Stuart Trow wouldn’t describe himself as a hero, but for those who meet the 33-year old, it is hard to see him as anything else.
Four weeks into a tour of duty in Afghanistan, Stuart suffered horrific injuries when he was shot three times in a fierce battle with Taliban forces. Hit first in the thigh, then the knee and finally his hip, the young soldier suffered huge internal bleeding.
His own quick thinking and the bravery of his army comrades saved his life, but he was faced with a completely different future than he had ever envisaged when he was given the devastating news that he needed an operation to amputate his left leg from below the knee. He was the first casualty of the war in Afghanistan.
“The guys who dragged me to safety and the experience of the doctor on the helicopter saved my life. But my fitness also saved me that day – if I had been slightly overweight or older I would have died.”
A lifelong fitness fanatic and keen footballer, the then 25-year-old had to learn to walk again and was fitted with an artificial leg. Although offered a desk job in the army, Stuart had always been an active person and decided to take a medical discharge.
He says: “Sometimes I do miss the army, but I never dwell on it or let it get me down.”
Determined to keep active, Stuart swims and cycles regularly and would love to qualify for the Paralympic cycling team. And earlier this year, he decided to enrol on a BA (Hons) Physical Education course at the University of Wolverhampton’s School of Education, based in Walsall.
“Sport was a big part of my life, and I had been through quite a lot and thought I had quite a lot to offer as a teacher, so it seemed a logical route to go down.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he admits. “But I visited and chatted to the lecturers before I started and explained that I was an amputee. It was new for them but they were happy to take me on, and it is a well run course. The sports facilities, pitches and track are fantastic and I think it does help being a mature student because you have life experience and don’t have to worry about being accepted.”
Stuart enjoys the practical side of the course, particularly the hands-on aspects of coaching and teaching, as he has done similar things before in his military career.
“The academic side and the coursework is a massive learning curve, but I am enjoying the challenge. When I got my first assignment back I was really looking forward to it. When I was 18 I never thought about doing this – I thought it was not for me without even looking into it. But I would recommend people who are interested in sports come and have a look around.”
Stuart says his priority now is his University degree, and once he has completed his full-time, three-year course he will either do a Masters or a teacher training course.
But he was still able to fit in another challenge before knuckling down to his studies, climbing to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in November to raise funds for Help For Heroes. Joined by other injured serviceman, including Craig, who is blind, and John who was told he would never walk again, Stuart reached the top of the tallest mountain in Africa in five gruelling days.
“It had been a number of years since I had been injured and as I got older, I felt lucky to be alive – I was seconds from being pronounced dead. I wanted to do something to help others,” he says.
“It was harder than I thought. The first three days were similar to things I had done in the military, but the last couple of days to the top were really steep and I was suffering from altitude sickness. When we started to come down I realised it was going to be a struggle because of the amputation. But it was good – and every day was different. It was a really good group and an inspiring experience.”
Stuart raised a staggering £20,000 with the challenge, which was featured on local and national TV.
Although many things in his life must have felt uncertain at times, his girlfriend, now wife, Lisa, was a constant source of strength.
The couple had not been together that long when Stuart was injured, and he initially thought she would be better off without him. But Lisa stuck by Stuart, putting her own career on hold. The couple now have two daughters, Georgina, three, and 18-month-old Bethany and Lisa is doing an access to health course at Telford College of Art and Technology, with a view to a career in midwifery.
Stuart says: “I am back to some kind of normality now, but it has taken five or six years to reach that. Having my children makes it all worthwhile. To get through all that and then get married and have two children, I feel really lucky.”
But as the war in Afghanistan continues and the death toll rises, Stuart, like many people, can not help but be affected by the images on our television screens almost every night of injured serviceman and grieving families.
“We have been in Afghanistan a long time, and it has taken that long for me as an injured soldier to recover from that, physically and mentally. When I see it on the news, it is really sad and takes me back to the early days of my injury and what my wife and I went through. It is so regular and heartbreaking.”
Stuart has achieved a lot since that awful day in Afghanistan, and looks set to continue to build on this with his university studies. But what is most striking is that he is humble, unassuming and honest, and clearly aware of just how lucky he was.
“I don’t class myself as a hero – I see myself as anyone else. There are guys coming back injured who are 19, 20 or 21 years of age and I hope this shows them that there is light at the end of the tunnel – if we can do things like walk up Kilimanjaro, then there is no reason why they can’t.”