By Andrea Webb
The inspirational autobiography Barefoot Soldier – written in collaboration with Nick Cook and published last month in a deal reportedly worth £1 million – chronicles Johnson Beharry's journey from a poverty-stricken childhood in Grenada, through a drug- and alcohol- fuelled youth, to enlisting in the British Army and becoming the youngest living member of the world's most élite club of military heroes.
Life for Beharry, of C Company, the 1st Battalion, The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, changed forever while he was on operations in Iraq in 2004.
Just three years after joining up he displayed "repeated extreme gallantry and unquestioned valour, despite intense direct attacks, personal injury and damage to his vehicle in the face of relentless enemy action" and saved the lives of 30 comrades.
Beharry's first act of heroism took place on May 1, 2004, when he helped assist a foot patrol caught in a series of ambushes. His armoured vehicle was hit by multiple rocket-propelled grenades but he drove through the ambush, taking his own crew and leading five other Warriors to safety. He then extracted his wounded colleagues from the vehicle, all the time exposed to unrelenting enemy fire.
Six weeks later, a rocket-propelled grenade hit Beharry's vehicle, incapacitating his commander and injuring several of the crew. Despite receiving very serious head injuries, for which he later required life-saving brain surgery, Beharry took control of the vehicle and drove it out of the ambush area before losing consciousness.
So what inspired this modest Grenadian to undertake acts of such extreme courage and how did he react when he discovered he had been awarded such a prestigious medal?
"When I first heard the news, I didn't know what VC meant," Beharry said. "Now I realise how big it is, I can't see what I've done to deserve it.
"I was just doing what I was trained to do. I didn't do it for a medal, I didn't do it for any other reason than I was in a position where I could help and I helped. I was hoping I could save my colleagues and I did. That's the great part about it and that's what the medal represents."
Coming from such a humble background, Beharry readily admits that the cross, which was pinned to his chest by the Queen at Buckingham Palace, has had a massive impact.
"The VC changed my life completely," he said. "The medal has opened doors for me, given me opportunities to do things I wouldn't otherwise have been able to. But you don't get something like this for free.
"There's not one soldier I have heard of who got the VC and never had an injury. You get it and survive with the pain – or you get it and die."
As a result of his appalling injuries the direction of Beharry's future Army career remains unclear, but he will never be able to return to operational service or drive a Warrior again.
"I've just been promoted to lance corporal," he said. "I would like to stay in uniform but because of my medical problems, I can't tell what the future will bring.
"I am thinking about going into recruiting but I don't want to set my mind on anything definite, because if I find I can't do it I'll be disappointed.
"But it doesn't matter where I go or what I do," he added defiantly. "I will always be a member of The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment."
The comradeship is clearly important to Beharry. Despite being awarded the VC, he has not been treated any differently by his fellow soldiers.
"I still feel like I am one of the lads," he said. "We still have a great relationship and if they feel differently towards me they certainly don't show it.
"My battalion is out in Iraq at the moment and, man, I wish I was out there with them. They return home this month so I just hope everyone comes back safe."
Away from the dangers of Iraq, life on the home front has certainly had its difficulties for Beharry. He admits struggling with the external pressures associated with winning the nation's highest award for bravery.
"At the beginning it was hard," he admitted. "People would come up to me and say 'Are you the guy who won the VC?' and I would say, 'Maybe'.
"I had just got back from Iraq and security wise I didn't like the attention. But I'm learning to accept it.
"People expect so much from me now and it's hard to live up to their expectations. But I think the most difficult part is dealing with my injuries. I still have a lot of pain in my shoulder, back and head and I suffer flashbacks. I just hope that one day it will all go away and never come back."
Despite his physical and mental wounds, Beharry – who is currently being administered by the Household Division in London while he continues his rehabilitation – has nothing but praise for the support he has received from the Army and does not regret his decision to join up.
"I am happy with the way I have been treated but I just hope that other guys who have been injured receive the same treatment, and that I am not just singled out because of my VC.
"The Army has been great," he added. "Every day is a new experience and I have learned and gained so much from serving.
"When I consider the road I was going down before I joined up, and the kinds of things I was doing back then, it could have been worse for me on the street than being in the Army."
Life beyond the battlefield promises to be busy for Beharry as he continues to promote his autobiography and develops plans to start a UK-based foundation to help underprivileged children in Grenada.
"This is not about winning a Victoria Cross, it's not about joining the Army – it's about motivating young people to do something positive with their lives by showing them how I managed to turn my life around."
Beharry's main priority in life, it seems, remains unchanged from that which won him the Victoria Cross in the first place – helping people as much as he possibly can and in any way that he can.
With thanks to Soldier Magazine
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