Stuart Pearson was always aware of the dangers posed by anti personnel mines, the former army sergeant and paratrooper just never thought he would fall victim to one.
It’s estimated that there are in excess of 100 million land mines in locations spread across the globe. Iraq and Afghanistan rank among the worst affected areas.
Land mines don’t discriminate either. Designed primarily to incapacitate, men, women and children have all fallen victim, with little or no warning after stepping on a detonator buried some 15cm below the earth’s surface.
It’s a terrifying prospect highlighted on numerous occasions in the world of film, most recently in Armie Hammer’s new film, Mine, which tells the story of one man’s attempt to escape from an unmarked land mine, unscathed, after stepping on a detonator.
Stuart remembers his own experience of being marooned in an unmarked minefield in Helmand Province well. It was the day that his life changed forever.
“I stood on a mine on September 6, 2006 and lost my left leg above the knee,” he tells loaded.
“A series of other mines were detonated in the same location and I received numerous injuries to my right leg which surgeons thought at the time, would result in me losing that leg as well. Thankfully, the medical staff managed to save it dodgy as it is.”
Pearson’s story began late the previous day when his unit spotted Taliban fighters setting up an illegal checkpoint near the town of Kijaki.
The problem was that the forces were around two-and-a-half kilometres away, which was too far for the unit to snipe the group.
“We talked about calling an airstrike but the collateral damage would have been too much for that with a lot of civilians in the area,” Pearson explains.
“It would have been the same with any other sort of ordinance like rockets or mortar fire. The collateral damage would have been very bad.”
One of the group spotted a bridge around 700 metres nearer to the Taliban checkpoint and headed off to scout the location with Pearson remaining in his position.
Minutes later, he heard a couple of loud blasts and saw black smoke rising from the nearby location.
“Throughout the five months I had already been in Afghanistan, I had grown familiar with the sound of rockets and mortars but this blast had a very distinctive sound. So I pretty much knew then that it was a mine,” he said.
“I made my way down to the location with a couple of soldiers from my hill and stopped short of where the casualty was.”
One of Pearson’s fellow soldiers lay, stricken, on the ground with his right leg gone at ankle height. He was already being treated by medics with a tourniquet and was receiving morphine.
“I radioed up to the other hill to tell them what was happening so they could forward on the details to our main camp. Shortly after that, I radioed for a helicopter with a winch. There was no way we could have landed one in that area given the potential for more mines. That got denied though.”
More soldiers and medics arrived before Pearson again put in a request for a helicopter which was again denied – the detonation of a mine had meant the area simply wasn’t safe enough. It was up to Pearson and the troops on the ground to change that.
“I knew that we had to get the area checked out in order for the extraction to happen so I began checking the ground with a couple of guys,” he said.
“As they were checking a second area, I walked back to the first. It was then that I stood on a mine myself.”
Stuart immediately knew what had happened.
“I was blown up slightly and turned around. I knew I had done damage, so I lifted my leg to see what damage was done. I could see my leg was gone at boot height because my lace was still attached to the remainder of my left leg.”
It was then that his military training kicked in.
“It was just instinctive. Almost like I had done it before. I just sat up after it had happened and told nobody to move, because it pretty much confirmed it then that it was a minefield.”
“I got a tourniquet out and another soldier came over and helped me. Although it genuinely didn’t hurt at the time, I knew it wouldn’t be long until it did, so I got some morphine out and jabbed that into myself.”
To this day, Stuart isn’t sure how he was able to stay so calm.
“I just had faith someone would come and get me. It’s when you start flapping that things can go wrong. Although, obviously, things did go wrong then it could have been a lot worse.”
It was, understandably, a shock.
“You never think it will happen to you. Even when I saw my mate hurt, I still thought even then that it would just never happen to me. You do mine awareness training and you always just think it won’t happen to you.”
It was only the next day, when the RAF came to blow up the remaining mines in the area that Pearson got a sense of just how much worse it could have been if he had panicked and hadn’t followed his training with unmarked mines found throughout the area.
Even after losing a limb, Pearson was determined not to let his injury get the better of him.
“There were certain things I was determined to do, but it was always one thing at a time. Just little achievements. Every day.”
“One of the things I remember saying to myself in my hospital bed was that I was going to get back up skydiving again and sure enough I did.”
An avid sky diver with some 140 jumps to his name before the losing his leg, he’s gone on to take part in over 100 sky dives, often as part of BLESMA the limbless veterans’ charity.
There’s a real sense that Pearson understands how lucky he is to be alive, given the situation he was once in, and is determined to live every day.
“You have to think about what you have got, not what you haven’t. I’ve still got my leg and my body and I have to make use of it,” he says.
“I’m not Michael J. Fox. I can’t go back in time and change what happened. It’s just the way you have to be.”
Pearson is keen to highlight that, like Hammer in Mine, he was at least fortunate enough to have been trained to deal with this kind of situation – others are not so lucky.
On average, around 70 people a day falling victim to land mines with the majority being civilians – something Stuart is keen to highlight.
“It’s not just the soldiers that have to deal with this on a regular basis, put also the public that live in these countries. It’s important to remember them as well.”
Mine is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and to digitally download.