force for Parry.

He says: "Somehow I felt I had to do something....I don’t think Emma and I knew what we were getting into but we certainly never treated it like a job. It’s been life changing.’

Find out how you can start fund-raising for Help the Heroes here.

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