At the conclusion of BBC One’s coverage of Remembrance Sunday last year, David Dimbleby read lines from a poem composed by a British soldier blinded in Afghanistan.
"Their spirits and souls flow across the sea back to Blighty where the country will salute them
And where the men who stood beside them will cry a tear and never forget."
Paul Jacobs is the soldier poet, and on Sunday, he will line up at the start of the London Marathon to honour his comrades once more - and to raise funds for those who survived but who, like him, are living with life-changing injuries.
Now 26, Jacobs has bright ginger hair and a sense of humour that belies his life story.
It was in 2009, in Upper Sangin in Helmand Province, that he was blown up by an improvised explosive device (IED). Despite severe injuries, he managed to lift another colleague to safety. His colleague did not survive, but Jacobs, at just 21, was awarded the George Medal and commended for his “sheer personal courage and startling determination’’.
He began writing poems last year following a tour of the First World War battlefields. On the coach to Belgium, he heard Rudyard Kipling’s poem "Tommy" ("I went into a public 'ouse to get a pint o' beer / The publican 'e up an' sez, 'We serve no red-coats here'") for the first time, and dictated his first attempt to a friend.
“I knew that I wanted to get something off my chest - to pay my respects to the blokes - and I didn’t know how to,” he says. “Then all these words just came tumbling out in such an order.” His friend sent the poetry to Dimbleby.
Jacobs was marching in the Remembrance Sunday ceremonial at the Cenotaph and only learned his words had been read out later. It was, he says, his greatest honour. “[Dimbleby] wrote to me and said it was the best Cenotaph - if you can call it that - he’d ever commentated, due to my poetry.”
It is an achievement he is especially proud of, having left school at 16 after failing his GCSEs. As a youngster in south London, he was in and out of foster care - and trouble. He was arrested “about five times” in his teens.
“It was naughty. Theft. That’s what you do when you’re silly and surrounded by numpties. I had no money and I saw money.” One night, he was chased through Clapham Common by police dogs with a helicopter overhead and ended up before the magistrate.
“The Magistrate said: 'I’m going to give you this opportunity. I’m not going to convict you of anything, but I urge you to do something with your life. Do the Forces, do something - I don’t want to ever see you in my court again’.”
Rifleman Paul Jacobs with his fiancee Louise Smith (Photo: PA)
Soon afterwards, he says, he was sitting beneath Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square when he struck up conversation with a stranger who told him of the admiral’s relatively humble background as the son of a Norfolk clergyman. “It just made me think, 'If he can do it, why can’t I?’’’
Days later he was in a recruiting office and, within six months, in Northern Ireland in full body armour. Then, in 2008, his regiment, 2nd Battalion The Rifles, prepared for deployment in Afghanistan.
“Everybody was writing their wills out and making sure they were fit,” he says. “We was all keen as mustard to get out there and prove ourselves. It was very exciting, it was adrenalin, fear, the satisfaction of doing your job.”
Helmand in the spring of 2009 was a desperate place. Growing up in Brixton, he had seen dead bodies before but this was different. “There’s nothing that can prepare you for Afghanistan. You’re either a soldier and you got it in you or you haven’t. Afghanistan broke a lot of men and a lot of good soldiers. It was carnage.”
As a Vallon man - the soldier in a patrol who carries the mine detector - his role was to find and destroy IEDs. In one incident, an IED killed one soldier and wounded four others. Another device then went off, killing the walking wounded and injuring seven more. “When you’re identifying a body just by a tattoo because there’s no head or arms, it’s a bit strange. When you’re having to pick up guts and arms and feet...
"You’re trained not to think about it. You just put it in a case and lock it up. There’s people dying, people screaming, just do your job and get back in, reassess the situation and attack harder and faster the next day.
“I remember the coffins all being lined up in the dusk. Each coffin had the Union flag over it. I remember the stars very bright that night and everyone turning out in their berets and giving these lads the final salute.”
Jacob’s regiment was so undermanned, he says, that another unit with no previous experience of Afghanistan was sent out to bolster them. Just weeks later, he was on patrol with some of the new arrivals when a 19-year-old soldier ahead of him stepped on an IED. Jacobs threw himself on the corpse.
“I didn’t want to freak the other blokes out by seeing a dead body. Then I realised with the dust settling that I was now in an IED field - a daisy chain - so if one goes off they all go.” His colleague, Serjeant Paul McAleese, son of John McAleese, who led the SAS team that stormed the Iranian Embassy in 1981, came to his aid but trod on a secondary device. It was that blast that blinded Jacobs and blew chunks out of his right thigh and arm.
“I should be dead. Shrapnel cut through my right eye, through the right side of my nose and went up into the brain.” Yet he managed to carry the fatally wounded McAleese to a clear zone.
He woke up in hospital in Birmingham with 20 per cent vision in his left eye. An operation to improve his sight went wrong and he was left totally blind. But something good did come out of the tragedy. While in hospital, he fell for one of the health care assistants nursing him. “That helped with my recovery because I think love can help with anything,” he says. He married Louise in 2010, and they have a three-year-old son.
Since his recovery, he has climbed Kilimanjaro, and is aiming to be the first blinded veteran to summit of Everest and to swim the English Channel. He would like to compete in the Paralympics and ultimately hopes for a job in the charity sector.
One of the charities he supports is Afghan Connection, which builds schools. “I come from nothing, but them kids have got absolutely nothing and I feel for them. I made sure I went out there after being on leave with buckets of sweeties, pens and pencils.”
Jacobs says that the British Army, at the time of his deployment, were under-equipped for battle. “If [politicians] are going to send us into a war then we’ve got to have the right resources,” he says. “You don’t send a boxer into the ring without proper gloves, do you? The real men and women of our society are the people on the bread line from the council estates that make up the army, the navy and the air force''
His blindness is a tougher challenge than the fighting was. ''I could face those bullets and bombs because they don’t last all day. But blindness will last for the rest of my life.”
He isn’t bitter, though, and his personal motto is: "You don’t need sight to have vision."
''Some of us are dealt cards that are no good and they keep getting burnt round the edge. You’ve just got to pick yourself up and keep dusting yourself off.”