‘Blown-up, shot and paralysed, but I’m proud to have been a battlefield nurse’ 

TONY WILLIAMS is a former Corporal within the QARANC who suffered horrific, life-changing injuries while tending to casualties in Afghanistan. This is his remarkable story, including how a leg brace funded by the Association is help him to lead a full life again.
As the son of a sergeant major, and growing up around soldiers, it was perhaps inevitable that Tony Williams would answer the call to serve. But it was the childhood trauma of his mother’s cancer, and the experience of playing sport at boarding school, where the mantra was ‘never leave a man behind’ that set him on a journey into nursing.

Tony recalls, “I was at boarding school in Dover, when my mum got breast cancer. I was barely 11 years old, the second eldest of six, and with my dad being away on exercise I ended up taking on a bigger position within the family. I was at a very rugby-focused school where the culture was, if someone got hurt, you pick them up, and this drove that principle within me. I’m pleased to say that my mum made a full recovery.”

After A levels, Tony decided on a professional career in nursing. He joined the Army in 2003, attending Army Training Regiment Winchester and the Royal College for Defence Medicine. About this time, he was viciously attacked in a taxi by a robber who attempted to steal his wallet, and on seeing a military ID card “panicked” and plunged a knife he was holding into Tony’s chest. “He came off worse,” says Tony, “I managed to push him out of the taxi window.” Thankfully the wound was superficial, but the incident gave Tony the confidence to know he could perform in tough situations and do what was required to win.


He was posted to Northern Ireland and then on to the Cheshire Regiment where he was eventually deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 to work alongside the British Army.

Tony recalls, “The casualty rate was going up and we were spread around to support the Marines and the Gurkhas. I went with my company to a place called Babaji. I was really far forward and because I had done my battles course and advanced trauma life support, unusually I was able to patrol with the infantry.”

Tony had an important job running the medical hub in the base, as well as doing valuable outreach work engaging in offering health advice to the local population as part of British attempts to win hearts and minds. He was coming back from a market which had been blown up, a few short weeks earlier, by the Taliban when the patrol was engaged by the enemy, and, bizarrely, the Afghan National Police as well, who got confused about who was attacking. It took the British about 45 minutes to overcome the enemy threat with one casualty, a friend of Tony’s who suffered a bullet ricochet into his lip.

“I fired off a couple of rounds and, as I did a press-up to get back on my feet a bullet landed just underneath my armpit – it missed luckily. That set the tone for the rest of the tour, it was a daily occurrence after that,” said Tony.

Early one morning a week later, a village elder from a pro-Taliban compound stepped on an IED and ended up as a high double amputee. Tony answered the call of ‘Medics to the back gate’ and saw the casualty being carried into the base wrapped in a blanket. He recognised the man as someone he had spoken to previously, and though he was rapidly fading, Tony and colleagues moved heaven and earth to keep the man alive.

“Just as I was about to do a rescue breath, one of the other infantry lads pressed down on his chest and I got a whole inhale of burnt flesh,” said Tony, adding that this had later played a part in his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The village elder was taken to Camp Bastion where unfortunately he still died, but the community had seen the efforts that the British Army had put in to save him, and it was appreciated.

A week later Tony’s patrol was in a village hunting for an ammo stash when there was a shout of “grenade”. He dived headfirst into an irrigation ditch, but the grenade landed under him and was thrown a couple of metres. He ended up with ‘frag’ embedded in his forehead and nerve damage. A colleague was also injured but, overall, the patrol was left feeling “incredibly lucky” to have avoided more serious injury or fatalities.

Tony was treated at Camp Bastion and had an opportunity at this point to return to the UK. He chose to stay as he knew the Army was short-staffed on medics and he was “more determined than ever” to continue and support his colleagues. He turned 26 a fortnight later and shortly after that he deployed southwards with the company to hold a checkpoint. It was to prove a life-changing experience. “We were at war there from the get-go,” recalls Tony, who soon found himself in a ditch and pinned down by enemy fire for three solid hours.

The day after that, as rations began to deplete, the soldiers went out to secure supply routes and were again repeatedly engaged by the enemy again. Having already treated a casualty early that morning, Tony was immediately back out on another patrol. With temperatures quickly rising, they got in a firefight, and he saw one of the commanders about 20 metres away was not moving. Tony got to him and found he had been shot in the head but was still breathing.

There was a flash, now, from the opposite direction, where they had been attacked in the morning. Tony’s friend, a Lance Corporal who was assisting was shot in the head and died immediately. It was clear they were under attack and flanked. Tony pushed the first casualty into a recovery position and dived for the Lance Corporal, only to take a bullet in his left shoulder. “If I hadn’t had my arm raised the trajectory of the bullet would have hit my neck,” he said, recalling the fear they were being targeted by a sharpshooter.  

Whilst being treated Tony looked around at the junior soldiers – barely a 20-year-old among them. He took charge of my own treatment, remembering the BATLS course he went on in pre-deployment which emphasised the importance of keeping a casualty engaged. Now whilst in a casualty holding area awaiting casevac, he looked around and realised he was the only medic on the battlefield, and the nearest casualty was about five metres away.

“I thought I couldn’t just sit there and that I could still direct care.”

He handed his rifle to a colleague and ran back out. He got to the first, nearest, casualty and quickly triaged him again. A new patrol came to their aid and Tony advanced onto them and began briefing the new commander and medic of the situation. Suddenly he was suddenly hit twice more in the helmet.

“All of a sudden we were in a 360 ambush, and they have got elevated positions, we were getting shot at every angle,” said Tony. “Eight minutes had gone, I looked over and the casualty was still lying on his back, unable to get turned and aware that others was watching in horror as he laid there. I had to get to him and roll him into the ditch if he was to have any chance of surviving, if any. As I pushed him my body armour rose.”

Tony felt catastrophic pain in his abdomen. Suddenly he was paralysed and trying to pull himself into the ditch. He could still feel the bullets falling short and the dirt spraying in his face. Eventually, somebody dragged him clear, and he remembers pickpocketing that soldier for his medical pouch to apply pressure to his wounds.
The skirmish took place over 18 minutes but felt like longer to Tony, who was eventually recovered to Camp Bastion to be stabilised before being put on a flight back to the UK.

“I was worried about my two friends and desperately trying to give a handover. I remember the feeling like, life was leaving my body and then I woke up in Birmingham a week later from a medically-induced coma,” Tony recalls.

This was the first day of the rest of Tony’s life. It started with the prognosis he received in hospital, that he would “never walk again and had a less than five percent chance of ever having kids.” He woke to hear that he needed 52 units of blood, 18 hours of surgery, a colostomy bag in place and over 56 staples holding the wounds together. The next day he learned the person he had been sharing a tent with, in Afghanistan, had just been killed.


As the weeks passed, Tony began to feel like his identity had been stripped from him. His career path was now uncertain, his body was battered, his nerves felt like they were “on fire” and he had been left an invalid. “It was unbearable,” he said.

Tony had his family around him, but his thoughts became dark, and he didn’t want to be alive at this point. He began pushing everyone away and feeling guilty for not being able to save his friends. He could not accept that he would be in a wheelchair for life and kept getting out of bed to test his limits, much to the annoyance of the nurses as he kept falling. Eventually, it was recognised that Tony was recovering by making use of his legs.

During this time, Tony admits he “really, really struggled” and felt like he was “drowning”. Eventually, though, his legs grew stronger and by Christmas, some seven months later, Tony was able to walk out of a spinal unit on a Zimmer frame, albeit at a slow pace, his left leg still paralysed, but with bladder control restored.

Life began to look up. The colostomy was eventually removed, Tony had met a partner and his daughter was born in 2014.

He said, “I remember her being born on Valentine’s Day and thinking that ‘I could do more, and I wanted to do more’ and a year and 2 days later my second daughter was born. I became more determined than ever to push my limits of being able to walk, to be able to be more of a Dad.”

Tony was being held back by his leg braces which would fail if he walked a distance, and on one occasion snapped as he was carrying his daughter across the road. “I managed to catch my daughter but then I remember looking up and seeing this on-coming car.” Both were okay but Tony realised his leg braces were not adequate for the complex injury he was carrying, and he needed better support. Tony was given an opportunity to get into karting which he seized and ended up becoming semi-professional.


However, at the same time, Tony was frustrated with his situation. The technology and options were so much better for amputees. “My knee would become severely painful from ill-fitting leg braces” that he even considered he would potentially be more mobile and pain-free if he had his leg removed. Amputation seemed the way forward.

After exhausting all options with leg braces with the NHS, Tony ended up reaching out to the charity Help for Heroes and to Duane ‘Fletch’ Fletcher from QARANC, who had been the lead trauma nurse when Tony was shot. Fletch was able to secure the Association funding for Tony to fit him with a bespoke Momentum Brace, which is top of the range leg brace and immediately has been transformative.

He explained, “Already I’m walking tall, I’m straight when I’m walking, I’m faster and my pain levels have really subsided. I’m able to stand for ages now, which is huge – this is so much more advanced. There are no words that I can say to show the gratitude that I feel. I wish I had this 10 years ago, it’s had huge implications.”

Tony, who now lives in St Helens, is a parent governor at his daughter’s school and is looking into setting up a small business. He has also got engaged. Reflecting on his journey, Tony is positive about his time in service, even though he went through an incredibly traumatic experience.


“Two friends died, and I know their families struggle still,” he said, “But I'm proud of what I did that day and what I have managed to achieve afterwards. I only learned recently that the intelligence that I gathered helped us identify IEDs so I left Afghanistan thinking I hadn’t saved anybody, but actually I may have helped save a load of other guys from having my injuries or worse.

He adds, “I hope that my story inspires others to join the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps. I’m really proud of my service and if I had a chance to rewind 12 years, I’d still do it all again.”

Tony’s story was told to Gazette editor Steve Bax.

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