As 2020 marks the 10th Cateran Yomp, Gayle Ritchie meets this year’s event ambassador Andy Garthwaite – a military amputee with a brain-powered bionic arm…
September 5, 2010, 7.20am. A moment in time indelibly etched in Andy Garthwaite’s mind.
A soldier in the British Army, he was serving in Helmand, Afghanistan, when a rocket-propelled grenade blasted off his right arm during an intense fire fight.
If it hadn’t been for his comrades, who radioed for a helicopter and carried him to it within minutes – and the fact that by some miracle, a piece of shrapnel had cauterised his wound, stopping him from bleeding out – Andy would not be alive today.
Tragically, his close friend, Lance Corporal Joseph Poole from Glasgow, was killed in the attack.
This year marks a decade since that fateful day, and it’s been a long and painful road to recovery for dad-of-two Andy.
But when I meet the 32-year-old from South Tyneside – who has the honour of being the 2020 Cateran Yomp ambassador – I discover an upbeat young man who is the personification of positivity and inspiration.
As the first person in the UK to have a bionic arm controlled by his thoughts, Andy considers himself extremely lucky.
“At first, I thought it would be impossible – it sounded ridiculous and a wee bit sci-fi scary,” he admits.
“But just a few months after surgery, I was back to fitness with this amazing, bionic arm powered by my brain.
“Thanks to the arm, there’s nothing I can’t do. I’ve got a job, I can drive, I’m back on my motorbike, and now I’m in training for the Cateran Yomp.”
Andy was serving with the Queen’s Royal Lancers when his life changed completely. He was searching a compound when his unit came under heavy attack.
“There were lots of bullets flying around, lots of rockets going off, and then it went quiet, so we carried on with our normal morning routine, having our breakfast and coffee,” he recalls.
“Round about 7.15am, all hell broke loose. As I was firing my weapon, a Taliban soldier we hadn’t spotted – he was about 25m away – fired a rocket.
“It severed my arm clean off. I thought I was going to die. I was lying there in the desert – I could see my arm detached from my body – and I thought that was the end. But I didn’t want to die. I wanted to get home. I wanted to see my family.”
Amazingly, shrapnel from the rocket had cauterised one of Andy’s main arteries, preventing him from bleeding to death.
His comrades rushed to his aid, injecting him with morphine and bundling him into a helicopter.
“They put my arm into a black bag, which was surreal,” he recalls.
“I started to lose consciousness so a lad punched me in the face and kept slapping me to keep me active.
“I kept looking across to see my friend Joseph who was getting CPR. Sadly, he passed away.”
Flown back to safety at Camp Bastion, Andy was then transferred to hospital in Manchester for surgery and rehabilitation.
A few months later, while venturing into his local pub in a bid to resume some kind of normality, Andy heard the devastating news that another two comrades had been killed in action. This hit him hard.
“I had a little bit of that self-blame thing,” he reflects. “It made me wonder if I’d been there whether I could’ve done something. But you can’t live on self-blame or self-doubt; you can’t dwell on the past. You can’t change what’s happened.”
Understandably, Andy felt low for a while as he struggled to come to terms with the fact he had lost his dream job in the Army and believed he would no longer be able to write, drive or ride his motorbike.
“I felt I was finished. But I loved being a soldier – I was good at it. I battled quite a bit with myself.
“It was a big change at home. I’ve got a wife Kailey and two young kids – a three and five year old. I found it hard to come back and adapt to being a dad. I’m not aggressive in any way but I would feel myself sort of boiling up and getting angry because when you’ve got children, you want to provide; you want to do everything for your family. So yes, I hit brick walls sometimes where I couldn’t physically do things.
“I couldn’t get out of changing the nappies though! I can do that with one hand!”
It seemed like the stuff of science fiction when in January 2012, Viennese bionics company Otto Block pledged to fit a bionic arm for Andy that would be controlled by his brain. He was the first person in the UK to have the revolutionary surgery.
The wounded soldier underwent targeted muscle reinnervation, which involved rewiring some of his nerves so that nerve fibres that once controlled his arm and hand movements instead hooked up to his chest muscles.
In essence, electrodes placed on his chest pick up the muscle movements and convert them into signals that direct the prosthetic limb. By thinking of moving individual fingers, he can move his bionic hand.
“When they were teaching me how to use the chest muscle to control the arm, it was odd,” he recalls. “The prosthetic arm wasn’t even attached to me; it was on a table a few metres away! It’s taken a while to get used to but it’s revolutionised my life and created opportunities I’d never thought possible.”
Thanks to the bionic arm, Andy’s able to indulge his motorbike passion.
A recent highlight was enjoying a ride round the track at the Isle of Man TT races.
“It was amazing to get a bit of buzz back into my life after being shot at and having rockets flying at me,” he beams.
“I was doing excessive speeds over mountains – legally – which was phenomenal. It brought back a bit of enjoyment into my life.”
ABF THE SOLDIERS’ CHARITY
In the aftermath of the 2010 attack, and as a result of his injuries, Andy could no longer ride his motorbike or drive a car and was medically discharged from the Army. It was then that he got in touch with ABF The Soldiers’ Charity.
“The charity was there to help take burdens off my back, to help with things I’d never thought of,” he says.
“It was the end of my military career, which was all I’d ever wanted to do, so I needed help to find a new job, help writing a CV…all these little things. My predominant arm had gone – I couldn’t write – so the charity bought me an iPad.
“I got my licence back and bought a car. It was £6,000 to fit a steering adaption and again, the charity stepped in to help.
“When we moved into a new home, the charity paid for a specially-adapted wet room which made life much easier. Ultimately, the charity helped me rebuild my life.”
Andy got a part-time job with a property management company and has since built up his own property portfolio.
Being ambassador for the 2020 Cateran Yomp is his way of repaying the Soldiers’ Charity for the amazing service it gave him.
“I’m back on my feet; I’m fit, well, healthy and quite independent. The charity has changed my life, so I want to give something back.
“I spent 22 years enjoying life with two arms but I’ve had 10 years living an exceptional life with just one arm – and the prosthetic limb, of course!
“Life hasn’t stopped at all. I’ve got a wife and two kids that I love and cherish. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”
As well as 2020 being the 10th anniversary of Andy’s life-changing injuries, it’s the 10th Cateran Yomp, an epic trek across rural Perthshire.
Taking place on June 6 and 7 in the foothills of the Cairngorms, it’s the biggest, toughest event of its kind.
Teams hike either 54 (gold), 36 (silver) or 22 (bronze) miles in 24 hours with rough, hilly terrain adding to the challenge.
Since 2010, the event has raised more than £3.8 million for The Soldiers’ Charity – funds which have helped thousands of veterans, serving soldiers and their families.
Andy is going for the biggest challenge, the 54-miler, with a seven-strong team of friends and family, including his wife Kailey. They’ve already begun training, racking up miles over the Yorkshire Peaks.
“Our team name is Thirteen Hands, Fourteen Feet,” chuckles Andy.
“I climbed mountains and went on treks in the Army, but haven’t done anything like the Yomp. It’s a huge honour to be Yomp ambassador and I want to set a good example! The biggest challenge for us will be trying to stay motivated.”
Any tips for Yompers taking on the gruelling challenge? “You’ve got to dig deep and remember what you’re doing it for.
“People have different barriers. Your Everest might be the 22-mile route.
“When it comes to hiking in the dark, through the night, you’re going to be physically drained. It’s about training your mind to get over that and keep away any bad thoughts. Your mind might be telling you to stop, but you’ve got to have something that keeps you plodding on.
“There’s no better way to get fit than training for the Yomp. And on the day, you’ll explore a stunning corner of Scotland while raising funds for a very worthwhile cause.”
While The Soldiers’ Charity has helped soldiers, veterans and their families financially, help doesn’t just come in the form of money.
This is a charity where people take time to talk and listen.
“Knowing there’s a friendly voice on the other end of the phone or being able to pop in and talk to someone at an ABF branch can make such a difference, especially when you feel no-one understands,” reflects Andy.
“Suicide is a massive issue among soldiers and veterans. Soldiers can come up against so many issues when they return to civilian life but, thanks to the charity, there is help out there. We need to raise vital funds to help in the fight against suicide and other mental health problems.”
Andy hopes his story will inspire others to sign up for the Yomp and is encouraging would-be yompers to sign up now – to give you a chance to put in enough training.
“It’s 18 weeks until the big day – so you’ve got plenty of time to bank up the miles!” he smiles.
“I’m training as hard as I can; I know it’ll be something I talk about for years to come. It’s the challenge of a lifetime and I can’t wait to get yomping!”
Millionaire bra entrepreneur Baroness Michelle Mone was the very first ambassador when the Yomp launched in 2011.
While adopted Dundonian Lorraine Kelly took on the role in 2012, cycling champion Mark Beaumont did it in 2013, former Scotland rugby captain Rob Wainwright did it in 2014 and mountaineer Polly Murray did it in 2015.
Paralympian powerlifter Micky Yule was the 2016 ambassador, former infantryman Stewart Harris in 2017, army veteran and hero climber Les Binns in 2018 and ski adventurer Major Sandy Hennis did it in 2019.
This year it’s “bionic man” and army veteran Andy Garthwaite’s turn.
Last year, 1,000 yompers including serving soldiers and veterans signed up for the event.
Sign up for the 2020 Yomp before February 29 and take advantage of the discounted registration fee of £99 per person or £80 for serving/veteran military personnel. The fundraising target for each yomper is £400. soldierscharity.org/yomp