BY TOBY PORTER
A former soldier has become one of very few people to ever cross the Empty Quarter desert in Oman – the largest and most gruelling desert in the World.
Dean Clay, from Welling, was part of a 17-man expeditionary team of British military veterans with disabilities, or suffering from PTSD, which crossed 700 miles of massive sand dunes, some up to 400ft-high, in off-road vehicles.
Dean’s jeep crashed during the expedition, but no one was injured.
The squad were following in the tracks of famous British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who made the journey on camels, with a 50-strong support team of desert tribesmen, after the Second World War. He took two months.
It took the former servicemen a week. The expedition was arranged by VetRun180, managed by two former Royal Marines, who take veterans with physical or psychological injuries on 4X4 adventures worldwide, free of charge.
Dubai-based SKA International Group, owned by a former Para, which supplies logistics in conflict zones in the Middle East, sponsored the Empty Quarter expedition for the veterans, across some of the most gruelling terrain in the world, along Oman’s border with Saudi Arabia.
Dean decided to leave the military after a string of back-to-back stints in war zones, but found the transition to civilian life challenging.
He said; “I left because of all the stuff that was going on in the world at the time, but the transition was very hard. And then my brother committed suicide almost as soon as I came out of the military and that took a toll on my own mental health.
“I knew I needed to be around ex-forces lads again to feel better. I miss that brotherhood, that connection. On this expedition I got it back. All the lads I met on the trip I had never seen in my life before, but I am sure we will definitely keep in contact for a very long time.
“The biggest thing is going from the feeling of hero to zero. You have been in Afghanistan and the next thing you know you are in a civilian job and you are not used to it or you can’t get used to it. It’s a downward spiral and you feel like a loser.”
Dean was fighting alongside VetRun180 co-founder Matt Abbott when Abbott was injured – he lost part of his thigh and calf in Afghanistan when he was hit by a rocket, and has undergone 10 years of operations, the last one just a couple of months before the trip.
Matt’s partner in VetRun180, Matt Bispham MC, who was awarded his Military Cross for extraordinary bravery in Afghanistan, said it was important to encourage injured military veterans to re-engage with other ex-servicemen.
He said: “From my own experience, I know this is better than any other therapy I was offered. It got me off the sofa when I was feeling incapable and sorry for myself, and gave me new focus, which was exactly what I needed.
The military-type camaraderie, the laughing, the challenges – I realised I had missed it so much. Suddenly I was laughing again. We have all been through the same difficulties, and just as we fought together, we can get better together, in an environment we are used to.
SKA International Group chief executive Mike Douglas, who joined the veterans for part of the expedition, was medically discharged from the Army and was also forced to turn his life around.
He said: “If people go away from this with a positive feeling, believing that the only limitation in their life is what is in their own mind, then I will be very happy.
I think the country should do more to try to help them return to a normal life.”
The trip was led by SKA International Group’s director of operations, Jim Finch, who is also ex-Army – but he handed over navigation of the route to the veterans after just one day.
He said: “I couldn’t believe how good they were. Rather than finding the easiest route, going around the side of the dunes, they went straight over the top, which was more fun, and more of a challenge, and they did it.”