Meet Pascal: Expedition Leader (the bearded half of the cycling double act!)
Pascal here. Sounds like quite a grand title, Expedition Leader. In reality, it means that I have the pleasure of completing most of the admin, and I'm the one the military holds to account for the success of this expedition. No pressure then!
Meanwhile, Dan can sit back, relax and listen to his favourite Guns N' Roses album on loop, safe in the knowledge that I will be filling out yet another dynamic risk assessment or applying for diplomatic clearance or plotting the best route through New Mexico etc...Whilst he strums away on his air guitar (sounds like a terrible euphemism, I promise it's not!), I'm busy securing us a $20 motel in El Paso, to enable us to take our first shower in 3 days.
It's at that point that the Expedition Leader title begins to sound a little less grand. Joking aside, I love it! It's brilliant being the master of your own destiny, I've always felt it's important to fill your life with amazing challenges. Nobody is going to plan them for you...
It was back in late 2019 (pre-COVID, remember then? We could do things like go to the pub...) that I came up with the idea of getting on a bike and cycling it 5000 km across the USA. When the military does expeditions, they have to be epic in scale - or else they just don't get signed off!
Riding 150 km a day, for 40 days in a row, over mountain ranges, across deserts and through hurricane zones - felt like it ticked the necessary boxes of epicness (is that even a word?!). Thankfully the powers that be in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines agreed, we were given the green light! Fast forward 18 months and 10,000 km (so far, and counting) of cycle training later, Dan and I are right where we need to be - El Paso motel booked and all!
As part of the planning, I was keen to find a way to use the high profile of the expedition to help others who might need support. Which brings me onto the cause....
To provide some context, a quick rewind to look at my own military career a little - which brings me to the subject of attack helicopters, and some of the situations you encounter when flying them around combat zones.
Like Dan, I joined the Royal Navy as an Aircrew Officer. We joined on the same day back in 2005, to first complete our year long officer training (think lots of leadership training, constant sleep deprivation and much running around muddy fields!), after which it was on to many years of flying training.
During this period I was lucky enough to be selected to fly attack helicopters, the aircraft type I eventually gained my wings on. Post wings, I then completed multiple years of frontline flying tours, in destinations such as: Afghanistan; Somalia; Sierra Leone; the Gulf and Far East. A career in the Armed Forces definitely tests you!
Whilst the primary role of an attack helicopter is fairly self explanatory, to head into combat with a range of weapon systems at your disposal, all military aircraft have the secondary role of what we call MEDEVAC (medical evacuation of casualties). Irrespective of what mission you might be on, if someone needs life saving medical treatment then the nearest helicopter is immediately re-tasked to pick up that individual, and get them to the nearest medical facility. It's the quickest way to get help to those who need it most, the Air Ambulance Service applies exactly the same principles; that's why their helicopters are dispatched to the most urgent medical cases in the country.
Having been dispatched for such tasking myself, I've always found it to be deeply personal. Most military helicopters aren't huge in size, so when a casualty is brought onboard, the aircrew are only a matter of feet away from him/her. At that point, our job is to whisk the casualty off to the nearest hospital, at the very fastest speed the aircraft can manage. Speed is always of the essence, it can be a very tense situation.
Unfortunately, due to the life threatening injuries these casualties have sustained, some don't make it and pass away during the flight. On such occasions, the overwhelming emotion I have felt is one of guilt, which I hadn't anticipated. The guilt of being present for the final moments of someone's life; someone who is a stranger to me, a random chain of events resulting in their life ending in my helicopter. Meanwhile, the family of this individual have no idea about their passing, they are likely 1000s of miles away. Probably going about their every day life, counting down the days until their mum / dad / husband / wife / brother / friend is back in their arms. Except, that won't ever happen again, it's tragic.
Of course, within a matter of hours they will find out. A representative from the military will go to their door, and the news will be passed. This is clearly a crushing moment for any family, I can't imagine how my own 7 yr old daughter would react were she to find out she wouldn't ever see me again; that there would be no more hugs, no more reading of bedtime stories, no more riding bikes around the park together. You get the idea.
The mental health impact on families is huge, and can endure for decades. The Royal Navy Royal Marines Charity (RNRMC) works tirelessly with such families, to provide support for as long as it takes. Both Dan and I cherish our families, as I'm sure we all do. We wanted to use our ride to help get the necessary support to those who need it, in conjunction with the RNRMC - all funds raised from our ride go directly to the charity.
By donating, you are helping to secure the support these families need, an incredibly generous thing to do. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines family would be eternally grateful for any support you may be able to give, whether that's the amount you spend on your daily coffee, or something more substantial.
Thank you - www.justgiving.com/starsandspokes