On Wednesday evening (May 11), veterans and service men from across North and Mid Devon gathered at the Barnstaple Hotel to hear Falklands conflict veteran, Simon Weston, recount his life 40 years on from the explosion that left him with severe burns.
Simon was serving with the Welsh Guard on board the RFA Sir Galahad in Port Pleasant during the 1982 conflict which saw Argentina invade the Falkland Islands - a British Overseas Territory.
The invasion sparked an undeclared war between Argentina and the UK which last only 10 weeks before the Argentineans surrendered. Just six days before the surrender, Simon’s ship was bombed by the Argentine Air Force, starting widespread fires aboard the ship.
22 of Simon’s platoon comrades were killed in the attack, with 48 deaths in total from the Welsh Guard. Of the 97 wounded, Simon was the worst receiving 46% burns over his body, leaving him to spend a combined total of around seven years in hospital and nearly 100 surgeries, including numerous skin grafts.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the conflict, and after years of press tours and a lifetime of political activism and fundraising to support troops and veterans, Simon has taken a step back from the spotlight this year.
Speaking to our reporter, Ami Wyllie, Simon explained: “I haven’t done as many as I would normally do, because it’s been 40 years and I just felt that it was right that other veterans from the Falklands got their chance to speak.
“Because all the media outlets were coming to me and I just thought, that’s not right. I wasn’t the only one there, there were 37,000 of us involved and I felt I needed to step back and let other people speak.”
Instead, Simon has been working as the President of DEBRA, a charity dedicated to finding a cure for, and supporting people with Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB), a group of genetic skin conditions which prevent skin cells from binding together and leaves patients with incredibly fragile skin with tears or blisters with a touch.
Simon is incredibly passionate about his work with DEBRA, and hopes to see a time when the charity is no longer needed. He said: “It’s the worst disease you’ve never heard of. For a lot of people with EB, they don’t get to see 35.
“[At DEBRA], we work to raise the profile of EB and help raise funds for treatments, such as easing the itch patients get and for pain management. We have an end goal, if we find a cure, then our charity doesn't really need to exist any longer.”
Simon called his charity work “great honour,” but he is acutely aware that had he not been so seriously injured, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make the impact he’s had.
He said: “I’ve had a phenomenal life. I've lived a very different life, and as much as I didn't want to get injured and I wish I hadn't been injured, I wouldn't change a thing because I met my wife because of my injuries.
“I met my best mate Fitz because of my injuries and I've met some incredible people along the way and I've had an incredible life so I wouldn't want to swap any of that. Not because I'm being silly about it, it's just that I have a wonderful life and I have wonderful friends and new family because of my injuries.
“But I didn't want to go through what I went through and I wouldn't wish it on anybody either, but as it was, as it did happen, as I can't change that, why wish it away?”
Looking out over a room full of people who paid money to hear him speak and meet him, Simon said it was “flattering” that even after all these years, he still has profile enough to do that.
The event in Barnstaple, organised by Clear Sky Publishing (owner of North Devon Gazette and Mid Devon Weekly), was one of Simon’s few stops this year. Speaking to a packed ballroom, he spoke candidly about the events of his life.
He had the room flipping between eruptions of laughter and stunned silence. He made quips about his ‘shiny white nose’ made using skin from his backside and touched on the more sombre parts of his life. He recalled the moment his mother first saw him after his injuries and how she didn’t even recognise him until he called out for her – After that story, there were few dry eyes in the house.
Simon also shared the incredible legacy that his injuries have left on the medical field, he told guests: “Medical advancements in plastic surgery became dramatically better because of what happened in the Falklands.
“[Victims of] Bradford stadium fire benefited, Kings Cross fire benefited, I was involved in the research for all of that. They all benefitted, because what you have to realise is that for someone to benefit today, someone had to suffer yesterday, that’s how science and medicine works.”
To commemorate the 40th anniversary, Simon went back to the Falkland Islands one last time to visit the memorial at Fitzroy, a settlement near Port Pleasant.
He said: “I got a sense of finality, I’ve done everything I needed to do. I’ve gone back and said goodbye to my comrades who are still down there on board the ship, that’s all I wanted to do, so it’s done.”
The event raised funds for The Veterans Charity based in Barnstaple. CEO Danny Greeno was at the event to meet Simon for the first time and thank him for all his work over the years.
Danny said: “The fact that someone like Simon has given his time this evening to us and the fact that we are kind of within the 40th anniversary of the conflict that obviously changed the path of his life.
“He makes this evening very special and the money being raised and the support that has come from the North Devon Gazette and everybody here is just fantastic. It’s going to help us support Simon’s fellow veterans and those who are struggling. So, it's brilliant, absolutely superb.”
A final total of money raised is still being calculated and will be presented to The Veterans Charity in the coming weeks.
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