Serjeant* George Norton, 31, joined the Infantry in 1999 and served with 5 Battalion The Rifles. During his 15 year career he deployed to Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone and completed three tours of Iraq. (*Traditionally in Rifles Battalions the spelling of Serjeant is with a ‘j’ rather than ‘g’ – a historical legacy from the Napoleonic wars.)
Originally from Somerset George now lives in Sunderland with his wife Deena, son Jack, 6, and his stepson Liam, 16. In December 2011 he was deployed on Operation Herrick to Helmand Province in Afghanistan and was employed as a Platoon Serjeant. It was during this deployment when he was taking part in a route clearance operation and providing flank protection to the Engineers who were carrying out the clearance that he was injured.
As his patrol was crossing an irrigation ditch they were fired upon by a single insurgent. During this ‘contact‘ one of the enemy bullets ricocheted off the ground and struck Serjeant Norton in the side of the head. Knocking him to the ground instantly where he lay severely injured.
From here the details of what followed next remain somewhat of a blur for George. He vaguely remembers the initial treatment administered to him by the members of his patrol, actions that went a long way to ensure that he didn’t die from his injuries there and then as he lay there in the dirt. But from that point the only real memory he can be sure of is waking up in the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham with his mother standing at the end of his bed.
As a result of that single bullet striking him he was now left with brain damage. With complete deafness in his right ear. With weakness down the full left hand side of his body and with a mammoth recovery task in front of him that would test the strength, resilience and the bravery of George and his family.
From the moment that George was shot a fast, efficient and well rehearsed process that includes some of the highest levels of medical treatment in the world began. All with the aim of taking him as safely as possible from lying near some drainage ditch in Afghanistan to ultimately a life back in the UK. Firstly the rest of his patrol, his mates, soldiers he had trained with, deployed with, lived with and crossed drainage ditches with were the first to start this process of treatment. Applying the immediate first aid training that they had all rehearsed so many times before during training exercises and which some had already had to use for real during other situations that had happened during their tour so far.
This first key treatment kept him alive until the helicopter came to evacuate him back to the hospital in Camp Bastion. Treated by the helicopter medical staff as they flew. The surgeons then at Camp Bastion working constantly to keep him alive. Nurses and staff all doing what they could. Once he was stable enough to fly he was then moved back to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham where he remained for 3-4 months undergoing further intensive treatment and rehabilitation. From here he moved again this time to spend seven months at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Unit at Headley Court in Surrey. Before finally arriving in Catterick Garrison and the Personnel Recovery Centre.
The Personnel Recovery Centres, or PRC’s, there are five of them around the country form part of the Defence Recovery Capability which is an MoD led initiative and delivered in partnership between the Ministry of Defence and the forces charity organisations the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes along with support from other Service charities and organisations.
Each of the centres is designed to help and offer assistance to wounded, injured and sick Service personnel so that they can either recover and return to duty or alternatively if their injuries are more serious or life changing then move into civilian life.
Through his journey so far George has been through a huge amount of treatment and rehabilitation already to get to this point. He had gone through the process of trying to relearn cognitive skills. To learn again visual and auditory processing. He’d undergone speech therapy to allow him to talk again. His right ear had been fitted with a cochlear implant. He had had to learn to live with a blind spot in the top left of his vision. He had suffered memory loss and found it hard to remember not only details of the events surrounding his injury but other unrelated events through his life.
He had worked on his physical fitness and struggled through the pain and mental walls that blocked his way to try and keep his body as active as possible to aid his recovery. He had been forced to deal with the lack of independence. To use a walking stick to assist him when out in unfamiliar environments. He had struggled to come to terms with the psychological effects of his injury. He had fought the frustration and anger that comes from being injured and the associated difficulties with learning to rely on others after coming from such an active and physically challenging role as a fully healthy man and soldier.
He found that his anxiety levels, and the means to deal with them in a rational way, had been affected and at times he had struggled with this. He also had concerns about how he might be ‘seen’ or treated by people once he entered civilian life when there are other injured service personnel who might have more obvious injuries as a result of losing limbs and he wondered how people he came across each day might deal with him and his injury when it isn’t as obvious.
The PRC had been preparing him for leaving the military and going out in to the wider civilian world. His medical rehabilitation will continue as and when required through appointments at civilian hospitals but every day he gets better. Stronger. Better adapted to his own unique and hugely different situation. As George makes the move into civilian life he hopes to work as a volunteer with BIRT the Brain Injury Rehabilitation Trust so that he can pass on his own very, very first hand experiences and knowledge to those who for one reason or another are undergoing treatment for various brain injuries themselves.
Sometime this month George is expecting to end his service in the military and part of the time that he has spent at the PRC in Catterick over the last year or so will give him some of the skills and knowledge to assist with a successful transition into civilian life. These course are available to all military personnel when they leave the service and they undergo resettlement training but of course George has additional worries that most do not. The idea behind these courses being that he and others are given the best opportunity to deal with that major life and career changing event.
As I met George over a few days at Catterick and chatted to him about his military career, about the events leading up to what had happened to him and what he hoped would be ahead for him it was indeed a testament to the medical skill of all those involved that today George is able to have a chance at doing some of the things he is now trying to achieve – From the staff at the PRC in Catterick for their dedication and commitment to their work to help him make as near full recovery as is possible and enter civilian life. To the specialist doctors and nurses who took care of him through each stage of this journey through the QE and at Headley Court. To the physiotherapists who constantly worked with him to try and improve his physical strength. To the medical personnel at Camp Bastion – the doctors, nurses and the RAF helicopter crew from the MERT – the Medical Emergency Response Teams – who flew in to evacuate him and of course to his mates.
Those same mates who were on that patrol with him in Afghanistan. Because without their initial response in dealing with his injuries at the time that he was shot then this might have been a different story completely.
Finally it is a real testament to George himself and his family. Suffering an injury like this must have destroyed his world and the journey he has been on to get where he is today, to put that world back together again must have been a roller-coaster of emotions and challenges. A journey with more highs and lows on so many levels that we can only imagine.
To have the determination – the strength of mind – to keep going through that rehabilitation process must have been an incredible challenge and ultimately for George the greatest of personal achievements.
‘Celer et Audax’
Rifles motto: ‘Swift and Bold’
Serjeant George Norton
With thanks to the MoD and Catterick PRC for their help and assistance with this story,
…and of course to George himself for letting me take some pictures and chat to him.
Good Luck mate and I wish you well.
All images copyright Ian Forsyth