It was Friday the 13th and Special Forces soldier Toby Gutteridge’s luck had run out.
A large caliber bullet entered his neck just below the ear, severing his spine as hot metal fragments shattered inside his body.
Toby, a highly trained soldier from the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) stopped breathing instantly.
His comrades brought him back to life amid the shooting that took place inside an Afghan compound in November 2009.
The 7.62 bullet caused so much damage that doctors used 51 metal staples to keep his head from detaching from his body.
Two weeks earlier, Toby had suffered a flesh wound after being shot in the shoulder, but refused to return to the UK for treatment.
If he had chosen to fly home, his life would have been totally different.
It had been predicted that Toby – one of the youngest and most suitable soldiers to join the SBS – would become one of the undercover regiment’s top agents.
But now, 13 years later, he is confined to a wheelchair, unable to move any of his limbs, while a ventilator controls his breathing.
He’s been to hell and back, defied death numerous times, and even planned an assisted suicide.
But the ex-soldier doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him.
Now 37, he is engaged after proposing – as the sun set over a restaurant in Dubai – to his girlfriend, Savannah, a nurse who cared for him.
“NO MAN LEFT BEHIND”
And after college, he started an extreme sports clothing company, aptly called Bravery.
He also wrote an inspirational book about his battle between life and death titled Never Will I Die – a motto he tattooed on his chest.
In his adapted home and office in Dorset, Toby tells The Sun: “It took a lot of time, a lot of effort and sleepless nights.
“There were a lot of flashbacks and upsetting memories that I had to remember. This isn’t just another Special Forces book, with silly one-liners and screaming and fighting.
“It’s about facing your demons, being brave in the face of the hand life has thrown at you, and never giving up.”
Toby remembers little of that 2009 nighttime mission to round up Taliban insurgents from an Afghan compound near Sangin in Helmand province.
He says: “I advanced under a rain of gunfire and I fell like a sack of potatoes.
“No man is left behind – that’s the cardinal rule. I was dragged out of the compound by a mate and a doctor. They saved my life.
“To their amazement they found a strong pulse but had no idea where I had been shot. They groped in total darkness.
“The exit wound in the back of my neck was terrible, a mess of jagged nerves, muscles, arteries, veins, ligaments and lymph nodes.
There were a lot of flashbacks and upsetting memories that I had to remember. This isn’t just another Special Forces book, complete with silly one-liners, screaming, and fighting.
“The entry wound was a gaping hole. They had no choice but to stick their fingers in to try and stem the blood loss.
“Everyone in the Special Boat Service is medically trained. The guys’ job was to keep me alive by any means possible until the casevac (casualty evacuation) helicopter landed 20 minutes later.
“I was told I wasn’t breathing, but they tried to force air into my lungs. The medics worked on me as I lay bloodied and inert on the floor of the helicopter.
“My pulse rose and fell continuously during the 40-minute flight to a US base, where I was unloaded onto a trailer, towed by a quad bike.
“I vividly remember one of my comrades saying, ‘We won’t see him again,’ before the helicopter took off to return to the combat zone.”
Toby’s Kevlar helmet, cracked and chipped after taking a second round from an AK-47 – which ricocheted off without finishing him off – is his only memory of that night.
He says, “No one understands how I survived. I was young and fit, but that couldn’t fully explain why I defied medical logic.
Surgeons at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham performed three major operations, but reluctantly came to the conclusion that it was best to switch off life support and let nature take its course.
Toby says, “Behind those closed eyes and seemingly frozen flesh, I cried out for life – ‘I need to live, I don’t want to die. . . Listen’.
His brother Ben came to the rescue and begged them to wake Toby from his induced coma and give him a chance.
Toby recalls: “Cold turkey, after being slowly brought out of my coma, was brutal.
“Ridden by cold sweats, I lost all rationality and I succumbed to the uncontrollable anger of a drug addict.
“Even royalty got a hold of it. Prince Charles gave me a huge compliment by insisting on seeing me.
I vividly remember one of my comrades saying, “We won’t see him again,” before the helicopter took off to return to the combat zone.
“He thanked me for my service and sacrifice in a way that went beyond the usual formalities, but I wasn’t in a very good frame of mind.
“I told him all I wanted was the pen he used to sign the guestbook. He laughed and declined, saying it was a gift.
“Prince Charles obviously remembered the request and brought it up when I met him again, at a reception at Windsor Castle several years later, but the enclosure was still off limits.”
Toby, who grew up in South Africa, spent a year at a spine center in Salisbury, Wilts, but instead of returning to live with his family he went to friendly quarters on a military base in Poole in 2011. The base was close to SBS HQ and he was daily tormented with his remaining life.
He says: “For years, I looked out the window, sometimes eight hours a day. I was chronically depressed. I could not sleep.
“Everything in my life was gone. All gone. And I thought, ‘The only thing I have control over is my own death.’
Toby plunged into alcoholism, often drinking himself to oblivion in a club open until 6 a.m.
Toby recalls: “I was outside the club hopelessly drunk and smoking a cigarette – a senseless act of self-harm – when my ventilator battery ran out.
“It started beeping madly as pandemonium erupted all around.
“I should have died but, again, it was not my time.
“I was saved by the foresight of club staff, who had an Ambu bag – a ventilator designed for manual ventilation.
“A friend of mine picked it up in just over a minute, put on a mask and started pumping air into my lungs.
For years I stared out the window, sometimes eight hours a day. I was chronically depressed. I could not sleep.
“I should have begged for forgiveness and expressed endless gratitude when order was restored, but I didn’t care if I lived or died.
“I was out of my face, pouring poison into my system. I was just trying to numb the pain, dull the senses.
On two other occasions, Toby’s life was saved by his service dog, trained to detect danger.
Wogan, a long-haired Labrador cross, was named after broadcaster Sir Terry, who had sponsored the animal’s training.
‘SOULMATE ON FOUR LEGS’
Toby says: “In both cases, I was left alone in a downstairs room. My tracheostomy tube came loose so I couldn’t breathe.
“Without mechanical assistance, I have about 90 seconds before I pass out and die.
“Wogan jumped on a red buzzer on the wall, which he pressed with his nose. The alarms sounded and luckily the staff came to my aid.
“Without his actions, I would be dead.”
Sadly, Wogan died in 2018 after eating a poisoned rat while scavenging.
Toby says, “I’m still trying to figure out what happened to Wogan. She was my four-legged soul mate.
His capacity for hope faded so much that he came up with plans for assisted suicide. But after a nervous breakdown, he relied on the SBS social worker.
Special Forces arranged for him to spend three months at Priory Hospital in Southampton in 2014, where life began to change.
Toby says, “I had a lot of time to think. I realized, with a lot of help from my therapist, that bad things can happen to good people. I had to take all the leadership skills and determination to be a soldier, adapt them and use them to overcome what had happened to me.
It was there that he hatched the plans for his company Bravery, which also encourages young people to get involved in surfing, mountain biking and motocross. And he fell in love with Savannah.
He says, “We have formed a beautiful relationship. It’s great because she got a glimpse of my life before we were a couple.
He adds: “If I had a magic wand, of course, I would fix myself. It’s hard but I get through it day after day by facing my demons.
“I’ve been given a second chance at life and it would be criminal of me to just throw that away, so I’m going to make the most of it.”
- Toby Gutteridge’s Never Will I Die (Bantam Press, £20) is out now. Toby’s business is online at courage.org.uk.