Former soldier Greg Dunnings cheated death and almost lost his leg after suffering horrific injuries in a blast in Afghanistan.
He tells Aasma Day how he has worked his way back to recovery and is now competing in Strongest Man competitions.
It is a moment which is forever engraved in the mind of Greg Dunnings and one that still torments him every day.
Holding one end of a stretcher carrying one of his colleagues injured after stepping on an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), Greg’s sergeant John Amer ordered Greg to swap sides with him.
Just seconds later, Sgt Amer stood directly on a second IED which blew off both his legs and he later died as a result of his injuries.
The soldier on the stretcher, who had lost his right foot in the first explosion, lost both his legs in the second blast.
However, despite standing just inches away, Coldstream Guardsman Greg Dunnings survived the ordeal, despite being blown clear by the blast as shrapnel ripped through his legs.
Greg, now 23, had turned 19 just four days before the roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan on November 30, 2009.
Greg, who lives in Preston city centre, recalls: “When you are out on patrol, you walk in single file because of the threat of Improvised Explosive Devices.
“I was about the sixth man back and the third guy in the line stepped on an IED and it went off, blowing off his right leg below the knee.
“The lads patched him up and put him on a stretcher and my platoon sergeant called me forward to help carry the stretcher.
“I picked up the back left hand side of the stretcher and we picked him off the ground.
“But for some reason, Sergeant John Amer told us to put him back down and said me and him should swap sides. To this day, I will never know why he wanted us to swap places.
“We had literally walked five or 10 metres when Sergeant John Amer stepped on a second IED.”
Greg, who is 6ft 7ins tall, weighed in excess of 30 stones with all the kit he was carrying, but despite this, he was sent flying 20ft outwards and 10ft up by the force of the blast.
Greg says: “I remember hearing the bang and it was one of the loudest things I have ever heard in my life.
“Everything happened so quickly, I didn’t have time to react or think.
“I don’t remember flying through the air. It was a bit like remembering the punch but not remembering falling to the ground.”
As Greg hit the ground and came to, there was so much dust that he could not even see his hand in front of his face. He couldn’t see his legs but experienced so much pain, he was convinced he had lost his leg.
Greg explains: “It was the worst pain I have ever felt in my life and it is indescribable. I honestly thought I had lost my leg.
“But so much was happening, I didn’t have time to get sad about it.
“After the dust settled, I remember looking down and seeing both my legs and counting: ‘One, two’ and thinking: ‘Thank God’. It was a massive sense of relief.
“I was covered in blood and bits of my leg that had been badly blown by the blast.
“At that point, I got shouted at to self help.
“Your training just kicks in. I pulled out some dressings and put them on my legs to try and stop the bleeding.
“The injuries to my leg were so bad, I touched my own bone and that really hurt.
“At the time I didn’t know it, but I had shattered my left knee. I also had three rocks the size of iPhones embedded into my right leg.
“I had to bandage around them to keep them in my leg just in case they were plugging an artery. If I had pulled them out, it would have been like pulling the plug out of a sink and I would have bled to death.
“While all this was going on, we were getting fired at by the Taliban.”
One of Greg’s friends helped him stand on his leg with the rocks in it and he hopped to where the helicopters were and was flown to Camp Bastion.
Greg underwent multiple defragmentation surgery to have the rocks and debris pulled out of his leg.
It was after he had undergone a couple of surgeries that Greg was told that his sergeant John Amer had died as a result of his injuries.
Greg admits: “That hit me really hard.
“John Amer was a top bloke, a family man and a cracking soldier as well.
“I will never know why he made me swap places with him in holding the stretcher.
“There is not a day that goes by without me thinking about what happened that day.
“I still think now that it should have been me instead of him. I had picked up that side of the stretcher first and he had a wife and kid.
“In a way, it feels like he sacrificed himself and saved me. I was very upset by what happened and thought about it a lot. When I was in hospital the padre – the army chaplain – told me that: ‘If it’s not your time, it is not your time’ and that helped me deal with the guilt I felt at surviving when he didn’t.”
One of Greg’s legs was injured so badly, all the flesh had been ripped off and the only thing holding it in place was the bone.
He was in Bastion for less than 24 hours before being flown to Selly Oak military hospital in Birmingham.
Greg only found out afterwards that medics were fully expecting his leg to be amputated and had been making plans to remove it.
However, at Birmingham, he underwent multiple operations after one of the surgeons thought he might be able to do something with Greg’s leg without the need to amputate. Greg explains: “He cut off half my calf muscle and put it where my flesh used to be and then did a skin graft over the top.
“Then he put two screws in my knee to hold it together.”
Greg did not leave his hospital bed for three weeks and was in hospital for another week after that before being discharged on New Year’s Eve 2009.
Smiling, Greg recalls: “I went straight to a house party in Fulwood in my wheelchair after coming out of hospital.”
Greg then did multiple six-week stints at Headley Court, the defence medical rehabilitation centre.
Greg underwent physiotherapy, plastic surgery and treatment and had to re-learn everything from how to walk again to climbing stairs.
Greg was confined to a wheelchair for three months and was on crutches for another five months.
Greg says: “It was a long and gradual process and, in total, it took me two years to get to a reasonable level of fitness.
“It was the hardest two years of my life. But I was determined I wasn’t going to let my injuries beat me.”
Greg vowed to return to the frontline and at first he returned to the Army doing different jobs, including recruiting, before achieving his aim and returning to his battalion to carry on with his machine gunning duties.
Greg says: “I slotted straight back into it. But my knees were bad and I struggled.
“I tried to crack on with my job but I knew my knees could not keep up with the demand I was putting on them.
“Eventually, in July this year, I was medically discharged from the Army.
“I felt sad that my injuries had cut my Army career short as there were still so many things I wanted to do.
“But at the same time, it was nice to come home and I knew I had had an absolutely amazing five-and-a-half years.
“The Army was absolutely awesome to me. They did nothing but help me out.
“The treatment I received from point of injury up until now has been absolutely first class. I cannot knock it in the slightest.”
Greg, who knew he wanted to join the Army from a young age, says he has always been a big lad and he actually tried to join the Army at 16, but was told he was too heavy for his height.
However, at 18, he was allowed to join after an appointment established that he was not fat – just big.
Since leaving the Army, Greg, who has always enjoyed going to the gym and working out, realised he was a lot stronger than most people.
After training for a while, Greg began entering Strongest Man competitions with a lot of success.
Greg has done events including walking with 250kg in each hand, deadlifting 200kg off the floor and carrying a 100kg log press.
He can also deadlift cars from the ground.
Greg first performed in Chorley’s Strongest Man competition and has since come second in Bolton’s Strongest Man, second in Doncaster’s Strongest Man and he won Great Harwood’s Strongest Man.
Greg is also an ambassador for Excel Strength Games in July 2015 and is sponsored by Our Local Heroes Foundation based in Bamber Bridge. He is also in the process of trying to organise Preston’s Strongest Man and Blackpool’s Strongest Man contests.
He has signed up for the Northern qualifier for UK’s Strongest Man next year.
Greg says: “I have been very lucky. I managed to deal with what I experienced in the Army myself and it did not affect me.
“However, there were plenty of opportunities and avenues for me to go and see someone if something was troubling me.
“Charities like Our Local Heroes Foundation do a fantastic job and are there to help people.
“Some people have a stigma about admitting they need help and are worried they will be seen as weak. It is a pride thing.”
Greg, who has been with girlfriend Emma Croshill for two-and-a-half years, is now studying a sports coaching degree at the University of Central Lancashire as he wants to become a PE teacher.
Greg says he is very grateful for the way life has turned out for him as he knows things could have been very different.
He says: “When I consider that they were going to cut my leg off and I am now deadlifting cars, it is unbelievable.
“My ambition is now to become the UK’s Strongest Man in a few years’ time and, if I am good enough, to hopefully go on to compete in the World’s Strongest Man.”