WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
A story of naivety, adversity and reflection...
Joining The Army
I have always been fascinated by the military. As a teenager, instead of reading local headlines in the news, I would read the World News section, to try to understand conflicts around the globe, and also to study the pictures in the articles. I read the Bible-sized Black Hawk Down novel before the film of the same name was released, at 10 years old. I am a naturally relaxed person, and so I wanted to better myself by embracing the discipline and structure offered by the military. There was a burning desire to have responsibility, push myself and prove myself. I wanted to attend university also, and so the logical choice to me seemed to be joining the Australian military, specifically by attending the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA), on the 20th January 2010. This program turns “civvies” into Military Officers through three years of study and training at ADFA, and one final year at the Royal Military College, Duntroon.
The first 6 weeks of ADFA is a crash course in Military Discipline, Ethos, Marching, Dress and Bearing, Weapons and Leadership. 6am was Reveille, or wake up, where we would sprint downstairs and outside into the frigid Canberra weather, and stand at attention to receive orders for the day. From there it was non-stop marching, Physical Training, military classes. We would have 10 minutes to line up for food and then eat lunch. There were no breaks sometimes until 10pm. And then we may have a few fire drills for good measure. It was a wholly new experience, where you met people from all over the country, learnt about the military and also about yourself. It was 6 weeks of fatigue, embarrassment and hunger mixed with pride, laughter and learning.
It is a high-pressure environment, and so naturally you develop ways to avoid punishment or unwanted attention. Troublemakers and trainees who struggled with some concepts were berated by the drill instructors, and their peers formed opinions of them accordingly. I tried my best to avoid making mistakes and catching the ire of the instructors, but like many I was caught out a few times. Sticking out for the wrong reasons is bad, but not standing out at all is worse, something I learned later.
The final week of the first 6 weeks consisted of a set of Leadership exercises which took us to Lake Burrinjuck, an hour from Canberra. Here we would go kayaking, learn bush navigation, rock-climbing and exit boats at high speed on the lake.
On day two, we spent out morning kayaking around the lake, hitting checkpoints and managing to have a lot of fun without getting into trouble (rare up until this point). The next activity was High Speed Water Insertion. This is where we would ride on boat, lie on the side, and as the boat was driving in a straight line, we would roll off the side and land on our backs, on the water. We all had a chance to do this at 15, 20, and 25 knots. After we had finished the exercise, the Petty Officer (PO) in command suggested we have a bit of fun with the boat, and so we would join in on some high-speed manoeuvres.
Of the 6 teams, I was in the last group of 6 to have our turn. I was seated on the left of the boat, second closest to the propeller. On our first run, we did a high-speed 180 degree turn to the left. I looked up with amazement and joy as one of my friends on the other side flew off the boat and into the water. We plucked him up out of the water. We were laughing and joking, and we were all excited to feel the sensation of flying out of the boat. The next turn was to the right. We were travelling so fast that there was no way I could have held on. I was lifted off the boat into the air. As I hit the water and was submerged, I felt what was like a rugby tackle on my lower back, as the boat passed over me. I gathered my breath and immediately felt the cool lake water seeping into my body. A dull ache consumed my body. I looked down and saw a bread loaf sized (what was my buttocks) piece of flesh hanging off me with a gaping red gap in-between it and my body. The water around me became magenta as what had happened to me began to sink in. I recall being able to feel my toes, and knowing the importance of doing so. Never have I ever felt so alone and vulnerable. It takes the breath away, and also takes part of you, something intangible, away from you. The trainee next to me on the boat was some distance away from me, and started to swim toward me. She was more shocked than I was, and understandably did not know what to do. I hesitated when I called for help. At that moment, of all moments, – I still partly wanted to avoid unwanted attention. The boat slowly motored over, my friends and the PO unaware of what had happened. (the PO later mentioned that he had ‘felt’ something through the steering wheel during the collision; I still shudder at that thought).
Another trainee hoisted me by my shoulders onto the boat. As he looked over my shoulder, he later reflected that he could not initially see any legs, only a red line where my legs should have been. The girl in the water was behind me, she would have had a horrible view as I was pulled up. As I was placed on the deck of the boat, it started to dawn on me what was happening. I was losing blood, and everything was happening too fast and out of my control. It was beginning to become chaotic – some of the other trainees were crying, friends were trying to comfort and relax me. It started to rain. I began to feel very cold and fragile. However, I was not yet scared. I still had an immense faith in the PO and the other trainees.
We arrived at the shore and the pain was starting to consume my being. It was now raining, and I was still in my wet wetsuit, which was basically the only thing holding me together. I had by this stage lost 3-4L of blood, which was being replaced by IV fluid. I was losing focus, my thoughts were becoming fuzzy, however I remained very positive and maintained a (naïve) notion that I would be alright. The training staff managed to keep my spirits up through joking and laughter. I think I even made them laugh somehow. Maybe that is what saved me. A photo was taken. While I was sheltered from this news initially, the ambulance that had been dispatched could not access me as a tree had fallen in the storm, and was now blocking the road.
I had been given Ketamine. This is a horse tranquillizer that is supremely effective. I felt no pain. I felt happy! My boss arrived to speak to me, and in my state, I thought it pertinent that I offer my food and clothes to the other cadets, who were wet, cold and tired. I would no longer need them! I was eventually airlifted to Canberra Hospital for my first helicopter ride. It would have been a bumpy, frightening ride due to the storm, even if I was not lying on my front with an immense gash in my buttocks. It was a surreal time, coming in and out of consciousness in a helicopter surrounded by paramedics who made you feel like they were your best buddies. I spoke to the padre who assured me everything would be okay, that I would survive and the best surgeons would be operating on me. This talk really did make a difference, and we shared a great relationship in the years after.
By this stage my family had been informed of what had happened. My father was watching Australia vs West Indies at the Gabba. My mother was driving from Adelaide to Melbourne to visit her mother who had just had a stroke. That night I came out of the operation and my family were there to visit me. I had an extubated endotracheal tube, which was basically a tube down my throat to help me breathe. I could not talk, move my body or my neck. I could move my arms and toes. There is no way to describe the panic, isolation and desperation that I felt. A warm, unpleasant sensation would run up through my body that had a petrifying effect. I felt like I was being mummified. This, coupled with a catheter, colostomy bag, the uncertainty about the extent of my recovery and drips truly confirmed to me that I was in serious strife.
The full extent of my injuries were not to be realised later. There were no relatable accidents for surgeons and doctors to consult before treating me. After I was rushed in to the hospital, they sewed me back together with 70 staples. However, due to the enormous amount of lake water and bacteria inside of me, I was soon reopened and they drained the lake water out of me, and pumped me full of antibiotics. Infection at this stage was the biggest risk to my life. The propeller had fractured my spine; it had cut right through my Right Illiac Wing and Sacrum. It had clipped the outside of my spinal cord, which would now leak spinal fluid. Any further and I would now be a paraplegic. There was also a risk that the spinal cord fluid would leak into my brain and this would also kill me. The medical teams were considering installing metal plates and rods in my back, as they were not sure whether or not my body would heal normally. Thankfully, they had faith in the body’s healing power and decided to let me heal naturally.
The first 3 weeks were a blur of immense pain and fatigue, confusion and frustration. I had many nightmares; they would bring back the intense ‘mummification’ feeling that I experienced earlier – akin to being buried alive. My body was so weak and so full of drugs, that any food would make me want to throw up. Moving my head or talking too much would fatigue me. I could not roll over if I wanted to – I would have to wait until a team of nurses could be assembled to do this for me. During this period I received many visits from family, friends, the military, doctors, psychologists, crime investigators and strangers. The PO visited me, and we discussed the accident. He was apologetic and said that he was going to give me a gift (I never received anything from him) and he also described using a hose to wash all of the blood that covered the entire floor of the boat. There was a news article about the incident. Sometimes I would want everyone to go away, and other times I was extremely lonely. Sometimes I wanted everything to stop and to realise it was a bad dream. In the 4th week my Grandfather (my mothers side) passed away, whom our family was very close to. Nothing seemed to be going our way. I still could not so much as sit up in bed.
Week 6, and I was told I would be finally able to think about walking again. It is funny – my first ever exposure to the military was a 6-week training course, and it was now contrasted to 6 weeks in hospital. The physiotherapist began by placing me on an electronic board that could be tilted to varying degrees until you were vertical. I would spend all day on it, beginning at around 20 degrees, and I would be tilted until I was finally at 90 degrees. There is an extreme sensation of vertigo. It is amazing how fast your body adapts to being sedentary and horizontal. I went from a healthy 78kg to 64kg. My legs could not even support my now reduced weight.
I spend a month recovering at home. I still had a colostomy bag but I was happy to be with my family and friends, taking it slow and steady. There were a few times when the colostomy bag got in the way of some potentially intimate moments. I truly feel for those permanently afflicted with one. I could walk, talk, eat, drink, piss, (
almost shit) and do most things that I could before. I now have three large scars running across my buttocks – in some ways it is a neat party trick. But when I returned to Canberra, to re-join my cohort a mere 3 months later, I was immediately labelled the boat guy. Maybe I wasn’t, but it was the way I felt. I was behind my fellow cadets in university and military life. They had developed relationships and experience while I had watched TV in hospital. It was very difficult for me to feel like I fit back in.
During my recovery I was still fully active and participating in all of the activities that were required of me. It began to take a toll on me, as I was still experiencing a lot of pain during long marches and physical training sessions. I therefore decided to leave the military in September 2013. While my career progression in the military would have been clearly mapped out – now that I am a civilian it is much less so. I was able to secure an analyst role at Raytheon Australia for two years since – a major global weapons manufacturer and contractor. I am now embarking on a trip to live in New York, to experience all that is has to offer.
While it took me a very long time, I have made an almost full recovery, both physically and mentally. The most difficult thing for me to come to terms with was not my injury, but how and why my situation was different to others. Why did it happen to me, and not anyone else? Was it my fault? Could I have done anything different? What if I had? What does this make me as a person now? Does it define me? Should it? There was a court case, and the PO was charged with Grievous Bodily Harm and Reckless Endangerment, for which he was found not guilty. Giving a statement as a victim in court was something I never thought I would one day do. It is not easy to relive the experience in-front of family, friends and strangers, in such a cold and calculated environment such as a court. I felt as though I had to prove I was innocent! I never did and do not resent the military at all for what happened. I am thankful that the military was there when it happened, for they had the capability to fix me.
In the end, although it may seem counterintuitive, I am extremely lucky. The surgeons informed me that I could have been a paraplegic had the propeller struck me a couple of millimetres deeper, which would have severed my spinal cord. I am in a unique position, whereby I have now learnt one of life’s most cherished lessons: the speed at which your life can turn upside down, but I am lucky enough to walk away.
Many people have experienced injuries that are much worse than mine. They were not able to walk away. Many people have perished due to the stupidity of others. Draw upon your life experiences to get you through the hard times. Don’t take your life for granted, wake up each day with a purpose. If you don’t have one that is meaningful to you, find one. Achieve something each day. It may be little by little, but if it is on the path to something larger, then it will be worth it.