The Special Air Service came into existence in the 1940s during the Second World War, making it one of the oldest special operations units. Known for their incredibly difficult selection process, the SAS produces some of the toughest — both physically and mentally — soldiers in the world. Chris Ryan, a retired soldier and survival expert, is living proof of how far an SAS trooper can push himself beyond the limits in the direst situations.
Having joined the military at a young age, Ryan (a pseudonym — he was born Colin Armstrong) appeared for SAS selection and passed, joining the ranks of the British Army’s shadowy, elite fighting force. He was sent overseas several times on a variety of missions and covert operations, including training guerilla fighters in Asia.
Assigned to 22 Special Air Service Regiment, Ryan was deployed to Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War as part of 22 SAS’s Bravo Squadron. In conjunction with other coalition special ops elements, SAS strike teams were inserted behind enemy lines in Iraq and Kuwait to harass Iraqi forces and pinpoint the locations of mobile Scud ballistic missile launchers.
Ryan was attached to one such team, serving as its medic. The 8-man unit, known as Bravo Two Zero, was covertly inserted deep into Iraqi territory via a Chinook helicopter, whereupon they traveled by foot to their observation post.
Things began to go wrong quickly.
The team’s radioman discovered that their communications gear was faulty. Though their transmissions were received by their command post, Bravo Two Zero was wholly unaware of whether their messages had actually gone through and couldn’t receive any messages in return.
Further complicating matters was the presence of Bedouin nomadic tribes roaming around the desert. The day following their insertion, Bravo Two Zero was compromised when a Bedouin shepherd unwittingly stumbled upon the team while they were on patrol. Ditching excess gear, the team decided to exfiltrate — the element of stealth and surprise was lost altogether and Iraqi forces would likely be ready for them in superior numbers.
However, emergency pickup never came.
The Chinook assigned to the task of removing Bravo Two Zero from behind enemy lines had to turn back because of an in-flight emergency. The team decided to try and hail nearby Coalition forces aircraft with their tactical beacons and, in the process, became inadvertently separated. The team experienced their first loss with the death of Sergeant Vince Phillips, the patrol’s second-in-command, due to hypothermia. Another operative, Trooper Mal MacGown, was captured by Iraqi forces quickly afterwards while trying to steal a Toyota SUV for transportation.
Ryan, now completely separated from the rest of Bravo Two Zero, was on his own. The remaining members of his team were either captured, imprisoned, or had died in an attempt to escape to friendly territory.
Orienting himself north, Ryan began a long march that would make even the most experienced soldiers blush. Walking over 190 miles through the desert over the span of eight days, the stranded SAS medic made it to safety, where he was taken into protective custody by Syrian border guards.
Over the course of his journey, Ryan survived on minimal food and water, losing over 36 lbs of weight. To make matters worse, he was poisoned after drinking water from a creek in Iraq — the water had been contaminated by waste from a nearby nuclear weapons manufacturing facility.
Upon being remanded to the care of British diplomats, Ryan was transferred back home to the United Kingdom. The other members of Bravo Two Zero would be released by the war’s end.
Ryan, in no physical condition to remain an active SAS operative, continued his service with the regiment as a training instructor before retiring from the military life altogether in 1994. Today, he offers his expertise on survival and special operations as an author and an advisor for a number of television shows.
To this day, no soldier has ever successfully accomplished a similar feat.