No subject is more hotly debated around the kitchen tables of Britain – except possibly whether or not the Hunting Act should be repealed – than the rolling presence of more than 9,000 British troops in Afghanistan. The number of fatalities stands at 251 since hostilities started in 2001 and, in the period between January 2006 and August 2009, 5,660 troops have required significant medical treatment, and of these, 2,531 have been aeromedically evacuated.
By now, most people will have at least heard of the charity Help for Heroes (H4H) which, since it was set up in 2007, has raised more than £38 million to alleviate the short-, medium- and long-term suffering that these statistics represent. Many, too, will have met Bryn Parry, the sporting artist, who with his wife Emma, conceived the charity, now run from an unspectacular industrial unit outside Salisbury.
It was here that I met him, following his visit to a Remembrance Service in Westminster Abbey, attended by HM The Queen. It became apparent that Parry has a galvanising energy for this cause in which he profoundly believes.
He is quick to give praise to others, in particular Emma whom he describes as, “the love of my life”, and to those generals, Sir Richard Dannatt and Richard Sheriff, who have encouraged him with his charity. He is immensely proud of the £8 million which has gone to creating a rehabilitation complex with a swimming pool at Headley Court, the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre in Surrey, which provides care for approximately 6,500 patients annually.
Trying to get Bryn to talk about himself is a different matter. Yet his own family story is one of the reasons why H4H has struck such a chord with people throughout the nation. From The X Factor finalists’ song Hero and the work of celebrities such as Jeremy Clarkson to the organisers of a Norfolk dog day that raised over £80,000, people have immersed themselves in fund-raising.
Bryn comes from a long line of soldiers and sailors whose roots within the military and the senior service can be traced back to 1645. But all that pales into personal insignificance when he tells me his father Robin Parry, who had fought in Burma as a Ghurka, was killed on exercise in Germany in 1961 when his son was four-and-a-half years old. “I can remember him throwing a small rugby ball to me in the back garden of our house in Germany,” recalls Parry. “I can also remember seeing him parachute jump out of an aeroplane.”
As a widow, Bryn’s mother Doreen was not at all well off. A letter arrived from one of Robin Parry’s subalterns, Peter Ackerman and his wife Sheelagh, who farmed in Cornwall on the Lizard near Helston. “Come and live with us forever,” it said. Bryn was swiftly uprooted from an Army childhood and for the next three years lived in a caravan with his brother Hadyn (now chairman of H4H) and their mother. “Then Mum converted a calving barn and we lived in that,” he adds.
One significant benefit of Robin’s military service was that Bryn was eligible for a “foundationer” scholarship at Wellington College, the Berkshire public school, which he attended from 1970 to 1974. His housemaster, Nicholas Bomford, who went on to become headmaster of Harrow, made him a prefect during his time there. “He had faith in me and gave me a lot of confidence,” says Bryn. In order to make ends meet at home, his mother made and sold lamps and paperweights.
Like many public schoolboys of the Seventies, Parry left school with what he calls, “long hair and good looks. I thought I was a blade.” But a spell at Sandhurst and a commission in the Royal Green Jackets put him right.
Bryn did three tours in Northern Ireland and this again is something that puts him on a footing of both understanding and comradeship with the men returning from Afghanistan and turning to H4H for support. It was following his third tour, as a platoon commander in south Armagh, that he married Emma, the sister of a fellow officer, in 1981.
Bryn left the Army as a captain aged 29. This was to pursue a career as a sporting artist – his shooting prints adorn many a country home and his military cartoons many an officers’ mess – buying a small cottage in the Wiltshire village of Whiteparish. Today, the Parrys live in Downton, a mile from the office.
“I threw away a proper career,” says Bryn. “And I subjected my family to a life of penury. We thought success had come to our home when we had drink in the house without having to drink it. For years cascades of water came through the ceiling when it rained.”
But what Parry has accomplished is exactly what he wants to achieve for those who will benefit from H4H. “I want them to have fulfilling lives,” he says. “Those who feel their wounds have stopped them from being active soldiers must now look to life after the Army.”
Of the war in Afghanistan, Parry, who has been scrupulous in avoiding any political bias, says this: “It’s not about the rights and wrongs of a conflict but about a young man or woman who has been grievously injured. We can’t prevent war, but we can help them get better.”
When I left Bryn, all the office staff and volunteers had gone home. I had spent three hours with a man who is highly organised, pays attention to detail, is morally grounded, and has a loving family. “This is not a job for me but a complete passion,” he said as we turned out the lights. And I saw it.
But what I also saw was a four-year-old child who caught his father’s rugby ball. And he has done, with H4H, the greatest thing that a son can do in adulthood. He has honoured his father by passing it back.
Help For Heroes: Gundog training