Taking cover from Taliban gunfire in a squalid irrigation ditch, blood oozing from the bullet wound in his knee, David Sneddon’s mind is consumed by one thought: “There’s no way I’m dying in this shithole.”
It was 2010. A commander in 1st Battalion, the Royal Scots Borderers, David was leading an early evening patrol in Nad-e Ali, a district of Helmand Province in Afghanistan. It was a routine security detail, one that he and his team had performed countless times before without incident. Until that night.
“It was a pleasant enough evening,” David recalls. “But just as we set off, my sniper went over on his ankle. I asked him if he was okay to carry on and he said he’d try to walk it off. We cracked on but half an hour later he pulled up again.”
Concerned, David radioed for a medic to come and take a look. The ten-man patrol stopped for around 30 minutes whilst the sniper was checked over. They were about to set off again when David realised that the atmosphere in the town had changed.
“Something wasn’t right,” he says. “You could just feel it. It was really quiet and there were no kids running around like usual. I got on the radio to my bosses and they told us to get back to camp as soon as possible, so I got the guys reorganised and told the first man to move off.”
That’s when it happened. Opportunist insurgents ambushed the men, raining down a hail of bullets in their direction.
“It’s what we call a ‘shoot and scoot’,” explains David. “They fired a couple of bursts and then scarpered. Of course, we weren’t to know that at the time. For all we knew, there was a team of them ready to flank us and go on a full attack.”
The man at the front of the patrol got shot through the ankle, whilst David took a bullet to his right knee. “I knew immediately what had happened,” he says. “It’s a weird sensation. I kept moving, though. Adrenaline kicked in. It’s fight or flight, isn’t it? So, I jumped into a ditch and called for air assistance.”
"I just wasn’t getting anywhere, so I told them to take my leg" - David Sneddon
Forty agonising minutes passed before Apache helicopters flew in to evacuate the men. “I spent most of that time wondering if this was it,” says David, “if I was going to go home to see my wife and my son again or if I was destined to cuff it here and now.” Fortunately, help arrived and the injured members of the patrol were taken to Camp Bastion. They spent a couple of days before being flown back to the UK, to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. Luckily, there were no fatalities. “We all got out of there alive,” says David. “That’s the most important thing.”
His ordeal, though, was far from over. The next two-and-a-half years were spent in and out of hospital. He developed a bad infection in his femur - “In part from the gunshot, in part from whatever stuff was in that ditch” - and ended up requiring a knee replacement. When that failed, he had to get another. When that too failed, he decided enough was enough.
“I just wasn’t getting anywhere, so I told them to take my leg,” he sighs. “It was a difficult decision. It literally kept me awake at night. But it was definitely the right one.”
In 2012, David’s right leg was amputated from just above the knee. In that moment, lying on the operating table, everything changed. “I’d been in the army for 18 years, having joined when I was 18,” he says. “I had spent half my life there. It was all I knew but, suddenly, it was over and I found myself having to learn to do a lot of things all over again, even simple things like walking.”
As he was fitted with a prosthetic limb soon thereafter, David could never have guessed that a new life in golf was in the horizon.
IT’S 1995 AND THE WORLD is reacting to news of the Srebrenica massacre. Under the command of General Ratko Mladic, units of the Bosnian and Serb Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), together with the so-called ‘Scorpions’ paramilitary unit from Serbia, have executed more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks in the town of Srebrenica, a small mountain town in easternmost Bosnia. It is the worst case of genocide on European soil since World War II.
Ges Almond is part of the British deployment that descends upon the devastated town in the immediate aftermath. An electronics engineer in the Royal Air Force, Ges also served in Northern Ireland and Cyprus but says it was his two tours of Bosnia - and, in particular, his visit to Srebrenica - that haunted him long after he returned home.
“Nothing affected me quite like that,” he recalls. “It was ethnic cleansing on probably the worst scale since the Holocaust.”
Remembering the deep-seated anger that he and his fellow troops were subjected to, he reveals: “On one occasion, we were in a supermarket and a little kid pulled a gun on us. Couldn’t have been more than five or six-years-old. Another time, two German soldiers were attacked late one night and had everything taken from them. Literally everything.
They were left naked and alone in the streets. They were lucky to escape with their lives. You didn’t have to look far to find a total stranger who hated you, no matter how much good you were trying to do.”
"Unless you were very careful, you next step could have been your last" - Ges Sneddon
Danger lurked around every corner. “There were land mines everywhere,” Ges adds. “There were areas you’d walk into without realising they were live minefields until you were in them. And when it snowed, it was awful. The snow would melt and wash the mines down into rivers and so on. Unless you were very careful, your next step could have been your last.”
He didn’t realise it at the time but those experiences were taking a profound toll on Ges’ mental health, so much so, in fact, that he developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“At the time, PTSD wasn’t something that people really knew that much about,” he says. “You’d come back from a tour of duty and you were always told to decompress, do something to re-balance your scales, if you like. That was about the extent of it.”
For Ges, that had been skiing. A qualified ski instructor, escaping to the slopes was the ‘ying’ to the ‘yang’ of the horrors of war he had witnessed at much too close quarters. It still wasn’t enough, though.
“I came back from two back-to-back tours of Bosnia and returned to work on the base,” he says. “I was living on my own in a flat in Watford and was working long shifts. I was effectively shutting myself off to the outside world.”
The pain of the conflicts he had seen continued to fester deep below the surface until, in September 2012, they burst out in terrifying fashion.
"I ended up outside Kings Cross station, sitting there on the ground, talking gibberish, smoking a cigar and with £1,000 cash hanging out my back pocket" - Ges Sneddon
“My team had just finished a big project at RAF Northolt and it was as I left the base and got to Northolt tube station that it all happened,” says Ges. “I was waiting on the platform. There was no-one else there and, as the train came into the station, I noticed it was empty. I could hear police sirens in the distance and I panicked. I don’t know why but I was convinced I was being chased.”
That’s when it all goes black. Ges can’t recall what happened over the next few hours but his movements were pieced together by the police who were able trace his steps through his Oyster travel card.
“It seems that I took this really weird route across London,” he says. “I was criss-crossing the city in the most random way, presumably because I still thought I was being followed. I ultimately ended up outside Kings Cross station, sitting there on the ground, talking gibberish, smoking a cigar and with £1,000 cash hanging out my back pocket. To this day, we still don’t know where that money came from.”
A British Transport police offer came to his aid and, after trying to calm him down, put him a taxi to go back to his flat in Watford.
“I lost it,” he says. “I got out of the taxi and went to Kings Cross police station. I wanted to hand myself in because I was convinced I’d done something wrong. We checked my bank account and I hadn’t withdrawn anything. How did I get the money? I was getting frantic.”
The police officers called paramedics who sedated Ges. “Apparently, my blood pressure was so high they were concerned I was going to flatline.”
From there, he was taken to Kings Cross Hospital where events took another strange turn.
AUGUST 26, 2003. It is Alex Hiles’ 16th birthday. Twelve days later, he enrols in the British army.
“It was all I ever wanted to do,” he recalls. “My dad and granddad had both been in the army and I was around 15 when I said to myself, ‘You know what? I’m going to do that, too’.”
He decided he wanted to join the parachute regiment - “I didn’t want to do it half-arsed” - but was initially rejected on account of being too young and, at nine stone, too light. Still, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Out of a platoon of 56 new recruits who started the training course, only 12 saw it through to the end. Alex was one of them. “A lot of people fell by the wayside,” he says. “I wasn’t going to let that be me.”
He was subsequently deployed on ops in Iraq and it was there, in January 2009, that an innocuous slip ended his career prematurely and changed his life forever.
“We were out on patrol. I stepped off something and just turned my ankle over,” he recalls. “At first, I thought I’d sprained it and I just tried to walk it off. It’s that army mentality: ‘I can walk, I’m fine’.”
Only he wasn’t fine. “I remember it being quite painful one time and taking a day off,” says Alex. “But, other than that, I just strapped it up and carried on.”
Over the next eight months, he continued to complete regular eight-kilometre patrols carrying heavy kit. Eventually, in August of that year, doctors established that his suspected sprained ankle was, in fact, a broken foot and that the continued wear and tear had done considerable damage.
"I was going to do a full career. Get to 60, get out, take the pension. I never had a contingency plan" - Alex Hiles
Alex recalls: “The doctors tried a fixation, which didn’t work. They then tried removing some bone but that didn’t work either.”
His only option was to have his ankle fused. And that meant the end of his army career.
“I was devastated,” he says. “Something so simple and silly cost me everything. Besides being medically discharged, I was also left unable to do things like running and so on. It basically stopped me being active.”
It’s not as though he had many options, however. “The doctors told me that an ankle replacement was off the cards because the technology wasn’t good enough so I’d need it re-done every ten years or so. It was either have it fused or elect to have it amputated and that just seemed too extreme to me. Fusion was my only option.”
Leaving the army hit Alex hard. “I was going to do a full career,” he says. “Get to 40, get out, take the pension - that’s all I ever wanted. I never had a contingency plan.”
He took a minimum wage job with a security company but worked his way up the ranks to the point that he now reports directly to the company’s CEO.
“It’s great,” he says. “It’s not what I’d planned to do but here I am.”
He has also found a sport he can play in spite of his injuries. “I never thought I’d hear myself say this,” he says, “but I’m absolutely addicted to golf.”
DAVID SNEDDON was medically discharged last year after completing his rehab. Five years of going up and down to Headley Court had taken its toll and he was ready to start the next phase of his life. It was during one of his trips to the Surrey hospital, however, that he was introduced to the On Course Foundation by a friend.
A charity that supports the recovery of wounded, injured and sick service personnel and veterans through golf, the OCF was the brainchild of John Simpson. The former manager of the likes of Bernhard Langer, Vijay Singh and Sir Nick Faldo, Simpson lost part of his left leg to polio when he was a boy and so could empathise with the struggles faced by the individuals he met during a visit to Headley Court in the summer of 2009.
Inspired by them and determined to help make a difference, he held a pilot golf skills session in September 2009. On July 2, 2010, the OCF was officially launched.
It organises regular events for its members across the UK and it was one such event at Kingsfield Golf Centre where David was introduced to its work.
“Straight away I knew it was something I could really get in to,” he says. “I hadn’t really played golf before then. I’d occasionally go to the range with a couple of mates, nothing serious, but after that first event, I went back to Kingsfield and got myself custom fitted for a set of clubs.”
"They've even adapted a couple of vehicles for me so that I can drive them" - David Sneddon
Golf isn’t just his new passion; it’s now also his job.
“I was asked by the OCF if I would consider working in the golf industry and I said I would,” he reveals. “I was happy to do anything so long as it was outside.” He had a trial as a greenkeeper at Kingsfield last year and ‘never left’.
“I work three days a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It’s brilliant. It’s something I’d never expected to be doing when I left the army.”
It’s not without his challenges. David admits that his disability can sometimes hamper him. “It’s hard work sometimes, especially with the injury. It’s tiring. I use more energy than anybody else but you just have to batter on.
“Sometimes my good leg gets really sore, so I have to take painkillers, but I do as much as I can. There’s nothing they’ve asked to me to do that I say I’ve said no to. I think that’s the old army mentality. You know, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it’. I don’t think that attitude ever leaves you. You just crack on.
“I do the bunkers, keep the place tidy and they’ve even adapted a couple of vehicles for me so that I can drive them. I’ve also started cutting the practice greens on the ride-on mower. They’ve shown me how to do that and it’s brilliant. I just love it and I love it at Kingsfield, too. You get treated like family and I that’s something I really appreciate.”
FOR ALEX, golf has become his ‘R&R’. He found about the OCF’s work through another charity and decided to attend one of its events.
He had played some golf when he was in his early teens but none since he joined the army. That event, though, was all it took to rekindle his love of the game.
“I joined a club, Frodsham, right after it and now I’m totally hooked,” he says. “I’ve managed to get down to 16 but I’m improving all the time. I don’t play a lot of competitive golf because I’m still relatively new to it but I’m consistently playing to handicap which is really satisfying.”
Content with the new career he has made for himself in the security industry, Alex says that he isn’t looking for employment through the OCF, just some diversion.
"You can show them that it’s all going to work out, that if I can get to this point, you can too" - Alex Hiles
“These events are where I come to recuperate, to relax and to enjoy myself,” he says. “When you leave the military, you lose something but the On Course Foundation helps you get it back. You get to spend time and play a great sport with like-minded people. It’s like getting back the second family you thought you’d lost when you left the forces.”
Getting into golf has been good for Alex in other ways, too. “It’s great for your confidence,” he says. “Plus, I’m much further on in the recovery process than some of the other guys who are maybe just coming to the OCF for the first time, so I get a buzz out of being able to pass that confidence on to them. You can show them that it’s all going to work out, that if I can get to this point, you can too. I find it quite rewarding. Again, it’s that whole army mentality of taking strength from one another. You’re stronger together than you are apart. That kind of thing. So, I guess I get two things out of it: personal enjoyment and the satisfaction of being able to help other people.”
GES ALMOND awakens in Kings Cross Hospital. Sitting opposite him in the ward is his old skiing boss, wearing a suit. His brother is pushing his mother into the room in a wheelchair with his nieces and one of his ex-girlfriends is also there. They’re all looking at him. Except they’re not. Ges is hallucinating.
It’s the immediate aftermath of his breakdown at Kings Cross railway station. Confused, he lashes out at the medical staff as they prepare him for a routine electrocardiogram. “I thought they were trying to electrocute me,” he says.
He is subsequently transferred, first to what he calls the ‘crazies wing’ in the Edith Cavell Hospital in Peterborough and then to Catterick in his native Yorkshire where his recovery goes well. Eighteen months after his breakdown, he, like David, Alex and thousands before him, is medically discharged from the army.
"It’s not just that I’m getting my life back - I’m getting a new life, a new interest, new friends, a new family" - Ges Sneddon
During his recovery, he finds out about the On Course Foundation. “I liked the sound of it from the off,” he says. “Aside from the opportunity to play golf, I really liked the structure of it. More than anything else I’ve seen, they’ve made it a family. I’ve been involved with it for about two years now and it’s just magic.”
Similar to many others, Ges had never played golf before becoming a member of the OCF but he says that the sport has helped him psychologically. “There’s a feel-good factor that comes with playing golf that I really enjoy,” he says. “I’m feeling better and it’s not just that I’m getting my life back - I’m getting a new life, a new interest, new friends, a new family. It’s wonderful.”
THE ON COURSE FOUNDATION now has almost 500 members and is growing all the time.
Alex Woolston, its operations manager, is a former military man himself. He left the army in 2013 after almost a decade as an officer in the Royal Artillery and has been with the OCF almost ever since.
“There’s no better sport for recovery than golf,” he says. “It’s all inclusive and it doesn’t matter how you play or what conditions you might have. There’s a place for everyone on the golf course.”
The OCF is funded mainly by donations from the golf community - captains’ days, charity tournaments and the like - as well as individual giving, corporate support, grants and trusts.
“We also recently launched our ‘Champion The Cause’ appeal,” explains Alex. It is a £2 per month direct debit donation scheme that anyone can sign up to in order to help the OCF continue to support its members, people like David, Ges and Alex.
“When you leave the army, you lose so much,” concludes Ges. “The OCF helps to give you some of that back. It’s a fabulous cause and I’m so grateful it exists.”
The On Course Foundation :: Find out more
For more information on the On Course Foundation, log-on to oncoursefoundation.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 8334 2010.