A bomb blast in Afghanistan took Stevie Richardson's legs but it didn't claim his grit, determination or ability, says Matt Cross
Stevie was stuck; there was no getting around the soft ground so, to reach the deer, he had to go through it. The small hard composite pads on the end of his prosthetic legs sank in and the mud closed around them. Stevie gritted his teeth and pulled, pushing down with his trekking pole. His left leg came free, but the right was more difficult. The sucking mud had a grip and it was pulling it off.
Finally, he caught the top with both hands and pulled the leg free. He was going again but there was still a good stretch of rough country to get through if he was to close the distance between him and the small group of roe deer.
I first met Stevie on a cool Friday morning in February. He was taking his Deer Stalking Certificate Level 1 (DSC1) practical assessment with Chris Dalton from South Ayrshire Stalking. As he undertook the simulated stalk, it was clear that Stevie was still very much the soldier. He described Chris’s rifle as a “weapons system” and discussed arcs of fire. Even using his “Gucci” legs it was difficult for Stevie to get into the prone position for his target test. Once he was lying flat, he handled his rifle like a professional, putting the shots exactly where they were needed.
It was a long journey that had brought Stevie here. In 2010 his unit, the first battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, was deployed on Operation Herrick, the British Army’s operation in Afghanistan. The young man from East Lothian found himself in the Nad-e Ali district of Helmand Province. Helmand was the homeland of the Afghan Taliban and scene of much of the fiercest fighting during NATO’s engagement with Afghanistan. Stevie was assigned to a small team of soldiers working alongside the Afghan National Army. As his group tried to expand its control southwards, Stevie’s unit was sent on patrols into Taliban-held areas. In two weeks Stevie found four improvised explosive devices (IED), each time calling in the engineers to blow them up.
“Then I found a fifth,” Stevie joked with typical dark military humour, “I just found it a different way.” Out on patrol with his Afghan colleagues, Stevie came under fire from the Taliban. His job as point man was to find a path out for the other soldiers. Somehow his metal detector missed the buried IED and he stepped on it. The blast instantly took off most of both of Stevie’s legs and left him with just one finger on his right hand. He remained conscious as his colleagues applied tourniquets and gave him morphine. It wasn’t until the helicopter reached the hospital at Camp Bastion that the doctors sedated him.
All through the process Stevie had tried to prepare himself for losing and regaining consciousness, but when he came round several days later in Birmingham he panicked. “I woke up with my mum and sister sitting by my bed. I started pulling out all the tubes and stuff, so they knocked me out again.”
Despite the scale of his injuries, Stevie had survived and he was determined to rebuild his life. Not only did he learn to walk on prosthetic legs, but he set himself extraordinary challenges. He trained as a strongman and competed at the Arnold Classic competition in Ohio. But this was not enough for Stevie, so he joined a team taking part in the Race Across America — a multi-day bicycle race from one coast of the US to the other. He pedalled hundreds of miles a day on a hand-powered bike.
But it was Stevie’s love of the outdoors and his desire to be self-sufficient that brought him to deer stalking. A bit of internet research helped him find an introductory deer hunting course offered by South Ayrshire Stalking and from there he decided to progress to do his DSC1. When I met him he had been deep in his books and was preparing to do his DSC1 assessments. In the morning Chris took him into a remote plantation to do his simulated stalk and shooting test and in the afternoon he faced banks of multiple choice questions in the theory exam.
Stevie sailed through his DSC1 assessments, but the true measure of a stalker isn’t their ability with paper targets and plywood deer silhouettes, so in the pre-dawn darkness of a Sunday morning I joined Stevie and Chris to stalk roe in the commercial softwood forests of South Ayrshire.
The morning was hard and cold. The frozen vegetation crunched in the sharp silence and the wind was so light that the huge turbines on the horizon only just turned. Stalking conditions were not ideal, but Chris knew his ground and was confident he would find us some deer. The challenge was to find deer in a position that Stevie could reach. Instead of the expensive articulated legs equipped with microchips he had worn for his DSC1 assessments, today he was wearing much smaller and more basic prosthetics. “I wrecked two pairs of the good ones washing the dogs, so I better not wreck any more,” he explained.
Chris’s plan was to try to keep to the firm and level forest tracks. But like most stalking plans it did not last long. Chris left us for a few minutes to examine flat ground beside a stream and reported back that a roe doe was grazing almost exactly where he had expected her to be. He set a course that would take us a short way off the track and within range.
We left the open woodland and headed through an enclosure of trees. As we left the firm ground and skirted the edge of the young trees it was clear that the terrain was another challenge that Stevie would overcome.
When we reached the position that Chris hoped we could shoot from, the doe was gone, but another group of deer was visible. We needed to close about 300 yards along the rough, wet forest edge. So we slipped along as tight to the forest edge as we could manage, crackling through the frosted white grass. In the distance, a farm came clanking to life as the farmer took silage to his beasts. The deer browsed on untroubled.
Twice Stevie’s prosthetics buried themselves in the mud and each time, by sheer willpower and upper body strength, he pulled himself free.
Chris’s plan to stick to the forest tracks had long been abandoned and now it was a struggle through white grass and mud. But Stevie was as locked on to the deer as Chris, and nothing would stop him now. When the forest edge ran out we set out across the open ground. This was real stalking, working the wind and terrain to remain concealed. Little by little we closed the distance. I watched, almost incredulously, as Chris climbed down into a stream and Stevie followed him. He waded through the water and heaved himself out the other side.
We were getting close now, very close. I hung back, not wanting to spoil the stalk, and watched as Chris set up the sticks and a whispered conversation passed between the two men. Chris took the sticks down and they moved on.
The small plantation now stood between them and the deer and Chris stepped round to see if the deer were still there. Even for a man who has stalked and shot as many deer as Chris, the closing stages of a stalk are still a thrill and the look on his face told us the deer were there.
Stevie went forward, took the sticks and set them, then he took the rifle. It wavered for a moment until he brought it under control. Stevie is left-handed and has only the thumb and one finger on his right hand to grip his rifle, but it was enough. The shot was good. The bullet passed through the deer’s lungs and it ran a few yards before dropping. Chris approached, rifle ready, but there was no need for another shot.
Stevie was happy, grinning broadly as Chris shook his hand. This was another step for Stevie towards the self-sufficiency that was his goal. He had pitted his wits and body against the challenge of hunting a wild animal and had succeeded. Stevie’s aim is in time to become a skilled and capable stalker. Considering what he has achieved so far, I have no doubt he will realise it.