Meet Cumbria’s Captain Tom defying all odds

When Lance Corporal Mark Harding was shot by a sniper in Afghanistan, he was told by doctors he might never walk again.

How he proved them wrong. Right now he is coming to the end of a 1,000-mile trek – on crutches – from John o’ Groats to Land’s End.

This inspirational 47-year-old army veteran, with only eight per cent power in his left leg and 10 per cent in his right, embarked on his odyssey at the tip of Scotland on May 13. By today, completely unsupported and carrying all his own gear, he has reached the town of Bodmin in Cornwall. He expects to finish his trek on August 25.

“I am not going to lie, it has probably been the most mentally and physically difficult thing I’ve ever done,” he told the Daily Express. “I have had to rely on my army training to keep me going. As a disabled person, every day is an achievement for me.”

Proudly carrying a flag of King Charles in honour of the monarch’s recent coronation, Harding, who lives in Wigton, Cumbria, is raising money for Scotty’s Little Soldiers, a charity for bereaved British Forces children.

He has received letters of support from both the King and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Locals near where he lives in the Lake District have nicknamed him “Cumbria’s Captain Tom”.

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It was back in 2010, while serving with the 1st Battalion Duke of Lancaster Regiment in Afghanistan, that he was shot. Having already served in various countries including Northern Ireland, Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo, he was deployed to a district within Helmand Province, notorious for sniper attacks. On May 28, 2010, he was part of a four-man patrol sent to investigate an improvised explosive device when suddenly all hell broke loose.

“All the locals moved away, so we knew something was going to happen,” he recalls. “I had gone over to one of my colleagues to help with the radio antenna when suddenly he started screaming because he’d been shot: ‘My leg! My leg!’.

“Then I heard another bang and, before I knew it, I was coming around. I’d passed out for a few seconds and my colleague was leaning over going, ‘Mark, I think you’ve been shot.’ I can remember thinking, ‘Why can’t I move?’ That’s when I looked down and the whole left side of my body armour was dark red. All I wanted was for the pain everywhere to stop.”

After he was airlifted to Camp Bastion, medics discovered the sniper’s bullet had passed through Mark’s neck and shattered vertebrae in the top of his spine, severely damaging his spinal cord. He returned to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham and was placed in an induced coma for six days.

After another four weeks of extreme pain, Mark was then moved to a specialist spinal unit at James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough. “That’s when I received the news from the consultants that I was paralysed from the neck down and may never be able to walk again,” he says softly. “If I am honest, I felt like they may as well finish me off. I was obviously totally devastated and I had to just be on my own for a week to get my head around it all. I didn’t want to be a hassle to anyone, including my wife.”

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Fortunately Mark received many letters and cards of support through the post. “That’s when I knew I wanted to prove the consultants wrong,” he says. “And that I would make a recovery.”

After seven months confined to bed in that Middlesbrough hospital, Mark was moved to an armed forces rehabilitation centre in Surrey to undergo physiotherapy. He admits it was a long road to recovery.

“I had been lying in bed for so long up until that point that I had to be lifted up into a standing frame to get the blood circulating,” he explains. On the first day he managed to stand for just five seconds. As each day passed, the length of time he was able to stand increased slightly.

“It was very slow, but my army days of training made me determined to keep pushing on,” he says.

Mark spent two and a half years in rehabilitation. Unfortunately, his marriage ended during this time as the injury had a significant impact on his relationship. He says he now recognises that whilst there is a lot of support for injured soldiers, it can also be challenging for their spouses.

Yet despite this, Mark was determined to create a new life for himself and, after leaving the rehabilitation centre in 2013, he vowed to raise as much money as possible for the military organisations that had helped him. He has taken on many physical challenges, including representing Great Britain in the European dragon boat championships, climbing Skiddaw mountain in the Lake District, rowing 4,000 miles on a rowing machine during lockdown, and walking from Cumbria to London.

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However, he admits his current walk from John o’ Groats to Land’s End is the hardest of them all. At one point, near Carlisle, Cumbria, he had a terrifying accident when he was accidentally run over by a van.

“Fortunately, some paramedics nearby were able to assist me,“ he says. “I went for a check-up at a nearby hospital and, thankfully, everything was ok. So I pushed on. Again, the army has taught me to make the best of bad situations.”

As Mark is walking entirely on roads, traffic has been a constant bane. “It’s mentally draining because I have to focus on the traffic all the time,” he says. “I’m always walking towards traffic, having to face trucks, articulated lorries and other large vehicles.”

The other challenge is that he is carrying all his own clothing, food and water in a heavy rucksack. With the reduced power in his legs, the hills have been particularly difficult to negotiate.

Now as Mark nears the end of his walk, he says he is especially proud to have accomplished it without any back-up support. His partner Vita has joined him for some parts of the journey, but the lion’s share he has undertaken entirely alone.

For the home stretch, between Bodmin and Land’s End, he has invited family and friends to join him. He is also encouraging members of the public to tag along; his Facebook page is updated with his progress.

Once his challenge is complete, he says he’s looking forward to celebrations and a well-earned rest. “But most of all, I feel so honoured to be doing this for Scotty’s Little Soldiers and raising money to help children who have lost a military parent,” he adds proudly. “Every step I have taken has been for them.”

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