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Amputee John's bionic tonic

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John Williams with his bionic leg enjoying some sightseeing
John Williams with his bionic leg enjoying some sightseeing

John Williams with his bionic leg enjoying some sightseeing
Former Army sergeant and amputee John Williams is walking tall after regaining full mobility for the first time in almost 30 years – thanks to a bionic limb.

The ex-signaller, who lost a leg in a military training accident in Herford in 1987, depended on crutches and a wheelchair to get around. Now the high-tech prosthesis, costing €35,000, helps him to walk normally.

The seven kilogramme technological marvel was paid for by Veterans UK – but Germany resident John, 57, says it was limbless veterans charity Blesma who made sure he got it.

And he is so grateful for its support that he wants to devote the rest of his life to helping the Service charity.

“I am one of a small handful of Blesma members living in Germany, and I reckon there must be hundreds more limbless British veterans living in Germany who would benefit from becoming a member,” said John, who served as radio relay operator and PTI with 7th Signal Regiment in Herford.

“When you’re an amputee you’re often confined to home and so it is important to bond with others.”

His new leg gave him the confidence to go on a rehabilitation trip to South Africa last year. It was an activity paid for by Blesma and one that “turned my life around and also that of my family”, he said.

John had a positive outlook after losing his left leg after being electrocuted by 60,000 volts during an exercise, deciding that “what is gone is gone”.

But he could not take to the uncomfortable wooden prosthetic socket and old fashioned limbs that doctors had him try on, discarding them out of frustration and preferring to go without.

Refusing to give up an active life, however, John would propel himself twice a day and up to 50 kilometres in his wheelchair and swim three kilometres every morning. He entered wheelchair races and marathons and won trophies.

“This in some way is what kept me sane. I raced in the USA, Germany, the UK and Switzerland, and I could not get enough when it came to training,” said John, who was first posted to Germany in 1984.

But plenty of challenges lay ahead for the father of three. His spirits only dropped after a doctor told him he had epilepsy, which runs in his family, and that he would not be able to drive for several years.

John developed a drinking problem but recognised the signs and sought help. He has been dry now for five years, and with his bionic limb, life has never looked better. He’s even started swimming again.

Looking ahead – former signaller and PTI John Williams, 57, stays fit by swimming and walking his family’s dogs despite losing his left leg on a training exercise in Herford almost 30 years ago
Looking ahead – former signaller and PTI John Williams, 57, stays fit by swimming and walking his family’s dogs despite losing his left leg on a training exercise in Herford almost 30 years ago

Looking ahead – former signaller and PTI John Williams, 57, stays fit by swimming and walking his family’s dogs despite losing his left leg on a training exercise in Herford almost 30 years ago
John rarely speaks about the horrific accident that cost him his leg, saying he is no hero just for surviving being electrocuted when the radio mast of the vehicle he was in touched a power line during an exercise in Herford in 1987.

He told Sixth Sense: “I just remember it was a really hot day and the force of the electricity going through me, which also threw a man from off the top of the truck. The tyres blew out and there were trees on fire, and I recall the emergency helicopter landing.

“I died on several occasions and had to be revived.”

John was airlifted to a special burns unit in Hannover, suffering 38 per cent first and second degree electrical burns to his body. Doctors had to amputate his left leg above the knee, and he spent 12 days in intensive care.

“I was told that if it had not been for my fitness, I would not have survived,” he said.

He was then casevaced to the Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital in London where he underwent lengthy surgery, during which doctors saved his arm. 

“My plastic surgeon was the same Army officer who had treated Simon Weston, so I was in good hands. He knew exactly what he was doing,” said John.

“Every amputee has a different stump, rather like everyone has a different fingerprint.”

King of the track in his wheelchair in the 1990s – John Williams picked up many winner’s trophies as he kept fit
King of the track in his wheelchair in the 1990s – John Williams picked up many winner’s trophies as he kept fit

King of the track in his wheelchair in the 1990s – John Williams picked up many winner’s trophies as he kept fit
As he lay in his hospital bed in Woolwich, John received a inspirational visit from an officer he didn’t know.

He said: “This major who was EOD (bomb disposal) stood there telling me about Blesma and how good the charity was and I wondered why. Then he told me he had lost his legs at work and still does the same job. 

“I asked him if he would walk back into the room again. He did and removed his prostheses to show me them. That inspired me.”

The Royal British Legion bought him a wheelchair, and John soon became fit again. He returned to a desk job but was medically discharged a few months later as “this type of work was not for me”. 

He credits his old regiment with giving him a civilian job that he could do and also encouraging him to train in his wheelchair whenever he wanted to, which made him feel needed.

But in 1994 things took a turn for the worse when John awoke in hospital, with his last memory being sat at home.

“I had severe seizures and had bitten through my tongue. The doctor told me I was not allowed to drive my car or train on the roads in my wheelchair for three years. And I had to be accompanied by a lifeguard when I went swimming at 6 o’clock in the morning,” said John, who has been married to Heidi for 30 years, with whom they have three boys aged 20 to 28.

“I couldn’t cope with that and started drinking. I never had a negative attitude up until that point.”

But the ex-Serviceman eventually decided he needed help and booked himself therapy sessions that lasted more than two years. On May 11, 2011, John took his last drink.

“The therapist at the Blaues Kreuz in Bad Salzuflen really helped. I was told, ‘One route is recovery; the other’s the grave’. I chose the former,” he said.

His recovery coincided with his receiving the bionic limb last year. At one stage it looked like John’s living in Germany would make him ineligible for the UK Government-funded prosthesis – but Blesma stepped in to make sure it happened. The limb is computerised and practically does the walking for him.

“It’s nice to be able to stand up tall without crutches. I did everything hopping, the house work and even working in the garden,” said John, a native of Amesbury in Wiltshire.

“The bionic technology knows when I am walking upstairs or down a slope and helps me along. I walk from morning till evening and never take the leg off.” 

With his epilepsy now gone, John is free to drive whenever he wants – and campaigning for Blesma is now his main goal in life.

He said: “I’m interested in getting fellow amputees together, as I know they’ll enjoy each other’s company.

“I want to donate the rest of my life to helping Blesma, by finding new members, organising activities and arranging meetings where Blesma may cover some of the cost.

“Blesma has also helped me financially on more than one occasion with gardening grants, emergency home repairs and reimbursement of travel expenses.

“Even people who have lost a limb after their Service years can join.”

He receives a war pension and an Army pension, which is enough to live on and also pays for his own house.

“If the accident had happened on the parade square in barracks instead of on exercise, it would have been a different story. I may not have received a war pension,” he said.

Ever the fitness fanatic, John plans to take part in next August’s London Triathlon, in which he will both promote and raise funds for Blesma.

“I’m so lucky I’m still here. I always look forward and stay positive. You can’t change the past, you can only learn from it,” he said.

λ If you would like to get in contact with John Williams about Blesma or a related theme, please send an email to Sixth Sense at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and the paper will pass it on to him.