UK Invictus team captain Bernie Broad on his life in the Peak District
PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 January 2018 | UPDATED: 12:12 03 January 2018
Kevin Palmer talks to Hadfield resident Bernie Broad who captained the UK team at the 2017 Invictus Games
Like many people, Bernie Broad is reflecting on the past year. But for him it has been extra special – he captained the UK team at the Invictus Games in Canada which put his life back on track.
Sitting at his home in Hadfield, north of Glossop, it is great to see and hear the laughter of the ex-Army officer as he tells how the experience of leading 89 wounded veterans revived his former self after some horrific years.
Fifty-one-year-old Bernie was originally from Tameside, just four miles across the border with Greater Manchester. He moved to Hadfield in 2012 before he was medically retired two years later after losing both legs below the knee after injuries sustained following an explosion in Afghanistan in November 2009.
Bernie always said he would retire to Derbyshire, having a friend who served with him who lives in the county.
‘I love the area, the scenery, the walking, the diversity of culture from stately homes to miners’ cottages, and customs such as well-dressings,’ he said. ‘I love Chatsworth House. My wife, Jan, and I have walked around the grounds. It’s an amazing place.’
Bernie’s house is full of memorabilia and photographs from his many years in the Grenadier Guards, a regiment which has recruited stout men of Derbyshire for centuries. Bernie’s home has had certain adaptations to help his quality of life – a lift between floors, widened doors to take his wheelchair and ramp access via the rear.
‘I spend a lot of time in the morning and evening in the wheelchair to rest my stumps,’ says Bernie who still has phantom sensations in the upper legs. Not that this stops him getting out and walking in the countryside, with him and Jan often venturing across the Peak District and in Derbyshire’s gorgeous parks.
Last year he walked up Mount Snowdon to support an ex-Grenadier, John Dawson, who was shot in the head and was doing it to raise money for the Colonel’s Fund, a Grenadier Guards charity. ‘Climbing up was just manageable, but coming down was agony,’ he said. ‘Most of the time I was leaning on a colleague just to take the weight off.’ Now he plans to do Ben Nevis in 2018.
Such tasks are not easy for people with disabilities. ‘I change legs, not shoes,’ quips Bernie. He has five pairs, including a special pair for walking in the countryside which are waterproof and durable. All of this because he was injured while serving his country thousands of miles away in Afghanistan.
Bernie started his Army career as a junior leader in 1982, went through the ranks and as a regimental sergeant major did ceremonial duties, including Trooping the Colour on the Queen’s Official Birthday two years running. He earned a late entry commission as a captain. ‘I got blown up and retired from the army as a major,’ he said, typical Service humour coming to the fore.
Bernie had served in Northern Ireland, Belize, The Falklands, Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan, but it was an explosion in Helmand Province on 29th November 2009 which changed his life.
He was the battle group logistics officer re-supplying outlying camps in that rough terrain when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. He was standing in the turret and the blast blew him out onto the ground, injuring his legs, chest, right forearm and head. Bernie has no recollection of the horrific incident because of the head injury and the medication he was on. Two soldiers who were shot by the Taliban in the same incident and were in Selly Oak hospital at the same time as Bernie, were able to explain to Jan in more detail what had happened to Bernie.
It was at Selly Oak in December 2010 that doctors amputated his left leg below the knee. They performed a similar operation on the right leg in December 2012 through the Royal College of Defence Medicine at the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, which provides world-class medical care for injured Armed Services personnel. ‘The sum of care and duty from the cleaners to the consultant was amazing and made the journey tolerable,’ said Bernie. He underwent four years of extensive surgery and rehabilitation. This was followed by two years of assistance from the Personnel Recovery Unit at Chetwynd Barracks, Chilwell, just over the Derbyshire border, to help him re-adjust. ‘It’s an outstanding place; the more you ask the more you get,’ he said.
He spends time with his 75-year-old father David, who suffered a stroke in 2013 but who still plays a good game of golf. They play two or three times a week at Ashton-under-Lyne golf course to keep on top of their game. He has also done some voluntary work for the Royal British Legion.
After losing his first leg Bernie expected to feel all right, but it was far from that. ‘That was when the toughest part of my journey started and I realised that this was going to be a long road to recovery.’ He had suicidal thoughts, something he had not discussed with Jan, his wife of 30 years. She was visibly taken aback when he openly revealed this on a BBC television programme just before the Invictus Games started. ‘It was good to get it off my chest even if it was a shock in front of millions of TV viewers,’ he admitted.
But the games, and his part as captain of the 90-strong British team, reinvigorated him, gave him a new focus both physically and mentally, and the impetus to return to a full, active life. ‘What I had to achieve in Invictus I did, getting back to my old self, knowing that I could be as good as a veteran as I was a serving officer in the Grenadiers.’
Jan said that her husband had a sense of purpose again. The Games were a massive boost for his state of mind and his everyday get up and go.
Hadfield’s modern claim to fame is that it was the fictional Royston Vasey in the television comedy The League of Gentlemen. Bernie is an officer, a gentleman, and a hero – and that’s no laughing matter!
Set up three years ago by Prince Harry, the Invictus Games is the only international adaptive sport event for injured active duty personnel and veterans wounded in the service of their country. More than 500 men and women from 17 allied nations took part in 11 sports over eight days in Toronto, Canada, last September, wowing spectators and television audiences with their determination, spirit, bravery, emotion and pride in competing for their countries.
Some 300 hopefuls applied for the British team for the Games. Of these, 90 wounded, injured or sick people came through a rigorous selection process based on the principle that it would be part of their recovery, combined with performance and commitment to training, and they were led by Bernie.
He applied by email but heard nothing for two months and assumed he had not been selected. Then his wife Jan phoned forces charity Help for Heroes to check whether his application had been received and they realised it was sitting in the spam mailbox! He was selected for the team and a week later he was informed he had been selected as UK Team Captain.
‘Getting the captaincy was the best bit,’ said Bernie. ‘For me it was all about the captaincy and my duty to carry out that role, rather than sport.
‘My journey in Invictus was to be able to carry out that captaincy and set a high standard for the team to succeed, which I did, and I’m very proud of it. The mind just focused and there was confidence and passion which enabled me to lead the team and become a better person, but also the pre blown-up Bernie.’
He took part in golf, wheelchair rugby, swimming and sitting volleyball, gaining two medals. ‘Medals were great, but it was not about them. It was about the journey of each individual re-directing their own life.’
Television viewers marvelled at the courage of competitors as cyclists crashed, wheelchairs clattered and overturned in addition to the sheer difficulties that some faced.
‘Our team was particularly competitive, which they would be from the UK – it’s in our nature,’ Bernie said.
With squaddie humour and opportunities for fun, people would be forgiven for thinking there may have been some high-jinks. ‘I was respected that much by the other 89 members I did not have one issue to deal with,’ said Bernie. ‘They were clearly informed of the standards required just as in the services and they stuck to them. This included no drinking alcohol while competing or while wearing the UK team kit with the Union flag on. Everyone was self-disciplined and behaved themselves while celebrating their personal victories.’
Bernie visited every UK Team training camp and saw every competitor as they went through their paces. He motivated them with words about the values and standards expected of them in representing their country. He said that with all the teams based in one hotel competitors used to swap badges, stories and pictures, and the camaraderie was infectious. ‘We were brothers and sisters in arms.’
Just as Bernie had captured viewers’ attention with his television confession before the Games, his interaction when Prince Harry presented him with a captain’s medal at the closing ceremony raised a laugh.
‘I made a point of standing to attention in front of Prince Harry,’ he said. As the team were chanting ‘Bernie, Bernie’ Prince Harry joked ‘Typical Grenadier’ causing Bernie to grin. ‘He stood to attention and then gave me a hug,’ Bernie added.
He said that the Prince had amazing energy, focus and drive. ‘His speeches and the whole concept of Invictus came from his heart. He has a real dry sense of humour which was infectious, not just for the UK Team but all the teams that he visited.’
Bernie’s advice for anyone thinking of applying for the next Invictus Games in Sydney, 2018 is – go for it. ‘Invictus is a great journey that will give you direction whether you are still in service or a veteran.’
So, would he like to be captain again? Bernie feels he has succeeded in his journey and he should let someone else have that experience. But 62 per cent of this year’s UK Team were new and if it is like that next year they will need someone with experience to lead them.
‘I want to go and my family says I should go, but my conscience says I should not be selfish and should let someone else go.’
He did manage to get Jan and his grown-up daughters Katie and Amy over to Toronto to see him compete, which he says was a big thank-you to them for what he had put them through during his years of service. Jan said: ‘We have always been proud of him, but now even more so.’