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True meaning of bravery from the real heroes

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Eddie Chaloner has been sharing his medical expertise and experience of landmine injuries with a film maker to bring the story of the bravery and courage of soldiers to the big screen. The Lancashire born surgeon tells what life is like on the frontline.

Stealthily making their way into a hospital in war-torn Kosovo, Eddie Chaloner and the team of soldiers he was with were hit by the stench of decomposing bodies.

The soldiers had arrived in Kosovo in 1999 just as the Serbs had left and were tasked with sorting out the hospital in Prestina.

Eddie, now 49, who grew up in Leyland remembers: “There was a mortuary in the hospital which had around 40 bodies.

“The Americans had bombed the power station so there was no electricity, air conditioning or refrigeration. It was the middle of summer and about 35 degrees. The bodies had been there about three weeks.

“You could smell the stench from more than 100 metres away and we used respirators in the building.

“When we got inside the mortuary, the place was covered in flies and the floor was carpeted in maggots.

“A lot of the bodies were of people who had been murdered. We had to remove them and preserve the remains as far as possible to try and identify them.

“The police came to see if they could use any of the evidence for war crimes and some of the relatives came to find remains of loved ones so they could bury them.”

Despite having faced such a horrific sight, Eddie is matter of fact and says he and the team had no choice but to deal with it practically.

Eddie explains: “I had never seen anything like that before and it is something you do not forget. But it was part of our job and we cleaned the place up. That’s what I like about soldiers. They are very resilient and just get on with hard things like that.”

Eddie, was born at Sharoe Green Hospital in Preston and brought up in Leyland by his mum and dad. However, when he was just seven, his dad died and his mum Betty brought up Eddie and his sister Judith, who is now a GP in Preston.

Eddie says he cannot remember wanting to be anything other than a doctor and the first time he remembers voicing his ambition was at aged six after going into hospital to have his tonsils out.

Laughingly, he recalls: “After my hospital stay, I told my mum I wanted to be a doctor and when she asked me why, I told her it was because it looked like the nurses did all the work!

“I remember when I was only about eight persuading one of my friends who lived in a rural area to get me a rabbit that his dad had shot. I took the dead rabbit home and dissected it. Even though I was very young, I was not at all squeamish and I was very interested in anatomy.

“I remember my mum was very cross when she discovered what I had done with the dead rabbit – not because I had carried out the dissection but because I had used her best knife to do it!”

Eddie initially went to school at St Mary’s Catholic Primary School in Leyland. However, after his dad died, he and his sister Judith went to St Peter and Paul Primary School in Mawdesley where his mum was a teacher.

Eddie went on to a Catholic boarding school in Carlisle called Austin Friars which was run by Augustine Monks and following that, he went to Runshaw College in Leyland.

Eddie says: “I knew I wanted to study medicine and had a place at Liverpool.

“However, I did the exam for Oxford entrance at Runshaw College and, much to my surprise, passed it so I ended up reading medicine at Oxford for six years.”

During his last year of medical school in 1988, Eddie went to South Africa for his elective and it was then he decided he wanted to specialise in surgery.

He remembers: “It was before Apartheid ended. Mandela was still in jail and South Africa was a very different place. I was working in Pietermaritzburg and at the time, there was a bit of a war going on between the two factions of the Zulus.

“I spent time working in the emergency surgery department and loved it. I was dealing with patients who had been the victims of stabbings, burns and car crashes.

“I liked the immediacy of it and enjoyed the variety of it all. You never quite knew what was going to come through the door next and you had to make decisions quickly and act rapidly. Like most 24-year-old men, I loved the action and found it exciting. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a surgeon.”

Eddie finished his medical degree and worked in the UK for two years before going back to South Africa where he got a job on the trauma unit in Johannesburg.

His work entailed working on the helicopter and carrying out emergency surgery, dealing with the victims of all types of violence and many patients with major gunshot wounds.

Eddie recalls: “When I first got there, it was much more intense than anything I had dealt with in the UK and I was a bit apprehensive and anxious about whether I could do it. I remember having sweaty hands and a dry mouth at first, but after a few weeks, that disappeared and I knew I was in control and could do it.

“The first step of controlling a crisis is being in control of yourself. That is when you can think clearly and tell other people what to do.

“You have to be able to direct other people and you cannot do that if you are flapping. The only way to get that control is to have a lot of exposure to what you are going to be dealing with.”

Eddie worked with The HALO Trust, a landmine charity and he went to Afghanistan, Mozambique, Angola, Sri Lanka and Iraq with the organisation.

He worked on the medical logistics of mine clearance and was involved with the medical training of staff as well as operating on patients at local hospitals, either alongside other aid agencies or with local clinicians.

Eddie says: “I went for my first trip to Afghanistan in 1992 with The HALO Trust which was a tiny venture in those days.

“There were three British men running the programme in Afghanistan and a couple of weeks before I went out there, two of them were killed in a mine clearing tank along with an Afghan driver. But this did not put me off going out as I did not go into it blindly and knew it was a dangerous place to go.

“There was a Civil War going on and I knew being killed was a possibility.”

Eddie joined 144 Parachute Squadron, the reserve squadron of 23 Parachute Field Ambulance, and provided medical support to the airborne brigade.

During his service Eddie was deployed to Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo. Eddie was also a member of the NATO expert panel on blast protection for four years.

Eddie recalls: “While I was working in Afghanistan with The HALO Trust, I saw two men in separate incidents blown up right in front of me while they were clearing a landmine.”

While on an active operation in Rwanda, Eddie was involved in helping people on a refugee camp.

He remembers: “There were a lot of displaced people living in temporary accommodation and it was very basic with shelters made with twigs and plastic sheeting.

“We sorted out the water and feeding. There were a lot of malnourished children. We did a vaccination programme and improved the shelter and sanitisation.

“We also had a healthcare facility where we treated people with infections.”

While working at the refugee camp in Rwanda, a child who had blown himself up with a grenade was bought in.

Eddie explains: “The boy was about 10. He had found this grenade, been playing with it and it had gone off.

“He was very badly injured and bleeding internally.

“The most serious part of his injury was major fragmentation to his abdomen.

“We got him to a local hospital where there were no surgeons, but we took him to an operating theatre in there.

“One of my colleagues anaesthetised him and I operated on him. I stopped the bleeding and there were several perforations to his bowel which I fixed.

“I was quite a junior surgeon at the time and this was a real test for me – it was very extreme. To be honest, because of the extent of this boy’s injuries, I thought he would die.

“After the surgery, there was nowhere for him to be looked after and he was just dumped on the floor of the hospital. But surprisingly, he did not die and got better. I was very pleased. It was a good result.”

The army were initially keen to promote Eddie’s success in saving the boy’s life and the Ministry of Defence public relations took some photos and told him they were planning to put out a press release about it. However, Eddie says they later got back in touch and told him they weren’t going to put it out because he didn’t look like an army doctor was supposed to.

Smiling ruefully, Eddie says: “I looked a bit like a delinquent schoolboy at the time and was ginger and speccy. I did not fit in with what they were looking for. I think they were after a George Clooney!”

Among the many landmine injured people that Eddie treated was Rob Copsey from the Royal Engineers who lost his leg in a landmine blast. He now runs marathons and does skydives and works with injured soldiers.

Eddie left the army in 2002 when he got married to Anna Riggs, an oncologist. However, he says: “You never leave the army. In your head, you are always in the army.”

Eddie is now a leading varicose veins consultant in London and divides his time between NHS work and private work.

Eddie, who has a 10-year-old and an eight-year-old daughter, says that while he loved his “action man” role, he does not miss it.

He explains: “The instant I had my children, I did not want to do it any more. Something seemed to switch in my brain. Before my girls were born, I was always keen on doing something dangerous and exciting.

“But suddenly, I just did not feel the need to do it any more. It was not because I was frightened.”

Eddie became involved in sharing his medical expertise and experience of landmine injuries in the making of the film Kajaki by Pukka Films. The feature length film will recount the last hours in the life of paratrooper Cpl Mark Wright in the Afghan area of Kajaki.

The 27-year-old was leading an attempt to rescue a three man patrol injured by landmines when he was fatally wounded by a blast in 2006. The budget for the film is £1.2m and has been largely raised through private equity. Producers also launched a crowd funding campaign.

The aim of getting the film on to the big screen is to pay tribute to the bravery of a new generation of soldiers and to remind the public of the sacrifices soldiers have made and to generate income for military charities.

Eddie explains: “I got involved with the film through an organisation called Pegasus Network which is for former paratroopers. The film makers got in touch with the Pegasus Network and I donated some funds and told them I would be happy to share my expertise.

“The film makers want the film to be really authentic and are not after a Hollywood blockbuster but to show the public what soldiers do.

“I helped by telling them what happens when someone gets blown up and how you treat them all the way through their injuries.

“Filming starts in February in Jordan and it is planned for release in November.

“The film is a great project and I have met the director and am convinced he is doing it for the right reasons. Soldiers are not heroes or supermen. They are ordinary blokes put in difficult situations and when in these situations, they frequently do extraordinary things.

“If people want to know what bravery means, we hope they will find out by watching this film.”

 

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