Paralympic gold medallist Curtis McGrath OAM was serving in Afghanistan when he lost his legs in a blast. He shares his story in his Letter To My Younger Self.
As a 16-year-old I was living in Queenstown in New Zealand and had an outdoors lifestyle. I loved rugby and snowboarding, and cricket and swimming in the summer. I was slightly rebellious. I wasn’t really enjoying school that much, mainly because we were living in Australia for a little bit but then moved back to New Zealand and so I missed a year of education, which stuffed me up in the long term. I had a job stacking shelves in a supermarket, so I had my own income, which was liberating. I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, so I was free to do…whatever. [Laughs]
I was 18 when I joined the Australian Army. I finished high school and I wasn’t too sure what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to go to university with the rest of my friends. I wanted to continue the outdoor lifestyle, so I started looking at the military. I had dual citizenship in both Australia and New Zealand and I weighed up the pros and cons in terms of their defence forces. Australia’s defence forces were a bit more modern than New Zealand’s at the time, so I decided to move over. I thought I’d go through basic training and see what engineering was like. I enlisted as a combat engineer.
My first posting was in Darwin and my first day was like the first day of school. It was daunting – you’re trying to figure out what the real army is like. I was then deployed for jungle training in Malaysia and Brunei, which was pretty exciting. It’s the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done in terms of work, just because it’s relentless and there’s no rest. The environment there is pretty ruthless, it’s hot and you’re wearing a lot of clothes and carrying a lot of weight. I remember one occasion, we did a patrol of about five days in the Brunei jungle with 30 guys and by the end of it there were only about eight guys left.
I was eventually deployed to Afghanistan to help clear mines [in 2012]. As a combat engineer it’s considered one of the most dangerous jobs. We are the frontline, we clear the way for the rest of the patrol so that they don’t step on anything. In a way it is scary but our colleagues – our close friends – are relying on us. It’s 100 per cent the motivation for doing this type of work.
I was in a very remote part of Urōzgān, and about halfway through my six-month deployment, when we were given the task of clearing a checkpoint that had been used by the insurgents. We knew the insurgency had been operating in that area, so it was dangerous. I had an odd feeling about this patrol – it felt like we were underprepared. We had only been finding weapons in the ground and pieces of equipment to build an IED [improvised explosive device], but we weren’t finding actual IEDs. Then during a five-day patrol I stepped right on top of a small IED that detonated beneath me and immediately took both my legs off, severely injured my left hand and perforated my right eardrum – the injuries were significant. I knew my legs were gone as soon as it happened. I was also the combat first aider, so I was talking the guys through the first aid treatment I needed to survive. It’s a situation you don’t want to be in…
My mum was pretty shocked by the whole situation. You’re not too sure what you’re going to see and feel. I smiled as they came through the door of the hospital room and she could see that I was going to be alright. That gave her a bit of peace of mind.
I started rehab and it was touch and go at the start. I wasn’t sure how to move and how to get around and what to do. I had lost an incredible amount of weight – my body had gone into marathon mode trying to heal itself. I was incredibly hot, I could never cool down properly, so I had ice packs around my arms all the time.
I had a moment of shock on my first day of rehab when I realised that I was now a disabled person. I would need a wheelchair and prosthetics to get around. It was a bit of a shock for someone who had been so active and outdoorsy. But I had set myself a goal to be up walking when the guys got home. I had three months to do that, so I committed myself 100 per cent.
The first time I put on my prosthetic legs it was painful. I assumed that you just put your legs on, stand up and off you go, but it’s definitely not the case. There’s balance and muscles that you’ve never used before, so it’s a painful process. But I had a very good prosthetist and he helped me through that. I had my family and my partner Rachel around me to help…motivate me to get up and do the job.
When it happened I said to myself, I’m going to go to the Paralympics. The Paralympics in London were building up at the time – we used to see the ads after patrol. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I knew how much time an Olympian or Paralympian puts in to their training to get to the top. I chose kayaking and eventually got on the kayaking team and went to Rio in 2016. I was one of the favourites – I had an amazing race – and managed to come out on top. My happiest moment was carrying the Australian national flag during the closing ceremony. That was an amazing and proud moment.
Sport has given me a purpose and has shown people that I am capable of doing something that a lot of people can’t. That’s what the Invictus Games is about, celebrating those people who have overcome adversity. The healing power of sport is an amazing tool and its use in rehabilitation allows people to reconnect… It’s so exciting that it’s coming to Australia.
I’ve met [Prince] Harry a couple of times and he’s an amazing guy. It’s great to have a champion like him around the Invictus Games. It gets people involved… Now Australia has the Veterans Employment Program and all these businesses have come onto the program and offered these great opportunities to the veterans.
I would tell my 16-year-old self to take every opportunity that comes up. You never know where it might lead to. Try your hardest to do the best job that you can.
By Anastasia Safioleas, The Big Issue Contributing Editor.
This article first appeared in The Big Issue edition #573.