British soldier Phil Packer was told a year ago that he would never walk again, but on Saturday he finished the London Marathon.
He completed the race 13 days after it started, walking on crutches for two miles a day — the most his doctor would allow — in order to raise money for charity. Flanked by cheering soldiers and supporters, an obviously emotional Packer had defied medical opinion after his lower spine was badly injured in the aftermath of a rocket attack on his base in Basra, Iraq, in February 2008. The attack sent a vehicle rolling down a sand bank, striking Packer “head on” and dragging him under it. The 36-year-old was left with no feeling or motor control in his legs, and no bladder or bowel control. Watch more on soldier’s battle » Packer was in hospital for more than four months and it was then he decided to complete three challenges to help raise £1 million ($1.5 million) for Help for Heroes, a British charity supporting wounded veterans. In February he rowed the English Channel, and next month he plans to climb El Capitan — one of America’s iconic mountaineering sites — a 3,000-foot vertical rock formation in California. Packer, who was met at the marathon finish line by British Olympian Steve Redgrave, said that he was £370,000 ($558,000) short of his goal but he was hoping for more donations.
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Dressed in a white charity T-shirt and desert fatigues, he was emotional. “It’s looking after our injured servicemen,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that can’t do this, so this is for them.” Earlier this week he told CNN that he “wanted to be able to move on in life.” “I wanted to do something for other personnel who had been wounded. “I don’t want to be helped. I want to help other people. Not that I’m not grateful, but… you know… I really want to be able to help people.” He attributed being back on his feet to “fantastic medical support” from Britain’s Ministry of Defense and National Health Service. “So many improvements are being made” in medicine, he said. “It’s an evolving process.” Watch more on Phil Packer » However, he did not know whether he would be able to walk without crutches. “I gotta see how it goes. Take every improvement as it comes.” Packer is far from alone; the six-year war in Iraq has disabled thousands of people. Britain’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to a CNN question about how many service members had been permanently disabled in the war. In the United States, the Congressional Research Service reported in March that 31,131 troops had been wounded in Iraq. That figure is for battlefield injuries; many more veterans were later diagnosed with some sort of traumatic brain injury, but it is difficult to determine an exact number because of how the data is kept. It’s not clear how many of the injuries are permanent because the Department of Veterans’ Affairs does not classify some disabilities that way until 10 years after the injury, said Ryan Gallucci of AmVets, a veterans’ service organization. Statistics for Iraqis are even harder to come by. Estimates of the number of wounded range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Iraq’s Ministry of Heath says one in four wounded Iraqis have lost at least one limb. Britain’s Prince Charles is among those who have expressed support for Packer. “You are, if I may say so, a credit to the Royal Military Police and to the British Army as a whole,” the heir to the British throne wrote in a letter posted on Packer’s Web site, http://www.philpacker.com/. Packer is still on active duty and intends to remain so. “I’ve still got a career in the armed forces. I’m going to go back to it.” He has 16 years of service under his belt, including time as an enlisted man before he went to officer training school and is, he noted with a rueful laugh, 20 years from retirement. He’s been asked to be an ambassador for Prince Charles’ charity, the Prince’s Trust, which focuses on helping young people, in addition to his life in what he calls “the disability community.”
After his two-week effort, Packer was asked whether he would be relaxing in a warm bath. No, he said, “I’m going to have a drink.” And with that, the army major lifted a shot glass and toasted his supporters.