In May 2009, Captain Tony Harris was leading a specialist team in Afghanistan, providing security so that schools and hospitals could be rebuilt in the Helmand region. One day, as his group was reorganising after a desert firefight, his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device. “I was launched twenty meters into the air,” he remembers, the blast wave fracturing both of his feet and snapping his left arm. “The guys got their metal detectors out and walked towards me very slowly," he explains. "They found six more bombs between me and the vehicle. I'd invested a lot of time in my teams, getting them to believe in themselves and take ownership, and I’m really proud of how they handled the situation.”
Tony is now an Operations Manager at Amazon’s fulfilment centre (FC) in Dunstable, leading a team of 300 and bringing his leadership experience from the field to civilian life.
“I didn’t want to be defined by my physical self”
“Since I was four, I wanted to join the army,” says Tony. “I liked the idea of leading others, and there’s no more challenging team to lead than one where the risk of your decisions is so high.” He completed six tours - two in Northern Ireland, three in Iraq and one in Afghanistan - before the day that would change his life forever.
Tony was flown back to Sellyoak Hospital, Birmingham, following the incident. Infection had set into his left foot, triggering a cycle of around thirty operations over the next ten months. For the entire period, he was in a great deal of pain. In the end, he decided to have his leg amputated: “I didn’t want to be defined by my physical self. So, I said ‘let’s cut it off and start again.’ It was the best decision I made in the whole process”.
Two weeks before Tony’s injury, his wife had given birth to their second child, a baby girl. This was all the motivation he needed to get fit and strong again. “The goal I set for myself was to learn to walk with my daughter. I think she actually beat me to that,” he smiles.
After being introduced to the idea of motor sports, Tony and his best friend set up Race2Recovery, a team that succeeded in racing the Dakar Rally twice and raised more than £350,000 for the charity Help for Heroes, which supports injured service men and women. In fact, they became the first ever amputee team to complete the Dakar. “It felt amazing,” he reminisces. “It meant that the day that had made the most impact on my life was no longer the day when I was blown up: it was now the day when we put this team together and achieved something great post-injury.”
Tony also took part in the first Invictus Games in 2014, where his team won gold in sitting volleyball. “Participating helped rebuild my physical and mental resilience. It was about being anti-fragile and reminding ourselves that these experiences could make us stronger than we were before. It was also a key step in my mental recovery, putting some purpose back into my life.”
Leadership with purpose
The next step was making a decision about what Tony's professional future would look like. With other friends from the military, he built a leadership company: “I wanted to teach others, especially young people, how to be authentic leaders.” Four years later, he felt that the time had come to stop coaching and start doing.
As a signee of the Armed Forces Covenant, Amazon offers veterans from all over the country the opportunity to launch into post-military careers. Tony spoke to an ex-Navy friend who worked for the company: “It piqued my interest,” he recalls. “I wanted to do something with purpose, working with high-performing people and challenging myself on the largest scale to have an impact. Amazon ticked all those boxes.” Tony joined Amazon Operations in 2019, as an Area Manager in Dunstable’s FC – his first step in the world of logistics. “The role gave me space to learn on the job.”
A land of great adventure
Recently, Tony has been promoted to the role of Operations Manager, and his days are now busier than ever. “I am a trustee of Blesma, the limbless veterans charity, and I have just completed my MBA.” As the manager of a team of 300, his leadership experience is invaluable: “After managing my own business and sharing leadership advice, I was keen to get back to leading large groups of people and developing a shared sense of purpose. In this sense, Amazon is a land of great adventure, there is so much going on,” he says. “I love the fact that I’m not stuck behind a desk but I am able to shape the environment around me, to make it safer, more sustainable and more fun.”
Tony hopes that others searching for a new journey at the end of their military career will look to Amazon: “You have all the skills you need to succeed. You’ll be surprised by how much you actually have to offer from your past experiences: you’ve done great things, and you can continue that here.”