Toby Gutteridge: ‘Never Will I Die’
An interview with ex-Special Forces soldier Toby Gutteridge, whose remarkable survival after a catastrophic wound in Afghanistan, is now told in an utterly inspiring new book.
‘There’s no pain, no theatrical agony. No screaming, no shouting. The kill shot is catastrophic and conclusive. I slump silently on to my knees and topple forward, hear first, into the dirt. The lads have seen enough death to assume mine is instantaneous. The lights are out. That’s him gone.’
So opens ‘Never Will I Die’, the autobiography of Toby Gutteridge, former Special Boat Service operative and one of the most inspirational men around; for it was not a kill shot, of course, although it was as close as it can possibly be to one. So close in fact that is leads to the main hook of this often breathtaking book: how do you rebuild your life when you have lost everything?
Toby had been part of an SBS team clearing a house in Afghanistan when he was shot through the neck leading to catastrophic injuries.
‘I advanced into a hail of gunfire and fell like a sack of spuds. No one understands how I survived, despite the advances in battlefield and trauma medicine. I don’t know, and I don’t think I will ever know. It’s a mystery, a phenomenon. The medics worked on me as I lay bloodied and inert on the floor of the rescue helicopter…’
Speaking to The Book of Man on Zoom today, Toby is still amazed by this. “I have no idea how they kept me alive,” he says, “It even astounded them that I made it through. The other guys told me afterwards, ‘We all said our goodbyes when they took you off in the helo.’ There was no chance. But somehow through the darkness and chaos of it, they kept me alive long enough for me to have a chance. I don’t know what happened in that 20 minute period straight after I was shot. I don’t know, I can’t tell you. But here I am.”
And how. Even on Zoom, Toby is a magnetic figure, breathing through a ventilator in his chair – an iconic sight now after his story has made it into the national consciousness – and of course being your basic no-bullshit ex-Marine too. His very existence, his every moment now as the same old him, is in fact an ongoing triumph.
When he awoke in hospital after the injury, saved by the medics and the inspired actions of a team of surgeons, he found that everything had changed. The bullet had cut through his spinal cord and Toby found himself paralysed from the neck down. At first he was unable to communicate with doctors, and had to lay there as he heard them talk to his family about switching off his life support. They figured he had suffered brain damage, after such trauma to his body – but, miraculously and it is hard to describe it as anything else – he was same old Toby inside, and luckily his brother stepped in to forbid such a thing. Toby understands why they toyed with the idea: “To all professionals it’s still a mystery how I don’t have a serious brain injury from oxygen starvation, or how I didn’t have an aneurysm or a stroke from the damage.”
The book then, is the story of Toby’s life leading to that point but is mostly about what followed. How he used quite unbelievable strength of mind to rebuild his life, with a spirit summed up by his motto as a gung-ho kid, which provides the title of the book, ‘Never Will I Die’.
As such, this is not your usual military memoir, it goes to places of extreme vulnerability and attempts to find the heart of what makes us human. What are the building blocks that make a person? It goes way beyond the physical.
“There’s a lot in the book that people didn’t know about me,” says Toby, “I wanted it to be raw, honest. I didn’t want to make it out like some Hollywood blockbuster with stories that had been embellished. I just wanted to show me and my story and what had happened to me. To put something good out there from a bad situation.”
Indeed the book is unflinching in its look at himself – ‘I was an annoying little shit…’ begins one chapter – and the harsh realities of war: the filth, the hurt, the brutal deaths he witnessed in Afghanistan. Yet that unflinching realness also makes for a seriously inspirational story, full of bravery, kindness, camaraderie, brotherhood and great personalities – and Toby himself is just unbelievable, a one in a million character who had the inner strength to cope with his experience. While he’s careful to avoid Hollywood hero nonsense, it is nonetheless a profoundly heroic story.
Of course, he dismisses any ideas that he has done something particularly impressive, stressing that, “it’s surprising what people can do when they have no other choice.” Certainly this touches on a universal truth about recovery which everyone who has been through personal difficulties – small and large – can take a great deal from. And yet humans do need remarkable leaders to help them with this, and Toby is such a figure – an ordinary, messed up kid from South Africa who went on to make the grade with one of the most elite group of soldiers on the planet. His great gift then, is about bringing the extraordinary into an ordinary realm of existence that we could potentially all echo in our own lives.
While the story does have thrilling stories of SBS operations, Toby was more interested in “what happens in the mind. The psychological aspects of being an SF soldier, and the effects war has on you. All of these soldiers are human beings, as much as we’ve been trained to control our emotions to do the job, at the end we come back to society and we have lives – and war has its toll.”
Indeed Toby suffered a toll more than most, surviving way against the odds. But the big story here is what defines you as a person, as a man, and isn’t it more than your physical self? Or rather, your body doesn’t have to hold you back – nothing does.
“It’s about becoming a man and finding you identity,” he says, “And it talks about when you lose the identity you’ve taken your whole life to create. When you hit that point and you’ve lost everything. Including your body. Not just your career, not just your financial security, but everything, everything’s gone. And you have to start from scratch. There’s some big themes running through the book, about how to rebuild your life, how to keep fighting and stay strong. Ultimately it’s that human survival and finding courage in the face of adversity.”
The writing of the book, with Michael Calvin, was a therapeutic experience for Toby, which brought back a hell of a lot of memories, both good and bad, but allowed a reflection of his experience and the chance to talk through it with ex-colleagues, family and like-minded souls like Jason Fox. It appears to be another step in a patient journey to make sense of his life – which of course brings other people, including readers now, into the journey too. This is part of a growing change in the way soldiers, and men in general, are now presenting themselves, happy to show vulnerability as well as good humour and adrenaline kicks, which is not just bringing out previously hidden aspects of maleness but also uniting other men behind it. It’s always the same – once one person shows it’s ok to reveal their true selves, we can all do it. Again, this is why leaders like Toby are important.
I asked Toby about when he was shot, the miracle of how they kept him alive, and wondered if it was like the doctors kept his hand on a rung for that missing twenty minutes, but from there, it was all him – he climbed to survive. “The only thing I could say is there was undying survival instinct that said, ‘no, not today’. Granted I had a lot of training, but I had this downright dog eat dog instinct that I’m not going, no.”
The most inspiring thing of all is that this spirit comes from his love of life – and that’s why this book is a true triumph, because that love of life comes shining despite the pain and horror. Toby says, “Life is precious and you have to make every second count and go for it. I hope people realise that every moment counts because it can be taken away in the blink of an eye. Or the speed of a bullet. Don’t take what you have for granted.”
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