In celebration of Armed Forces Day, we spoke to Jonny Burns, Security Duty Supervisor on our HS2 contract. Jonny joined the Army in 2008,serving in Germany and Cyprus, and completing tours in Jordan, Afghanistan and the Falklands. After a shoulder injury in 2013, Jonny was medically discharged in 2015, left with many uncertainties about his future.
Faced with homelessness and no stability, Jonny moved into a veteran’s homeless shelter in North Yorkshire which led to him applying for the Walking with the Wounded, Walk of America expedition. After the expedition, Jonny spent a further 6 months at the shelter but after having such a positive experience in America, he was determined to turn his life around.
Having moved down south, Jonny joined Atalian Servest in 2019 as a Security Duty Supervisor within our complex HS2 contract, spanning over 10 sites.
Can you tell us why you decided to apply for the Walk of America expedition?
I went through a very difficult time after being discharged from the Army, with little guidance after leaving I struggled to establish a new civilian life which, is why I ended up living at the Veterans Homeless Shelter. I decided to apply for the WoA expedition to give myself a new purpose, I needed a new challenge to push myself.
What was the experience like?
In total there was six of us, three veterans including myself from the UK and three from the USA. In total, we walked 1,000 miles across 13 weeks, walking through 25 states and 36 cities. From being homeless to being sponsored by major American brands who paid for our hotels and food, the only way I can describe the whole experience is as insane.
The walk itself was just phenomenal, the reception we had from the people of America was incredible. They listened, opened up about their own stories and supported us throughout the whole expedition.
We understand you met some famous faces along the way?
Yes, Prince Harry is the UK Patron of the Walking with the Wounded, he launched the expedition in the UK before everyone flew out to LA to start the walk. But, I would say the two people who had the biggest impression on me were Joe and Jill Biden, the now President and First Lady of the United States of America.
Can you tell us some more about how you met the President and First Lady?
Jill Biden was the American patron of Walking with the Wounded, it was one of the guys birthdays while we were there and Jill rang us up to wish him a happy birthday and to tell us she was going to come out and see us while we were on the walk. And a few days later, Jill and Joe both flew out to see us and they actually walked with us.
We were in St Louis at the time, along with their grandchildren, they invited us to join them to go up the Gateway Arch, a 630-foot monument with amazing views from the top. It was such a surreal experience.
We ended the walk in New York City, and they both came and joined us again. They walked the last 2 miles with us, with the American media following. It was on this occasion that they said they wanted to keep in touch and that the next time they were in England, they would come to visit us.
Did they keep in touch?
They did, they are the most powerful couple in the world but, also the most humble. We have kept in touch since meeting, and they have even sent me Christmas presents.
Last week I was relaxing on my sofa when I got a call to say Joe and Jill Biden have requested to see you during their visit to the UK. I knew they were coming to the UK for G7, but I never thought they would actually get in touch.
We were transported by the American Embassy to the runway at Heathrow where Airforce One was. They landed in their helicopter coming straight from lunch with the Queen, as soon as Jill saw us her face lit up. It was a surreal experience to be able to catch up like old friends with the President and First Lady, with them asking how I was and what I was doing now.
What have you taken away from this whole experience?
The biggest thing for me is that mental health affects everyone, particularly ex-military personnel. Once you have experienced mental health, it never goes, you will have good days and bad but, it does get better. I hope that my story shows other people that there is hope at the end of the tunnel and that amazing opportunities are always around the corner, you just have to say yes.