Wigan ex-serviceman battling PTSD crosses world's largest continuous desert

Daniel Cunliffe
Daniel Cunliffe

A Wigan ex-serviceman has become one of very few people to ever cross the largest continuous desert in the world.

Daniel Cunliffe crossed the Empty Quarter in Oman as part of a 17-man expeditionary team, comprised of British military veterans with disabilities or suffering from PTSD.

The VetRun180 team

The VetRun180 team

The dad-of-one, from Orrell, traversed hundreds of miles of massive sand dunes - some up to 400 feet high - in off-road vehicles.

Daniel and his companions were following in the tracks of famous British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who succeeded in making the journey on camels with a 50-strong support team of desert tribesmen, just after the Second World War.

And whereas Thesiger took two months, the group of former servicemen made it in less than a week.

The expedition was arranged by VetRun180, which is run by two former Royal Marines who take veterans struggling with physical or psychological injuries on 4X4 adventures worldwide, completely free of charge.

Some of the dunes were 400ft high

Some of the dunes were 400ft high

The Dubai-based company, SKA International Group, which is owned by a former Paratrooper and is a leader in fuel, aviation and logistics in conflict zones in the Middle East, sponsored the expedition for the veterans.

Daniel, who is now an electrician, has been battling PTSD symptoms since serving in Afghanistan.

He said: “It isn’t just one thing. I buried my best mate when I was 19; I was shot at, often; I unearthed improvised explosive devices.

"It was always something else, day after day. I feel guilty. I feel angry.

“It is affecting every part of my life, but I know I have to do something about it because my son is only a year old, and I don’t want him to remember me like this.”

He added: “When we hit that first sand dune, and I had that rush, that was the rush I had when I was under fire. But I was safe. It felt good.”

And Daniel revealed he almost didn’t go on the expedition at all.

“I pulled over in a petrol station and thought I should just turn around and sack it off,” he said.

“But I couldn’t keep running away from it for the rest of my life. I think now, if I was older, I could probably have dealt with things better, more life experience.

"But not at 19. I thought I was a man but I wasn’t.

“You think oh, I am in the army, I am going to war. But at 19 you shouldn’t be doing things like that.”

Matt Abbott, co-founder of BetRun 180, said: “Thesiger was an ex-army officer. So it was fitting that our team of military veterans should attempt such an epic journey. We covered 700 miles of desert faster than we expected.

“These were some of the biggest dunes in the world and it is a testament to the resourcefulness of the veterans that we made it. We were frequently stuck and there was only us to get ourselves out. We were in the middle of the desert all alone.”

Matt had to overcome his own injuries to make the journey. He lost part of his thigh and calf in Afghanistan when he was hit by a rocket, and has undergone 10 years of operations, the last one just a couple of months before the trip.

“We organise expeditions like these to show other veterans, who are struggling with combat-related injuries, what they are capable of,” he said.

Matt’s partner in VetRun180, Matt Bispham MC, who was awarded his Military Cross for extraordinary bravery in Afghanistan, said it was important to encourage injured military veterans to re-engage with other ex-servicemen.

He said: “From my own experience, I know this is better than any other therapy I was offered. It got me off the sofa, where I was feeling incapable and sorry for myself, and gave me new focus, which was exactly what I needed.

“The military-type camaraderie, the laughing, the challenges; I realised I had missed it so much.

“Suddenly I was laughing again. We have all been through the same difficulties, and just as we fought together, we can get better together in an environment we are used to.”

SKA International Group CEO Mike Douglas joined the veterans for part of the expedition, and knows full well the challenges they are facing.

He was medically discharged from the army and was also forced to turn his life around.

“If people go away from this with a positive feeling, believing that the only limitation in their life is what is in their own mind, then I will be very happy.

"You shouldn’t allow a disability or any set back in your life to hold you back. I didn’t,” said Mike.

He praised the veterans who took part in the desert run, saying: “I couldn’t believe how good they were. I guess it is their innate confidence.

“They just got stuck in straight away.

“They also took a tougher route than I was expecting them to take.

“Rather than finding the easiest route, going around the side of the dunes, they went straight over the top, which was more fun, and more of a challenge, and they did it.”

VetRun180 is keen to hear from any military veterans, suffering from disabilities or PTSD symptoms, who might like to join one of their expeditions.

All costs are covered, thanks to the huge generosity of companies like SKA International Group, and one particular Yorkshire benefactor.

The organisation is presently waiting for its charitable status to be granted.

To find out more visit vetrun180.org