Warning: This story contains graphic imagery.
In 2006, Stu Pearson, a Scottish soldier in the British Army, stepped on a mine in Afghanistan. In the ensuing chaos, Pearson’s left leg was destroyed. He was on the battlefield for six hours before he was extracted to a military base, where doctors managed to clean the wound and save his life. The ordeal became a major part of the mythology surrounding the UK’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan, so much so that it was adapted into a feature film called Kajaki.
Pearson, now 44, remembers that day as both the worst of his life and as fundamental proof that even in the bleakest of disasters, it’s still possible to get out alive. That’s one of the many reasons he works as a casualty model today, leveraging his amputee status to train soldiers and medical workers about what to expect when things go horrifically wrong during a military operation.
Casualty Resources, the company Pearson works for, hires amputee actors like Pearson, who simulate traumatic injuries in the field of battle for training purposes. After Ollie Hancock, who founded the company in 2015, takes on a client — be it the UK’s Special Air Service or Germany’s Kommando Spezialkräfte — Pearson is flown out to the division’s training center, where he is drenched in grisly makeup to resemble what he looked like on that fateful day in Afghanistan. There, the medical trainees will get hands-on experience treating someone who’s lost a limb in a combat zone. Pearson’s job is to behave exactly how he did when he stepped on that mine. Though he knows he’ll never be able to fully prepare a battalion for the chaotic trauma of a military calamity, he gives them a far more realistic view than a one-legged mannequin could.
Pearson is unique in that he’s one of very few Casualty Resources employees who underwent amputation as a soldier. Most of the other actors, he says, found their way to the company after experiencing accidents or illnesses as civilians. He tells me he makes a few hundred dollars per gig, which is a nice bonus, but the bulk of his income is taken care of by his British government pension. Casualty modeling remains a niche industry (especially in the US), but Pearson hopes it catches on more — he believes that training with real-life amputees is invaluable in an era where terrorist attacks are becoming harder to predict in both their scope and location. We talked about that, as well as how he gets in character during a trauma simulation and what it’s like to make extra cash by reliving a truly awful afternoon, over and over again.
The following transcript of our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
First things first: Would you mind telling me what happened to you in Afghanistan that resulted in you losing your leg?
Basically, we were at Kajaki Dam, watching over the dam itself. [It’s] a hydroelectric dam that’s in charge of about, I think, 75 or 80 percent of the electricity within Helmand Province. So clearly that’s a strategic dam that they couldn’t let fall into the hands of the Taliban. We were based on the hilltops here, taking the high ground as such. The night before the incident, a UK sniper was on my hilltop. He’d noticed Taliban setting up an illegal roadblock south of our location. [We went to investigate.]
We thought about the chances of mines, because it’s the most heavily mined country in the world. So that’s always at the back of your mind. And we were thinking, “But there’s a goat herder that goes up and down there every day, and our guys have actually been down there setting up flares and stuff.” So I thought it must be okay, [it] must be safe, and then clearly it wasn’t.
So I stood on a mine, trying to rescue a friend that had also stood on a mine. It just escalated from there. A helicopter came in, and that set off a third mine beside me, which injured me further. And then one of the guys beside me got up and stood on another mine. He lost his left leg as well, and injured me and my friend, Mark Wright, further. Eventually Black Hawk helicopters were brought in for us from Kandahar, about an hour, hour-and-a-half away for us. And then once they came down, they extracted us out of there, and then they handed us over to the Chinook [helicopter] that had caused the incident earlier.
We got extracted back to Bastion [a British Army airbase in Afghanistan]. On the way there, my friend Mark Wright, he sadly passed away. For me, it was just straight into the operating theater for major surgery, where they then took my leg off above the knee and continued to do work on my right leg to save that, which thankfully they did.
Going back a bit, what made you want to join the military in the first place?
To be honest, I’m really not sure why I wanted to join. It was when I was 17 years old, [in] 1992. I mean, I had a rubbish job, I’d just got out of school the year previous, and I joined a Scottish regiment. I thought I’d wanted to transfer to the parachute regiment. I’d done the selection course, passed that, done the jumps course, had my parachute wings. I was taken into the parachute regiment in 1995 and stayed on there since.
I got medically discharged because of injuries in 2012, so I’d done just under 20 years.
How did you get linked up with work as a combat model after the amputation?
Well, basically, a company had started up called Amputees in Action, they started up [in] 2006 or 2007 or something like that, and that’s obviously when I became an amputee. Somebody gave me one of their business cards, so I got in touch with them and did some work with them. Mostly the same as what I do with Ollie [Hancock, director of Casualty Resources], playing an amputee in military exercises and stuff, and I just kind of [did] that for a couple of years, then somebody put me in touch with Ollie — he’d just set his company up — and it’s been really good. I’ve traveled all over the place with them. Mostly to the likes of Europe, Norway, and Germany. I’ve had a few jobs out in the States.
Combat simulation is a very niche job. How quickly did you discover the industry after you lost your leg? When did you find out that you could leverage your status as an amputee into an occupation?
I’m not too sure. I mean, my thoughts behind being an amputee straight away was, “Right, fucking get on with it.” You could say your “what-ifs” ‘til the cows come home, but it’s never coming back.
Then, once the job became available just a few years ago, I thought I might actually like it because it’s such great training for the troops and paramedics. The makeup girls, they make it look so real. It’s brilliant training. I mean, I never had this when I was serving, obviously, because that was before any of this was set up.
Soldiers will have to deal with an amputee, whether it be [in] Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria or wherever. They think back to the training they have done with us and say, “Right, what did I do here? With Stu?” I can use my experience to act like my incident just happened in front of them.
Run me through what this job is actually like. When you book an appointment with a military regiment or emergency services training program, what does that day look like for you?
Normally we’re treated really good. There’ll be a hired car waiting for us, to take us to the hotel or to the Army camp or whatever, and they’ll put us up there. The client will directly get involved and talk to the makeup girls. They’ll say, “Right, these are the injuries we want, how much time do you need?” For example, let’s say the exercise starts at 9 am and we are 10 minutes from the base, the makeup girls go, “Right, I need two hours.” Everything just falls into place. The makeup girls, they know what they are doing. We’ll put on the clothes they brought for us, so that everything’s ready for when the makeup girls want to start putting the makeup on us for the injuries, and then we can then just crack on from there.
What do you think a combat medic or an emergency services professional is going to learn from working with a real amputee, rather than with a dummy?
It’s because it’s so realistic, and it’s an actual person you’re talking to. I mean, there’s no way anyone can actually say that dealing with an actual person is the same as dealing with a bloomin’ dummy. It’s totally different. They probably won’t see anything as realistic as that until an incident [happens] to them or their colleagues on tour.
I’ve got pictures of when I was brought straight into Bastion hospital, straight into the operating theater. The surgeon took pictures of me. And I got ahold of them a few years ago, and the makeup girls, they fucking love them. Because that’s their job, to make us look like that. So they love those fucking pictures.
So when you’re doing a training simulation, you’re laying there with all of your makeup on. Are you acting? Do you try to behave the way you did when you were at Kajaki?
I’ll ask my director of staff, and I’ll say, “Right, how do you want me to play this? When do you want me to struggle breathing?” If they kick my foot twice, whatever, that’s the signal that I need to act unconscious, totally unresponsive, stuff like that. So it’s acting in that way, and [also] because when I actually got blown up, it genuinely did not hurt. I heard the bang, and I started screaming anyway because I just thought I was done for, but it didn’t hurt. But I got morphine out straight away and stabbed myself [with it] because I knew it would hurt.
That’s something that a lot of the soldiers, when they’re actually treating us, will actually forget about: painkillers. So if I know I’ve got lots of soldiers above me that are really nervous and they don’t really know what they’re doing, I’ll maybe give them a little bit of a hand by going, “Oh, fucking hell, give me some morphine, give me some.” So I’ll play it that way a lot of the time.
Is it ever weird in between simulations, when you have all of your makeup on and are just kinda hanging out with the guys?
I don’t notice, but they’ll look at me differently because it’s weird to see us walking about the place as if nothing has happened to us. Out in Germany, where we were with the KSK [a German special forces division], they’ll normally do a barbecue for us at the end of the training week, so they’re up for a good beer. We’ll have a good chat with them about how things are going.
From the outside looking in, it feels like you’re reliving the worst day of your life when you go on these exercises. Is that difficult for you, from a PTSD perspective?
I mean, it is weird, and a lot of people say to me, “Do you get flashbacks?” But I don’t. I mean, it was clearly the worst day ever, but I’m lucky that I can deal with it because I know there’s plenty [of] other guys that can’t deal with it. There was a movie made about the incident, but a lot of the guys that were in the same platoon as Mark, who died, they can’t watch it. They cannot watch the film at all. My best mate, he lives now in New Zealand, I sent him the Blu-ray disc. He cannot watch it. I’m just lucky that I’ve not been affected badly. I feel that I can actually go and. like you say, relive it again.
There actually isn’t a lot of military guys that work with us. There’s only, I would say, within [the] Casualty Resources pool of amputees, I’d say there’s probably about three of us that have been injured in Afghanistan. The rest [are] from mostly civilian incidents. Lost limbs on motorbikes and stuff. So yeah, I’m just lucky, I suppose, that it’s not affected me.
Is this your full-time job?
No, I mean, my main income I get is a pension from the military. And I’ve got a few houses that I rent out around here as well. But I mean, I do pick up, I’d say, maybe about eight or nine days a month doing it for Ollie, something like that. It’s only a few days a month every couple of weeks. Probably a couple hundred dollars a day.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to anyone who’s in a situation where someone has just lost a limb?
I think one of the [things] that a lot of people don’t think about is the elevation of the limb. It’s a leg that’s been blown off, get that tourniquet on — obviously that’s the No. 1 priority — but then try to get the limb elevated, and keep it elevated to reduce the bleeding. And then, again, it’s the pain management of it as well. It’s okay to give them painkillers or morphine or whatever, fentanyl. Give them it because as soon as you [do], that patient’s going to stop screaming, because they are in so much pain. You can calm down a bit because you’ve given them painkillers, they’re not screaming now. Then you can think about what you need to do next for the casualty.
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