Ben was home and wasn’t dead. That was enough for me
A mother’s heart is laid on the line when her soldier son is sent to a war zone. Diane Dernie knows that more than most. Her Para son Ben Parkinson, critically injured by a land mine, was sent home from Afghanistan to die.But medics didn’t reckon on the 22-year-old soldier’s strength and determination – or that of his mother, by his side throughout his remarkable fight for life.This is Diane’s story:
Another knock at the door.
It must be the window-cleaner again. Diane Dernie bustled into the hallway, then stopped dead in her tracks.
Through the glass, she could see a man in uniform. This was the moment she had dreaded ever since her son Ben joined the Paras at the age of 16.
Now he was 22, with three tours of duty in some of the most dangerous corners of the world – and due to come home, safe and sound, in just 12 days’ time.
She stood, rooted to the spot, screaming. Husband Andy, Ben’s much loved step-father, had to take the news Diane was refusing to hear from a solemn-faced Army personnel officer: Ben had “very serious” leg, chest and head injuries.
“I kept telling him he was wrong; it couldn’t be true because Ben was safe in the military base, Camp Bastion.
“He had called me from there only two days before, complaining about not being out in the thick of it.”
But Ben’s call to his mother had actually come from an operational base in a known trouble spot. He had lied to stop her from worrying.
As reality sank in, relatives ran to Andy and Diane’s Doncaster home to comfort each other and wait for news.
Eventually a phone call told them his legs had been amputated above the knee. Everyone but his mother reeled in shock; all she cared about was that he was still alive. Told to prepare to fly to Ben at a European hospital the next morning, she spent the night pacing, crying and searching vainly for her passport.
But as day broke, the situation changed. Ben’s injuries had been deemed too severe for him to recover. He was to be flown home to die with his family at Selly Oak, the military hospital in Birmingham.
Diane, now 53, remembers racing down a maze of hospital corridors, of finding intensive care and impatiently gowning up, desperate to see her boy.
And then of finding him, broken, bleeding; shattered.
His wounds had been left open for fear suturing would cause infection. A gaping hole in his stomach was stuffed with wadding. His handsome face was so black and swollen it was unrecognisable. The sheets on the bed were flat from his thighs down. This was what was left of her handsome, vital, 6ft 4ins son.
She noticed a rosary was pinned to his pillow; he had been given his last rites.
“He was hooked up to every monitor you could imagine. Things were bleeping. A hammock of bandage slung under his nose was catching fluid oozing from his brain. But he was home and he wasn’t dead. That was enough for me.”
That night, though as Ben went for surgery, fear overcame her. She told Andy: I think he will die tonight and we will never, ever talk about it again.”
Ben had 37 injuries; the most any soldier serving in Afghanistan had lived through. His spleen had ruptured, his lungs had collapsed. Every rib was shattered, his back was broken in four places, his jaw and his fingers were smashed. And he had suffered a catastrophic brain injury. But incredibly, he came through surgery. He hovered between life and death for weeks and as months passed, Diane sat by his bedside, watching his wounds healing and the drips and tubes being taken away, and hoping he would regain consciousness, even though consultants had warned her they believed Ben’s brain injury was so massive, he would never be the same man again.
Undeterred, she maintained her daily vigil. It would be four months before she would see a glimmer of hope – but then came a blow so devastating, Diane had to face her darkest hour...
From peacemaker to fighting soldier
Ben was just four when he decided he wanted to be a soldier.
His mum, and dad Chris Parkinson, simply laughed. But the older he got, the more his boyhood ambition moved nearer to reality. And his parents’ smiles grew into anxiety.
“My opposition was out of fear, absolutely,” says Diane. By nature, Ben was a peacemaker. He was always the one to step in and take the blame so that his twin brother Danny and elder brother Philip didn’t get into trouble.
“I wanted to make him realise that joining the Army wasn’t all about running around with a group of mates with backpacks on,” she says.
In January 2002, four months after the 9-11 terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre, to his mother’s anguish, Ben was sent to Iraq. After serving in Iraq, Lance Bombadier Parkinson volunteered first for a seven-month winter tour in Kosovo, then a stint in Afghanistan with G Battery Gun group.
While in Afghanistan he was able to phone home every week and write letters from base camp Bastion.
He came home for four days a bronzed, bearded hunk of physical perfection who took his mother’s breath away.
On September 10 2006, a few weeks after his return to Afghanistan, Ben called one morning. “He said: ‘Well, I’m back in Bastion, having a boring time cleaning the guns. My tour’s finished and I’ll be home in a fortnight.’
“I was over the moon. He’d survived yet another war zone,” she says. “It was over.”
On September 12 Ben was the rear gunner in a WIMIK landrover when the rear axle detonated a huge 30-year-old anti-tank mine.
He took the full force of the blast. Shrapnel punched a hole in his chest and the gun turret had mangled his legs.
And hours later, thousands of miles away in Doncaster, his mum was refusing to answer the door.