A Tale of Two Cities


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… While Royal Marines assist Sir Richard Branson in the Caribbean, Virgin Trains back home deny former Marine and amputee Andy Grant from boarding at London Euston.

September saw the British Virgin Islands get hit by not one but two horrific hurricanes. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and women were sent at speed to this British overseas territory. RFA Mounts Bay which has been deployed in the Caribbean since July in preparation for the hurricane season (and ready to provide support at a moment’s notice) was the UK’s first military response to the Caribbean.

Among the hundreds and thousands left with rebuilding their lives was billionaire Sir Richard Branson whose home on Necker Island was not spared from the path of destruction. But let me take you back to the week before that. Where here in the UK a Veteran of Afghanistan and an amputee was denied onto a Virgin Train for not being able to produce his disabled persons rail card after his wallet had been stolen.

Former Royal Marine Andy Grant who has served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan was injured in an IED explosion in Helmand Province eight years ago, that at the age of 20 resulted in him spending two weeks in an induced coma followed by eighteen months in and out of hospital undergoing 15 operations in a bid to save his leg. In 2010 he took the incredibly tough decision to have it amputated for a better quality of life and for control of his future.

andy grant
Royal Marine Andy Grant won two gold medals and a bronze at the Invictus Games in London. Credit: The Sun.

So after presenting his ticket on his smart phone he was asked to produce his disabled persons railcard when boarding a train to Liverpool Lime Street from London Euston – when he realised he had left his wallet in the café he had just been in. He went back to get it but it had gone. On returning to the train he explained the situation to the Virgin staff only to be told that without his card they couldn’t tell if he was disabled or not. So he rolled up his trousers and showed his prosthetic limb, but the Virgin staff insisted he left and the British Transport Police escorted him away.

Now you may think that the Virgin staff were just doing their job and were entitled to do this because he couldn’t produce the paperwork but I think most people with a brain would have been able to use a bit of initiative in this situation. If you type Andy Grant into google you will be able to see he won two gold medals and a bronze at the Invictus Games in London three years ago – an international sporting event set up by Prince Harry for wounded, ill and injured servicemen and women. Not to mention the dozens of articles and videos you can find of his motivational speaking as a direct result of overcoming adversity through the experience of loosing his leg and how he has adapted his life since.

This isn’t someone who has forgotten his or her ‘student card’ and doesn’t qualify for a discount; this is someone who has been completely abandoned and embarrassed by an organisation that hides behind corporate policy over human decency. He wasn’t after any special treatment – he had already bought a ticket and just wanted to go home.

The rules aren’t different for servicemen or women. Disabled personnel fall under the Equality Act 2010 that is designed to protect people from discrimination in the workplace and in wider society, but this wasn’t discrimination. According to Richard Scott, Director of Corporate Affairs at Virgin Trains, their policy in the event of someone loosing their railcard is they must be a new ticket. But as Andy tried to explain he couldn’t because he now didn’t have his wallet; fortunately he bumped into someone he knew and they were able to buy a full price ticket for him – he was also offered by complete strangers who wanted to help.  Let’s remember this man had lost his leg in a war he was sent to by our democratically elected government and the treatment he received for not being able to prove this was unacceptable. If we fail to look after our injured servicemen and women we have not only failed them but we have failed our society. Without getting too patriotic and ‘DailyMail’ about it the reason organisations like Virgin are able to exist is because of people like Andy.

You may have seen U.S. Air Force Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria delivering a powerful message this week (which you can watch here) after racial slurs were scrawled outside the dorm rooms of five black students at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School. This was leadership – he wanted everyone to be in no doubt this was unacceptable and was not worried about the image it may portray of the U.S. Air Force by making it public and actually invited people to take out their phones and record him speaking. His message was simple if you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect then you need to get out [of the US Air Force]. He wanted to eliminate it from happening again in the future by talking about it now. In his own words: “we would be naive to think we shouldn’t discuss this topic”. The same applies for Andy Grant, how long before it happens again on another Virgin Train or somewhere else?

A lot of people boast of their leadership abilities including Sir Richard, so you would think that the man who’s own mother had to re-mortgage their family home to help pay a settlement for unpaid taxes (after he sold records declared for ‘export only’ in the early days of his Virgin record business) would have apologised for the treatment of the former Royal Marine but he didn’t.

“Cheers for the lift” Sir Richard Branson with Royal Marines earlier this month in the British Virgin Islands.

Why you ask? Well Richard’s been busy. The public school boy who recently declared himself a non-resident of Britain to gain considerable tax benefits has just launched a new book and is busy telling elected governments in New York how we should tackle climate change (which isn’t the same as global warming to which I think is he referring). He popped into visit HMS Ocean to thank the ships crew for their help that ironically included Royal Marines, ensuring he got a photo of this gesture of good will up on twitter.

After Andy shared a video of him getting escorted from the train that has now been retweeted over 7000 times Virgin did get in touch with him but only to bizarrely ask him to confirm his details to cross check with the Rail Delivery Group who are the governing body responsible for issuing rail cards. At least they are consistent but they have a worryingly low ability to grasp the situation.

Misunderstandings do happen and we shouldn’t fall victim to blowing this out of proportion but beardy Branson can’t have it both ways. You can’t rely on the help and support of the armed forces  when it suits you (especially when you now don’t pay tax) – only to treat those that have served and are now injured as a result with disrespect when they are in a vulnerable position.

I’m not calling for his knighthood to be removed or anything as nearly ridiculous. This isn’t an all out attack at a man that has devoted large parts of his life to philanthropy. But for a man that frequently calls himself a ‘leader’ I think he should take responsibility by publicly apologising to Andy and helping to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. That’s what leadership is. Otherwise he is a coward, and on top of a druggy and a tax fraud that’s not  a good C.V.

If the tables were turned and it was the Royal Marines who refused to help Branson I wonder how long it would be before he made a public appearance…