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How sport helps heal war wounds

11:15am April 24 2018

Lance Corporal Gary Wilson has overcome critical injuries sustained in the Afghanistan war.  (Emma Foster)

When I finally came completely out of a coma in September 2010, it’s probably fortunate I had no memory of the previous few months.

I’d been on my last mission after almost six months on the front line in Afghanistan, when the Black Hawk helicopter carrying our squad crashed near Kandahar, killing four service personnel, including three Australians – the largest loss of Australian lives in any single incident in almost a decade of the war.

I was one of the lucky ones to survive but, like the others, my injuries were critical. I suffered multiple fractures – my left foot was crushed completely, and my left knee, pelvis, ribs, forearm, nose and jaw were all broken. I had third degree burns and severe brain injuries that will affect me for the rest of my life.

After I woke up, as my body mended, I went through intensive rehab to learn how to speak again, how to walk, and how to use my arms and fingers.

I still have a long way to go, but I’m making progress every day.

Most Australians will, fortunately, never know the full horrors of combat.

But I am far from alone among many Australian Defence Force personnel who have suffered life-changing injuries – visible or otherwise – and have needed to dig deep to find the motivation to move on and not be defined by them.
 

Gary Wilson in a Black Hawk helicopter in Afghanistan, prior to the crash.


As I head towards my discharge in July from the Army, where I have served for almost 20 years, I realise that for many veterans, our injuries make it even harder to adjust to a civilian life, to settle into jobs and try to establish new social routines and networks.

For me, my most powerful support through this transition is my wife and family.

But running a close second is sport and physical training. During my rehabilitation, I’ve found this not only helps recovery, it also helps psychologically and socially, through regained confidence and a sense of stability and control by setting and achieving personal goals.

This has inspired the direction of my post-Army career as a personal trainer and mentor for other veterans.  

It’s also why there’s a special place in my heart for the Invictus Games, which I’m so pleased will be held in Sydney for the first time later this year.  

When I first participated in the Invictus Games in 2016, it was clear to me that they were much more than just sport.

Gary Wilson competes in shot put at the last year's Invictus Games in Toronto.

 

They embody the fighting spirit of wounded personnel, and personify what we can achieve despite injuries or life setbacks.

I also believe the most important aspect of the Invictus Games is that it helps generate a much wider understanding of those who serve their country and those that stand beside them, by shining a light on the service, sacrifices and importantly recovery journeys of competitors and their families.

This is not just because I believe members of the defence force have earned respect. It’s also because it’s a great way of breaking down some of the misconceptions that are still out there.

For example, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have been visibly afraid when I’ve told them I was in a helicopter crash on the front line. As odd as that sounds, it’s true. They think at any moment I might lash out due to post traumatic stress disorder or my brain injury. I can guarantee you, I won’t, and I don’t know any service men or women who will!

Others can’t imagine what we can contribute to our country after we leave the Australian Defence Force, whether that’s the skills we might bring to the civilian workforce or other roles we can play in our communities. But we offer such a variety of capabilities and strengths, if given the right opportunity to share them.

Whether you’re commemorating Anzac Day this week, or cheering on the Invictus Games teams in October, I urge you to take a moment to reflect that after being broken in service, our wounds, injuries or illnesses shouldn’t be seen as a road block, but only as a detour and a source of immense strength.

Westpac is a principle sponsor of the Sydney Invictus Games 2018.

Gary joined the Army in 1998 as an Infantryman and transferred as an Operator Electronic Warfare Linguist in 2004. He served in East Timor in 2000 and 2002 and Afghanistan in 2010, before he was critically wounded in a Black Hawk helicopter crash that killed four service personnel. He first competed in the Invictus Games in 2016 and when he is discharged from the Army in July 2018, he plans to have a post-military career as a physical trainer and mentor to other veterans.

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