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Making the most of what he's got – the inspirational words and deeds of Ben McBean

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 06, 2012

  • Ben McBean at home in the Royal William Yard, Plymouth Picture: Sean Hernon

  • Clockwise from left: Prince Harry greets Ben McBean at HMS Drake, Devonport, where the prince launched an adventure training expedition and challenged Ben to climb to the top of a new climbing wall – he did; Marine McBean in uniform before he was injured; with fiancee Sophie Williams; and at his home in the Royal William Yard

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Ben McBean is making coffee in the galley kitchen in his flat in Plymouth, in what has to be the closest thing the city has to a penthouse address.

The flat in the Royal William Yard, which the former Royal Marine owns, and shares with his fiancee Sophie Williams, a fitness trainer, is huge, with massive windows and high ceilings. The furniture – a sofa, a round table, a TV and a few framed pictures on a sideboard – feel like they can never really fill the space.

On the wall in the kitchen, divided off to make a more liveable space, there is a map, and pictures of soldiers in a desert. And a metal badge attached tells the name of a regiment "40 Commando". Handwritten above it is "Kajaki", the name of the area.

This montage – of a young Marine's tour of duty in the desert in southern Afghanistan – is the reason why it takes Ben, a fit young man of 25, two trips from kitchen work surface to dining table to deliver our coffee mugs.

He's only got one hand, because his left arm ends in a stump above where the elbow should be (he does have a false arm, but it is heavy so he takes it off when he gets home). And he walks with a slight limb because his trendy jeans conceal a false limb which slips over the thigh stump of his right leg.

"I'm in pain all the time," he says matter-of-factly. "My real leg goes down into it, like a sock, so when I walk my leg is constantly smacking a bit of metal. Then all the skin rubs off, and that is when I have dramas."

He also suffers from something called phantom pain, "where you can feel your limbs that aren't there. I can still move all my fingers that aren't there".

Ben is pretty chipper really, considering all that he has been through since that sweltering day in the Afghan desert back in February 2008 when, on a routine patrol, he stepped on a Taliban mine. An active lad, who grew up in Plymouth where, as a teenager he loved sport, he'd signed up for the Royal Marines because he fancied a life of adventure.

"The only bad day I had in the Forces was the day I got blown up," he says. "Everything else was amazing."

But that moment brought his career, and dreams of joining Special Forces, to an abrupt end.

"I thought 'I'm dead, I'm literally dead'. Then I thought 'I'm not dead yet, so maybe I wasn't supposed to die', so I started crawling around a bit. The lads just came and found us in this massive dust cloud and dragged us all out. I remember my bone just bouncing off the ground and I was like 'ahhhhhh, stop f***ing dragging me.'

"I just through 'my career's over'. I was gutted, more for my mum and dad because they said 'we don't want you to go to war' and I was like 'I'll be fine, don't worry about me', and then I almost came back in a bodybag."

Ben was flown back to Blighty on an army transporter plane, and as luck would have it Prince Harry was also on board. At the time, Ben, lapsing in and out a coma, was understandably not that bothered.

"I had some officer saying 'Just to let you know...' and I was like 'I don't really care mate, I'm dying'," he laughs ruefully. "Afterwards, when it had all settled down, it was quite cool. It is quite different, isn't it?"

The media, needless to say, loved it, particularly after the titian-haired prince referred to Ben, and fellow injured marine Mark Ormrod, as "heroes". And since then, Harry and Ben have often been mentioned in the same breath or sentence, when fundraising for the many other soldiers badly injured in Afghanistan.

"I wouldn't say we are bezzie mates, but I do speak to him from time to time, and he does write letters and stuff," he says.

"He sent me a "get well" card when I was ill a few months ago. We don't go out boozing together, but if I saw him I'd recognise him and he'd recognise me and we'd have a chat."

Prince Harry sent Ben some massive cans of Stella Artois after he dared him to climb to the top of the climbing wall on a visit to the new rehabilitation centre for injured troops at HMS Drake in Plymouth. "They were massive – the size of that chair – I still drank them, though". And then Ben got an invite to the Wills and Kate royal wedding in April last year.

"Me and my dad went," he laughs. "I wouldn't call it 'the royal wedding' exactly, because we were at the very very back, I had my little pass which I've still got, it was basically like being at the festival."

Ben has become a bit of a media darling, which is irksome sometimes – "I get rung up and asked 'what do you think about Europe'... I'm like 'how should I bloody know?'" – but he finds it useful too, in his self-appointed role as spokesman for "the lads" who have lost limbs in the conflict in Afghanistan, numbering 246 in the most recent official figures.

And this summer he found himself on TV, on the BBC current affairs programme Newsnight, criticising how Help for Heroes, the charity set up to help soldiers of these current conflicts of which he is patron and for which he has run the London marathon, twice, on his false leg, spends its money.

Ben still seems sore at the conflict with Help for Heroes founder Bryn Parry, but he insists that he made a valid point, in questioning why the thousands of pounds raised from the public to help soldiers is being used to pay for MoD buildings, albeit ones providing state-of-the-art rehabilitation for soldiers like Ben.

His point is that once amputee soldiers leave the Forces, as he did in April 2010 after more than two years' rehabilitation at the Army centre Headley Court in Surrey, you can't easily access these facilities.

"When you are a civilian like me, you've got to go to a board meeting, you've got to fill out this paperwork to prove that your were in the force, just to get back in and use the goddamn gym. It is a drama," he says.

"You can get in, but it is a nightmare, and lads don't like to complain all the time, they would rather go 'well I just won't use it then'. I think, 'why don't you build one on civilian street where anyone can use it?'"

He also spoke out on the programme about the charity's refusal to fund prosthetic limbs for soldiers like him. Ben bought his own prosthetic arm privately, at a cost of £7,000, because, he says, it was the only way he was going to get a realistic looking limb "one that wasn't white, for a start".

"I am sure that everyone who donates to Help for Heroes assumes that if anyone asks for help they get it," says Ben. "They advertise 'we support any injured soldier' and then when an injured soldier says 'I need a new limb' they say 'sorry mate, we can't do that'."

At the time, Help for Heroes' founder Bryn Parry's response was that "every single serviceman who needs a prosthetic limb is getting it through the MoD and we're not in the business of providing prosthetic limbs".

"But surprise, surprise, now after what I said, all of a sudden there actually is a system that has just come out [from Help for Heroes] about helping amputees get limbs," says Ben.

Ben insists that when he speaks out, he is not thinking of himself, but of other amputee or injured soldiers less financially sorted than he is. Ben got £322,000 from the MoD in compensation for his injuries, and has invested it wisely, taking advice from his dad, a builder who built up a property business, to start a property empire of his own in Plymouth, starting with a massive Georgian house, with 25 bedrooms as well as rats, beside the city's train station.

He has since bought a number of flats, and does some of the work himself. "I can sweep the floor, rip up the carpet, and clean the place up," he says. "Obviously I get other people to do all the major things, and just pay them.

"As a soldier I was on £800 a month, and I was always skint. And suddenly I had £320,000. I was like 'oh my God! Holiday! Flash car! Watch! Clothes! Going out drinking!' My dad said 'just spend ten grand, get that out of your system'. So I did. And then he said 'now think about your future with the rest of it, because you aren't going to be getting money like this again unless you win the lottery'.

As well as running his property business he also has a sideline going as a motivational speaker, addressing audiences of bankers.

"I just say it how it is," he says. "I say make the most of what you've got, just get on with it because I've been injured and I don't think my life is that bad. I've got a good life, I've got a nice flat, a girlfriend, brilliant family. I've got a much better life than tramps living on the streets."

All the same, losing your arm and leg must have got him down at one point? Yes, he says, when he first woke up in that hospital bed in Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham, where all the badly injured troops are cared for.

"I wanted to die, because I was 20 years old, I was thinking about girls, because my 21st birthday was in a few days' time, and I was in intensive care, not in Afghanistan having a laugh, not going out to party, and I thought 'what's the point?' But then, you know, my little niece was born, and things started looking up."

At the time Ben couldn't even sit up in bed. But he found something to focus on – training for the London Marathon.

"I saw it on TV, that was my Paralympics if you know what I mean," he says."I just thought if I work towards this, at least it shows the doctors and my mum and dad that I'm not giving up. I obviously proved a lot of the doctors right, because you get put in a box sometimes, they say 'you can't do this, you can't do that'. And I just turned up on the day and beat over 11,000 people."

Ben's gone on to do many other active feats for charity – including the London Marathon a second time, and walking to Everest Base Camp, in a Forces expedition of which Prince Harry is patron.

His most recent epic was the Three Peaks Challenge, climbing Ben Nevis in Scotland, Snowdon in Snowdonia and Scafell Pike in the Lake District (they missed out Snowdon, after delays due to the weather).

Ben is pretty happy with his life – and particularly now that he's with Sophie, also 25, who he was at school with in Plymouth.

"She was in some of my classes but in school I wasn't interested in girls, just sport."

Much later, after Ben was invalided out of the Marines and back in his home city, the pair bumped into each other. "We've never been on a date as such, we just got together," he says.

The couple are now engaged, although Ben says there are no plans to get married quite yet.

"It is quite cool because I didn't think I was every going to meet a girl after this – why would you want to go out with someone with one arm and one leg kind of thing?

"I think if it was the other way around, if I met a girl with one arm and one leg, well... I wouldn't downgrade her exactly, but perhaps I'd think about her differently. But yeah, it turns out that not everyone is as shallow as me."

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