Legless Sapper Delivers Anzac Day Address in Canberra

Jamie Walker, courtesy of The Australian, 25 April 2017, where the title is “Tour of duty inspires hero Curtis McGrath’s Anzac honour”

Curtis McGrath lost both his legs when he stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan in 2012, but not the will to excel. He was walking on prosthetic limbs within three months.  And on a golden day in Rio de Janeiro last September, the young combat engineer stood tall to keep a promise he made to the mates who helped save his life on the battlefield: he would go to the Paralympics and win.

If the gold medal in the KL2 paracanoe was a highlight of his epic journey back from injury, it’s neck-and-neck with the honour conferred on him this Anzac Day. Sapper McGrath, 29, was [chosen] to ­deliver the commemorative address this morning at the Dawn Service at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. His subject was sacrifice, duty and the debt he owed to his country.

For all that he has lost — his left leg was amputated below the knee, his right leg above that joint and he also had a wrist shattered by the blast of the improvised ­explosive device planted by the Taliban — the young man says he found a new purpose in life through the “ethic of service and care” that steered him through an arduous recuperation. “If I was to sit down and write it all out, it would be a rather large novel,” he said last night, rehearsing the speech. “What I set out to do was to achieve one goal and move on to the next. That’s the way I have always tried to live my life.”

The “seed” of his ambition to represent Australia at the Paralympics was planted while he was watching the London Olympics during breaks between patrol duty in the Khas Uruzgan district of southern Afghanistan during that long, hot August of 2012.

A trained combat first-aider, he had no illusion about his injuries after the mine exploded beneath his boots. He propped himself up on his elbows and looked down at his shattered legs. As his squad mates carried him to safety, he told them he would wear the green and gold in Rio in four years’ time. “While I was on the stretcher, I said to them, ‘I’m going to the Paralympics’ … I didn’t know how I would facilitate it or how it would work out, I just knew ­somehow I would do it.”

Sapper McGrath — he remains a serving member of the ADF — was one of 262 Australian service personnel to be seriously injured on active duty in Afghanistan, in addition to the 41 soldiers killed there. Thousands more have suffered post-traumatic shock and psychological difficulties. Veterans support group Soldier On estimates that 50 veterans took their own lives last year, surpassing the toll from 13 years of combat operations in Afghanistan.

Former army commando Geoff Evans said many ex-Diggers struggled to find a sense of purpose after they left the military. He served two tours of duty in ­Afghanistan before suffering ­spinal and brain injuries in an ­improvised explosive device blast in 2010. He now runs Team Rubicon, an initiative to mobilise veterans for disaster relief work and in the process “re-purpose” them. A 40-strong contingent was put on the ground last month after Cyclone Debbie ripped into north Queensland’s Whitsunday coast.

After a fortnight’s work in the hard-hit sugar town of Prosperpine, they were given a standing ovation by grateful locals.

“Our policy was to do whatever needed to be done, whenever … no mucking around,” said Mr Evans, 40.

Another injured Afghanistan veteran, Brendan Dover, 35, hiked the Kokoda Track on his prosthetic leg with RSL-backed support group Mates4Mates before being introduced to para-skeleton, a hair-raising form of downhill sledding. He aims to represent Australia once the sport is admitted to the Paralympics. “Sport has been my way back. If I did not have that, I would be in a really bad way,” he said.

Looking ahead, Sapper ­McGrath hopes to defend his gold medal in paracanoeing at the 2020 Tokyo Games to prove the victory in Rio “was no fluke”.

*** ***

Curtis McGrath: “Our strength in caring,”  25 APRIL 2017,http://www.smh.com.au/comment/our-strength-in-caring-curtis-mcgraths-anzac-day-dawn-service-speech-20170425-gvrq7j.html

Seventy-five years ago, Australia braced for impact, from the ever-encroaching conflict of World War II, as it made its way south through the Pacific. At a desperate low in the Kokoda campaign, stretcher-bearers lugged wounded Australian soldiers for days through strangling, unyielding jungle to reach medical help. A young Australian private, Alan “Lucky” Luckel, had his leg blown off at the knee. Historians wrote: “His sergeant went charging down the slope where the luckless lad lay. He picked up the little fellow like a babe in his arms and carried him to safety. Luckel sang while the blood from his half-leg reddened the ridge.”

The stretcher jerked and jolted and jarred as his mates slipped and staggered and stumbled with him around the side of the spur. Until 300 yards later, they buried him in the Kunai grass.

There’s an old call sign: Dustoff. It stands for “dedicated unhesitating service to our fighting forces”. That’s what the sergeant and those stretcher-bearers gave Lucky. The very best of their dedicated unhesitating service, in near impossible conditions, up against a vast and highly trained enemy force.

 

  • The dawn crowd at this year's Anzac Day service. The dawn crowd at this year’s Anzac Day service. Photo: Karleen Minney

His was a war fought in a deep, dark, life-sucking valley – some say it was a constant fog – where he couldn’t have known where or how his next step would land.

Twenty years later, in Vietnam, a different sort of Dustoff came into its own: the casualty evacuation helicopter. Badly hurt and dying soldiers were flown out of enemy fire, treated on-board, and choppered to the nearest field hospital. Many would survive the previously unthinkable.

The war I came to know was in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, about five years ago. One of the “new wars” Where the enemy don’t wear uniforms. Where violence is organised by insurgents not by states. Where improvised explosive devices are becoming more sophisticated, more lethal and harder to detect. And where families live and children play in among it all. It’s no jungle; more like a sharp-edged, ancient and arid landscape. What injured me on August 23, 2012, has taken thousands of limbs and lives before me – many civilian, and too many, unwitting young kids.

I was an army combat engineer. My job was to clear the day’s path of IEDs ahead of the patrol. Instructions came in late one morning to remove a boulder blocking one of the access roads. My mate Mac and I headed to the job. I was out front and got caught unawares on what I thought was familiar and safe ground. In a violent, hot explosion, the ground beneath me erupted, taking both my legs instantly. Somehow, in a state of bewilderment and physical wreckage, bizarre moments of clarity and focus took hold: I found myself trying to do my own first aid, and instructing the men on how to administer the morphine.

Meanwhile, my mates wrestled with five tourniquets on what was left of my legs, as they swallowed their own terror and tears. Then came the men and women in the evacuation chopper – the extraordinarily skilled trauma specialists – with their care I got: an unforgettable Dustoff.

I can see the circles of care around me like ripples from a stone dropped in a pond.

When we join the services, and go to war, of course we feel a strong sense of duty to our nation and to all Australians. But when we’re out there in a conflict zone, our greatest responsibility is to our mates alongside us. They are the ones we trust with our mission and our lives.

In my own life, I can see the circles of care around me like ripples from a stone dropped in a pond. Family, friends, doctors, nurses, physios, Defence, RSL, coaches, and teammates. The list is long. Through the peaks and troughs, they connect, making me stronger at the centre, restoring my physical health, my self-worth and my sense of a future. Self-reliance matters, but it’s not nearly enough.

War hasn’t always returned us well. In the aftermath of so many conflicts, men and women came home to a silent, private suffering borne alone or with their distraught families, friends and neighbourhoods. It has taken a terrible toll and, for some, it’s far from over.

In soldiering and in peacekeeping, we learn an ethic of service to our nation, to one another, and to the communities we seek to unite and rebuild. In return, our nation is learning an ethic of care to our veterans and service personnel, whose ripples spread right across Australian life – a true measure of a nation’s decency and worth.

On this Anzac Day, we look back on a century of courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice. We honour those who have died and suffered through the old and the new wars. And we thank them for all they have engrained in our nation’s heart and way of life.

And, may we as a nation continue to provide those men and women who have served us with the care they need. Dedicated, unhesitating, service, to our fighting force.

A mighty Australian Dustoff. Lest we forget.

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