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Super Human

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Afghanistan. 2010. A British soldier steps on a bomb and becomes one of 72 British service personnel to suffer amputations that year, making it one of the worst years for such injuries in the conflict.

That soldier was a young captain in the Royal Marines, and he lost both legs and his right arm instantaneously. His story of recovery – both mental and physical – is one of quite mind-blowing resilience.

Jon White, born and brought up in Devon, knew he was destined for the Marines from the tender age of 14. Now 35, his journey has taken him on a path he could never have imagined when he first wandered around a careers fair and became fixated on a career in the military. Since losing his limbs, he has bought a plot of land near Tiverton and built an impressive house that featured on Grand Designs; he has two small children; he’s met dozens of heroes and public figures; and he now runs leadership programmes for organisations as diverse as private equity companies, Travis Perkins and the Ministry of Defence (MoD). He has competed in a marathon 125-mile non-stop kayak race from Devizes to Westminster (he’s now in training for the same race this year), and he’s currently studying for a Master’s in Psychology at Exeter University.

Photo: Matt Austin

Resilience is a big theme in Jon’s leadership courses and has obviously been a vital part of who he is today. Unpacking where resilience comes from is a tricky game. As any parent knows, resilience is a character trait. One child might be just more able to cope with the vagaries of life than another. Upbringing, of course, adds to that, and then there are the conscious efforts through adulthood – and certainly through military training – that hone those skills. Jon clearly has that innate resilience, although he would be hard-pushed to identify its source. He thinks back to his childhood: “My dad instilled some of the really important foundations. That sense of perseverance, preparation, doing things properly,” he says. “Whether it be sitting out the full five hours of a fishing match in the most horrendous conditions, or whether it was going through the process of learning to rock climb as an 11-year-old, he taught me – not in an explicit way, in a very implicit way – how to assess risk and make good choices.”

The Marines is notoriously tough to join, and Jon’s father – a Royal Marine himself – initially tried to discourage him from joining up straight after school. “Part of it was worry that it’s not a very easy thing to get into,” explains Jon. “It doesn’t take much – only a small injury or face not fitting at the right time...” And he was right to be concerned. At 17, when he took the assessment, Jon didn’t get in. He was gutted, to put it mildly. “It ripped me apart for a few months. I was 17 and I was turned away. For the previous three years, that had been my only focus, and they said, ‘No, we don’t want you’.” But, after an initial wobble, the rejection made him more determined to try again. A year later, he was accepted. Looking for challenge and a wider experience, he spent two years based in Scotland on a mountain training course that took him from the icy wastes of Norway to the granite cliffs of West Cornwall.

The Marines, particularly, would have helped to build a bedrock of resilience, but the training alone is no guarantee that someone wouldn’t experience the debilitating effects of trauma. Some of Jon’s colleagues who had been through the same training suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after their time in Afghanistan, he says. But, amazingly given the extent of his injuries, the psychologist who did Jon’s initial assessment found that he didn’t present with any need for psychological intervention.

Having always been interested in the workings of the mind, and with a few years of leadership training under his belt, Jon has spent quite some time analysing his own ability to overcome crises. He still doesn’t have all the answers, however: “I don’t know what that magic combination is,” he admits. “The author Carole Pemberton talks about resilience being a mix of genetic heritage, experiences, and support networks and relationships. Can I work out what made mine the perfect combination? No. But I’ve had testing but not devastating experiences all through my life. I think my parents in their own ways have both got a level of resilience. And I was very lucky to have a good support network around me. I have a sister. I had a girlfriend at the time when I was injured, who eventually I married.”

His analytical mind led him to start to question his career in the Marines shortly before his tour in Afghanistan. In his mid-20s, he was beginning to get frustrated with some of the rigid structures in the military: “Sometimes, people get obsessed by the systems, and they don’t understand that outside of a mechanical system, bureaucratic process systems are just human inventions,” he says. “They absolutely can be changed, adjusted, broken. And it’s about knowing who is needed to make the right decisions to do that.” But, having considered his options – particularly leaving the Forces without a degree and having to start a civilian career from the ground up – he thought it was safer, career-wise, to stay in the Marines for another 10 years. And then his unit was sent out on that fateful second tour in Afghanistan.

The story of the explosion is intense – and a fascinating insight into the body’s ability to keep going in spite of massive trauma. Back in the summer of 2010, Jon and his patrol were walking a ridgeline above the patrol base. On the other side of the ridge was a Taliban stronghold, and Jon’s troop carried out regular patrols to ensure that a neighbouring farm had not been compromised. The Marines were widely spaced out in single file, with the leader checking for mines with a metal detector. Jon’s last memory of walking was looking up at the ridgeline, then: “Everything went into slow motion. I’m looking up at this grey dawn sky, flying through the air and I thought to myself: ‘Oh God, it’s me.’ Then I hit the floor.” He’d been blown some distance away, and shouted to his patrol that he’d been hit, then began to radio a report to base. He says he felt no pain but was vaguely aware that he had lost his feet. Trying to reach his pack for his tourniquets, he realised his right arm was non-functioning. At some point, he passed out. The reports across the airwaves were not good – loss of limbs, major blood loss, sporadic loss of consciousness... Amazingly, though, he came to as the quad bike arrived to take him back to the base. “I was giving a running commentary on where we were and what was going on. Trying to make a few jokes... I was desperate to hold on to consciousness and I thought, ‘I’ve got to keep talking to let the guys know I’m OK and keep them calm.’ There’s also a little bit of bravado that takes over...”

It was 45 minutes from when the explosion occurred to the arrival of the helicopter. During that time, bar a few minutes, he was conscious and had been given no painkillers – they couldn’t administer morphine to a casualty who had previously lost consciousness. It was only when Jon overheard a radio conversation that implied the helicopter would be delayed that panic began to set in, and the pain hit him. “I don’t really know how to describe it. I have this vague memory of a deep, burning throbbing in my legs. I remember that was the point when I started crying. I couldn’t bear the pain any more. I just needed to be put to sleep.” Once on the helicopter, he was given anaesthetic: “I have this memory of my head rolling onto my right shoulder and looking out of a porthole window and seeing the ground move as the helicopter took off. Then my eyes just shut.” He woke up in hospital in Birmingham three days later, already, somehow, having come to terms with the loss of his limbs.

Jon says he feels no regret about what happened to him. For anyone – particularly a physically active man in his 20s – the loss of limbs could have been devastating. His career in the military was effectively over. It would have been entirely forgivable if he lay in hospital wishing he hadn’t made some of the decisions that led to his situation, but he didn’t. “Early on,” he says, “I had to actively not think about negative stuff. Not let it creep in, and very soon that became habit and nature.” Staying focused on his goals was key. Within a handful of weeks, he had achieved the physical requirements to be discharged, and then his focus became on learning to walk, deciding to build a house, planning his marathon kayak race... not to mention having two children and starting a new career.

After a brief foray into construction work after the success of the Grand Designs-featured house (“There were parts of the house where I was literally in there building it, just because I knew what it was I wanted”), Jon began to do leadership talks and courses, using his experiences in military systems and more specifically his resilience, to help create projects for the corporate sector as well as the MoD and the NHS.

Among many inspiring individuals Jon has met since leaving the Marines – from generals to CEOs – spending 45 minutes with Kofi Annan was one of the most insightful. Jon says that Kofi emphasised the importance of leadership in every layer of society. “The person that decides to take a summer break to teach Maths and English to underprivileged kids – that’s important leadership, right there. The person who’s running this café with however many employees, who have potentially got families and other relationships and all of those things – that’s important. You’re having an effect on people.”

Empathy is key to the way he helps his clients to appreciate that good leadership and good business is dependent on understanding the human impact of your decisions and actions. “I talk about this a lot. Trying to get people to recognise the impact they’re having. We’re so often blind to it. It’s not just about the numbers.” Of course, there’s no guarantee that any of this will change the culture of the businesses he is sent to help. “Some of it will have an effect, and some of it won’t. And you know what, some of their decisions might still be the same, but it’s just creating that extra level of awareness that things are being thought through. Instead of just thinking about this in one dimension.”

Jon is fired up about his latest project with The Royal Foundation. The wide-ranging charity has been set up by The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (William
and Kate) and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Harry and Meghan) with a broad remit to change mindsets throughout society – from mental health in schools to supporting army veterans and from community projects to global conservation. As part of the Heads Together mental health campaign, The Royal Foundation is introducing a programme in the MoD. Jon has been asked to help design the course. “We are trying to create an educational campaign to change the conversation around mental health and get people to think about it as something they can engage with on a day-to-day basis proactively and improve and work on. Rather than just being about mental illness,” Jon explains, “it’s recognising that there is a spectrum and we all sit somewhere on the spectrum and move about on it, and that it’s not just binary (you’re OK or you’re not). It’s not something you should only be talking about when things go wrong. It’s about asking yourself: ‘How can I be a little bit better?’”

The impact of that bomb nine years ago could not have been further from its intended goal. Instead of devastation and destruction, its impact has been one of far-reaching positivity, thanks to Jon’s extraordinary determination to recover and his passionate drive to help others.