This an extraordinary and moving story of courage and fortitude: Paul Burns, as a young soldier in the Parachute Regiment, was grievously wounded in the IRA bomb attack at Warrenpoint in Northern Ireland in 1979. He refused to let the loss of one let and severe damage to his other foot rule his life, and went on to do so many things that might daunt fully able-bodied people: freefall parachuting, sub-aqua, motorbiking, skiings, and round-the-world sailing as a member of a disabled crew.
Paul Burns’s life is a triumph of the human spirit over adversity, and a shining example to us all, able-bodied or not. It is typical of him that he has given so much to others who have lost limbs – not least by his tremendous support to the British Limbless Ex-Service Men’s Association (BLESMA).
General Sir Mike Jackson
Northern Ireland, 27 August 1979
Even the most extraordinary days start out ordinary. Today is no exception.
It’s hot. Our uniforms are stifling. The air in the back of the truck in which we’re travelling is heavy with the exhaust fumes. I’m sitting at the back, my red beret perched firmly on my head, trying to get a few lungfuls of fresh air.
Elsewhere in the lorry I can hear my mates chatting. It’s just the usual army banter. They’re saying nothing of any great importance. Why would they? They don’t realize what is about to happen. None of us does.
There are only eight of us in the truck. There might have been more, but we’re laden down with boxes of ammo. Sometimes you have to be grateful for small mercies. If there had been more of us, the carnage that lies ahead would have been all the greater.
I look out of the vehicle and smile to myself. I’m just a young man, a kid from the Midlands, but already I’m seeing the world. Having an adventure. Doing what I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a child. And it’s picturesque here. Breathtaking. the kind of place that tourists come to from far and wide to take the air and recharge their batteries. A famous beauty spot. But it’s about to become famous for a very different reason.
On the left-hand side of the truck is a stretch of water, a wide estuary that separates Northern Ireland from the Republic. And, on the other side of the water, thick forest coming down the shore. It’s impossible for any of us to know what dangers those trees are hiding. Why would we even think about it? They are far away, and in any case we are members of the Parachute Regiment. We’ve passed one of the most rigorous selection procedures in the British Army. We are young and fit, well prepared and confident. Why should we fear what may be lurking in the woods.
The lorry trundles on. The lads continue to chat.
I continue to look out of the lorry, killing time till we reach our destination, little knowing that, for so many of my friends, time is coming to and end.
The worst horrors come without warning. The most brutal shocks are those for which you are the least prepared. And although, deep down, I know what the reality of conflict is, nothing could have prepared me for what is about to happen.
We drive past a trailer parked in a lay-by and filled with bales of hay. I do not notice because there’s nothing to notice. It’s an ordinary scene. An innocent one.
And I do not hear the bang, nor the screams that follow. I do not smell the stench of burning flesh, or witness the confusion. All I know is darkness.
It’s as though a curtain has been drawn. A curtain that signals the end of my old life, and the beginning of a new one, though what this new life will be like, nobody can say.
It is a darkness that means the lights of many lives have been extinguished. Andy that my own world can never be the same again.