By Bejay Browne
THE FIRST double amputee to race without hand controls is determined to make his mark in motorsport and inspire others, disabled or not.
David Birrell, 29,from Fife in Scotland, was blown up by an IED while on patrol as a corporal in the Black Watch in Helmand in Afghanistan in 2010.
He has just holidayed in Cyprus with his family, thanks to the efforts of a Paphos based non-profit organisation, MARCH (Military And Retired Cyprus Holidays for Heroes), which was set up in 2010, and operates holidays for injured or traumatised military serving or non-serving personnel.
Whilst in Paphos, he spoke to the Sunday Mail of his hopes to inspire others and of living in Cyprus permanently in the future. He also explained how his survival instinct and love for his family remain his constant motivation.
“My interpreter failed to follow behind me and instead walked a few paces to the left in an area which I hadn’t yet cleared. He stepped on a hidden pressure pad which detonated an IED. He was blown to bits, and I lost my legs,” he said, recounting the day his life changed forever.
At first he thought he had broken his back.
“I turned myself over, not knowing my legs were bad and I took my helmet off and put it under my back as it was so sore and to keep my back straight. As the dust settled, that’s when I saw my legs.”
This is when Birrell’s survival instinct kicked in. He applied tourniquets to his right leg and administered himself morphine. But he had lost his left leg and his right leg was amputated a year and a half later.
Birrell is the first double amputee in the UK to get a positive DVLA assessment without any hand adaptions. He secured third place overall in the Max5 championship last year and is now being sponsored by a company called MAC tools.
He is also helped by the Help For Heroes supported charity called Mission Motorsport.
“Racing is my therapy, nothing sorts my head out like racing and I’m always thinking three corners ahead.”
Birrell recently drove at the opening ceremony, (although he wasn’t competing) at the Invictus games, and took Prince Harry out in a Jaguar.
“Prince Harry was brilliant. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s been on the ground. He’s a proper soldier, he’s military though and though.”
Growing up on a Scottish council estate, Birrell always had a love of racing cars but its high costs meant he found his way into boxing instead. A self-confessed adrenaline junky, he joined the army as an adult.
“My kids kept me going through all of the tough times. I’m racing now for them. I want my kids to grow up and say, ‘David Birrell that’s my dad’. I’m trying to get people off their seat and go and do something, because being disabled doesn’t have to slow you down.”
Birrell has three children, sons, Anthony, nine, and Lennon, seven, from a previous relationship and three-year-old Talula with partner of five years, Zoe, an ex-military nurse whom he met after his accident. Birrell said without Zoe’s support, his life could’ve been very different.
Zoe was a military nurse at Headley court, a defence medical rehabilitation unit in the UK, but was soon due to be deployed.
“We were best friends at first, David wasn’t my patient; I just met him there and he made me laugh,” she said.
When the relationship came to light, Zoe received a three year promotion ban and later became pregnant with daughter Talula. Whilst she was on maternity leave, Birrell had to have his other leg amputated, so the new mum signed off to look after him and their new baby.
Birrell had more than one hundred operations, as medics attempted to save his right leg, for a year and a half.
“You could see David’s foot dying. It was like a dead person’s foot. In the end they amputated it two months before our daughter was born. I realised that I couldn’t be deployed for six months for example, and leave them,” said Zoe.
The couple both suffer from PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder – and Zoe encouraged her partner to take up racing cars as she knew it had been his lifelong dream.
“He ended up teaching himself to drive with prosthetics and he was really good.”
He was introduced by Help the Heroes to Mission Motorsport, which helps rehabilitate ex-servicemen.
Birrell’s prosthetic legs are bog standard ones provided by the military, no electronics, he explains, and made of carbon fibre and aluminium. They are heavy and quite cumbersome, but his race legs, which he designed himself, are much lighter.
“He doesn’t realise how good he is with them, not everyone is like that. He has even been rock climbing in Cyprus,” Zoe said.
Birrell races almost every other weekend in the UK and dreams of getting into the British touring car championship and being the first double amputee to race.
But, obviously, the couple’s life isn’t always easy.
“Sometimes he can be awful, but I know that it’s because he’s in pain and what he’s facing, it’s frustrating for both of us. You have to stay positive. I don’t feel sorry for him and tell him to shake it off and get out of bed,” said Zoe.
He added: “I’m so lucky to have her support, she has helped me tremendously. Humour is so important to get you through the hard times.”
The couple have also faced abuse and intolerance on occasions and say that an experience in Spain was one of the worst
“We were refused entry into a restaurant in Marbella in Spain, as staff thought my condition was disgusting and told us to go away. But later on, we were in a cocktail bar and met a lovely couple and spent the evening with them. They left before us and had paid our tab.”
The pair would ideally like to be based to Cyprus in the future, if Birrell could secure sponsorship from an airline such as Easyjet, and say that along with the fine weather, access to a swimming pool has been fantastic and relaxing for both of them.
The couple have faced tough times and feel let down by the British government. Birrell says he got lost in the system for four years. He now receives a war pension and disability allowance, has a disability car and Zoe receives carer’s allowance.
“The government make it out that they look after soldiers but they don’t, we were homeless for a while. They say injured soldiers should be a priority but that’s not the reality,” she said.
The couple said that holidays such as theirs, which are made possible by MARCH are so important.
Set up by Alan Wilson and wife Barbara, MARCH has already welcomed well over 100 servicemen and women and their families and carers to the island for holidays.
“Alan and Barbara are fantastic and nothing is too much trouble for them. What they are doing is amazing.”
Birrell said that nothing is going to hold him back and he is determined to keep moving forwards.
“I want to make a difference, I want to be present, and a person who inspires people not to be scared of life and to push themselves to the limit, and I want to have a good life for my kids. Just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean you can’t do things.”
David Birrell racing on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/pages/David-Birrell-racing/533350236783906?sk=timeline
For further information or to donate your property to MARCH (00357)99850355.