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    Posted March 23, 2011 by
    London, UK, United Kingdom

    Walking with the wounded: Jaco’s story


    CNN PRODUCER NOTE     ChrisPhoto shot these pictures of a former British soldier training for the Walking With the Wounded expedition to the North Pole. "I was driving over Blackheath Common near to where I live and saw the striking image of a man with one arm in army camo pulling 3 car tyres! I am a keen amateur photographer and saw this as a great photo opportunity, so I pulled over and ran up to him and got chatting.

    "I explained how visually striking I thought he looked and asked if I could meet him there again to take some photos. He seemed receptive and we chatted further. Once I found out more I realised it would make an interesting photojournalism project, so I asked if I could interview him too and to publish the results. After some MOD (Ministry of Defence) clearance he rang me to say it would be fine. The result is my article."
    - jmsaba, CNN iReport producer

    Extraordinary Lives, Extraordinary People

    Walking with the wounded:  Jaco’s story





    A few milliseconds changed young Private Jaco (pron Jack-o) Van Gass’ life forever… This is a story about a personal journey. About incredible courage. About blood and guts and gore. It’s about the contrast between our everyday lives and the lives of men and women in combat. But above all it’s a story about hope, joy and unquestioned gratitude in the face of unimaginable adversity.

    The first of those few critical milliseconds was heralded by a flash of bright red light in Jaco’s peripheral vision: “We were ambushed by Taliban forces. I could see RPGs [rocket propelled grenades] bouncing along the ground all around me. I saw this huge flash of red, just to my left-hand side.”

    The RPG-7V2 is a rocket propelled missile designed to destroy tanks. With a conical shaped head and a small detonating cap on its tip, it will bounce and ricochet many times before eventually finding its target by hitting a hard object such as a rock, a gun emplacement or a tank – at which point it will detonate its deadly payload. The flash of red that Jaco saw on that fateful night was when the RPG found its hard object… the ulna bone in his left forearm.

    His arm was severed immediately. As the high explosive shockwave travelled through his flesh and bones lifting him high into the air, the first pieces of shrapnel started travelling through him – first ripping through his clothing and brushing past his body hair and then eventually piercing his skin. Hundreds of these tiny pieces of fiery molten shrapnel continued their journey through his muscle and soft tissue until they reached bone – at which point they simply continued through relentlessly unhindered, on and on and on, shattering… Through vein, through nerve, through tendon, they parted large sheets of muscle from his left thigh and calf as they continued onwards through his knee joint and ankle bones. Other pieces pierced his rib cage and through his left lung, burning and lacerating as they spun through. Even more pieces ripped through the soft unprotected organs of his digestive system. In particular many pieces transitioned through his stomach, bowel and intestines, disconnecting pipework, tearing through muscle, intestinal walls and linings – all the time dragging half-digested food and shit with them. When he eventually hit the ground some 20ft away, he was almost literally half the man he had been.

    Meanwhile city traders ordered skinny cappafrappacinos in Starbucks whilst entering wifi passwords. Mums sat in traffic jams taking their children to school. And I sat oblivious at the desk of my centrally heated office in London insulated and cosseted in the security and peace of our oil-dependent economy. For the rest of us it was business as usual. Life carried on. Life also carried on for Jaco. But it would never be the same again.

    The story of this humble, unassuming, truly remarkable young man started in rural South Africa. The son of a farmer, he was bright, enterprising and a keen sportsman with a lust for adventure. It was only a matter of time before his upbringing could no longer contain the man he was to become. “Nobody was surprised when I joined the army” he told me with a wide grin on his face. “I was always seeking that adventure.” And it was that hunger for adventure that brought him to the UK, arriving one Saturday. On the following Monday morning at 9am sharp he was sitting in an army careers office in London eager to expand his world and serve the Queen of his commonwealth country. Just days later he stood facing a portrait of Her Majesty reciting his sworn Oath of Allegiance, ending in the words “So help me God.”

    “Once you’ve passed the medical your arse is theirs! That’s when the fun starts. It was a real culture shock” he exclaimed (passing the medical despite having broken his knee 4 years earlier). He started to explain how his squaddy training commenced within days and how extreme psychological and physical testing ensued – all the time increasing in intensity as fitness heightened and mental attitude became more attuned to the deadly task ahead.

    Sleep depravation, physical exhaustion and 28 hard weeks later he was ceremoniously presented with his wings and the coveted maroon beret or “maroon machine” as it’s known in the Parachute Regiment. “The moment you step into your battalion it’s a different world,” he told me “You’ve already earned the respect of your fellow solders because they know what you’ve had to achieve in order to just be there.” In his inimitably humble way I read between the lines of all Jaco had told me. It seemed patently apparent even back then that he was something special – and this had obviously been duly noted by his superiors during training. It was therefore only a short time before he received a weeks notice that he was going to Afghanistan. Many men of far higher ranking hadn’t been called up, but Jaco had clearly been hand picked. He returned to his room to discover that his desert kit had been all laid out neatly for him. Both the British army and Private Jaco Van Gass were ready for action. In his inimitably courageous way, his only trepidation at this time was “How the hell am I gonna tell my parents?”

    A 4-month tour training the Afghan National Army followed. Enforcement and light enemy engagement became common occurrences which honed skills he’d already developed during his basic training. A short return home was followed by a full 7 month tour. It was right at the end of this tour that his life was changed forever. “I’d already packed” he told me – and then in his incorrigibly cheerful way added “I made it really easy for the other lads when I got injured because all my stuff was already packed up and ready to go!”

    He was just over a week from coming home, when on the eve of his 23rd birthday his battalion were called out on an unusually special mission.  “We flew out under the cover of darkness and landed on our target. Our job was to take out a suicide bomb factory and training camp in the middle of the desert. There had already been some success by the Taliban in disrupting the elections. Our job was part of reducing the threat to polling stations. The mission was very successful. We managed to eliminate the threat quickly and effectively.” With mission accomplished they started to head back on foot along a road to a safe area to get picked up.

    What they didn’t know was that a hitherto secure checkpoint surrounded by higher ground, and which they needed to pass through - had been taken over by the Taliban. They sent Afghan soldiers ahead to negotiate a safe passage through whilst the Paras took cover and held back slightly to observe.  “Something didn’t look right. I saw a man run into the building and he reappeared moments later and opened up with a spray from his AK47. Then all hell let loose. It was a pretty punchy gunfight - one of the better ones I’ve been in. It was then that the training really kicked in. I love it when I get to do what I what I’ve trained for and it was just amazing how well we all worked together. I was thinking myself ‘Wow this is an excellent way to celebrate my birthday!’ But the Taliban were really well dug in. Enemy fired RPGs were bouncing along the ground all around me. That was when I saw the big red flash to my left-hand side.”

    “And then I felt strangely confused and disoriented. I thought to myself, ‘How come I’m right over here lying on my back in the middle of the road, when a second ago I was under cover about 20 feet over there?’ I could see that a lot of my left side was injured and I could still see the shrapnel burning inside my flesh and I tried to put it out. I tried to sit up but fell back. I tried again but the same thing happened, so I rolled over, got up and ran to cover. My NVGs [night vision goggles] had been blown away so it was quite hard to see exactly what was going on but I could see where the enemy were firing from. I lifted my heavy assault rifle with UGL [under-slung grenade launcher] to take aim but for some reason I couldn’t raise it up far enough. I tried again but it seemed to be caught up in something. It was only then that I looked down and could see that my left arm was missing.”

    “Blood was spraying out fast. We each carry a first aid kit so with my remaining hand I started to treat myself and applied a tourniquet. I pulled it with all my strength to stem the flow but it made no difference. Blood was still pumping out fast. I called my mate over to tighten it further for me. He said ‘I can’t tighten it any more – I’ll rip the rest of your bloody arm off!’ One more heave and the flow stopped. My morphine supply had been blown clean away so I asked my mate for his. Up for a bit of a joke he replied ‘Use your own bloody morphine you scrounging git!”  

    Jaco pauses for a second. “You know, I was talking to my friend the other day. He also got injured. We were talking about how different real life engagements are compared with what you see in films or how people imagine it might be. There I was and all I could think about was how much my ankle hurt. Half of my thigh was missing. My shoulder had almost been severed from my body. I had no arm left and all I could feel was the intense pain from my broken ankle!”

    “My mate who’d joked about the morphine said – ‘Will you shut up about the ankle Jaco?! Look at the rest of you for Christ’s sake! Don’t worry, your ankles just fine’ 32 minutes later the helicopter arrived to evacuate us. Even then, my training prevailed over fear and I kept shouting ‘Are we in good cover?’ I remember that they dropped me off the stretcher whilst getting me aboard. And then 10 minutes into the journey the morphine started to really kick in. I woke up again as they dropped me off the stretcher yet again getting me out of the helicopter. I really ribbed them about that! I remember them cutting my clothes from me. And then I remember feeling very disoriented because suddenly I was in Selly Oaks Hospital in Birmingham, UK and my parents were next to me. Man that was strange!”

    “I had absolutely no idea how much time had passed and I still don’t know to this day. All I knew was that I was pretty banged up”. Jaco had just made one of the greatest understatements I’d ever heard. But I was getting used to his cool charming humility by now. With kind eyes and a default facial demeanour that naturally smiles with warmth when at rest, he seemed completely at ease with the world. He and I were sitting in a cute little French café in cosy suburban Blackheath in South-East London sipping coffee and nibbling pastries. We were a million miles from Afghanistan.

    Earlier that day I’d photographed him training for an expedition he was undertaking to the geographic North Pole. Just 17 months after that life-shattering event I snapped away whilst he dragged 3 heavy car tyres across Blackheath Common as part of his regular training exercise to simulate sledge hauling on Nordic skis.

    Jaco’s catalogue of injuries apart from the severed arm and losing a third of the tissue from his left thigh - included a collapsed lung, partially severed shoulder, broken tibia and fibula, broken knee (again), punctured stomach, a big chunk blown away from his calf, But worst of all was the damage to his gastro-intestinal system. “Yeah, my guts were pretty much blown to pieces. It was just a big mess of ripped guts, shrapnel and shit. They had to completely remove all of my guts, clean it all up, sew all the bits together again and then stuff it all back in. My colon was too far gone. They couldn’t connect that so I had to have a colostomy bag.” Knowing Jaco and how limiting that would be for him I asked where it was now. “Oh no, it’s ok they did a reverse procedure. They had to open me right up again. The reversal was horrendous! It was more painful than all of the other injuries. I was walking like an old man. But it was the key to my new life.”

    I asked Jaco what it was that enabled him to overcome such horrendous obstacles. “The army and my training played a massive part in my recovery.” Much of his rehabilitation had been at Headley Court, the MOD [Ministry of Defense] Medical Rehabilitation Unit. “These guys gave me my life back. The moment I could get out of my wheelchair I sat on the fast-forward button. I thought to myself ‘there are no limits now.’ I just kept each individual goal in site and aimed towards it. First it was the wheelchair. I really struggled in the confines of that damn chair. Then it was the crutches. I remember how frustrated I was that I couldn’t hold a cup of tea and walk at the same time. Then it was the leg braces and so on. Every time I got rid of a piece of equipment I’d focus on the next piece. Getting my colon back and being able to shit normally was the last remaining nut to crack. After that I was up and running”

    …Literally. Just 4 months after this flesh mincing event Jaco ran in the Safaricom Marathon in Kenya and a short while later in the US Marine Corps Marathon in Washington. And incredibly, just 3 months later he started training for the Arctic expedition. I asked him how applying for the expedition came about. He told me, “My Captain put me forward for the application. He had heard about it and said to me ‘This has got your name all over it.’ I was up against 120 other applicants. At interview they looked at me somewhat bemused as I hobbled in and asked me ‘Do you know how hard this trip will be?’ All I could think of was ‘Yes, and that’s exactly why I want to do it - I want this goal to work towards.’ Understandably I was rejected. So I ran the Kenyan marathon instead. Then by chance a place arose. They reconsidered as I think they could see that I had proved my determination. And then at last I was in – and thrilled to be.”

    Since then Jaco could be found during every spare minute harnessed with ropes to his car tyres. “At first I had to keep things quite slow. It was all I could do to drag just one small tyre. Then I gradually stepped up the pace and added more tyres to increase my lower limb and core strength. I’ve had to really concentrate on developing a proper efficient gait and not learn bad habits. Using only one walking pole will be a disadvantage on the expedition but I obviously have no choice.”

    The purpose of the Walking With the Wounded expedition is to successfully reach the geographic North Pole on foot, unsupported with four wounded soldiers – two of which are amputees. This will make them the first amputees to do so. They will raise vital funds for others whose lives have been traumatised by combat.- either physically or mentally. Frankly I cannot imagine a more exemplary ambassador for the campaign. I just know that Jaco will light the beacon of hope for others who have suffered physical injury or post traumatic stress disorder.

    And a challenging trip it will no doubt be. Unlike the relatively flat Antarctic terrain fabled by the likes of Scott and Amundsen, the Arctic traverse will present a whole raft of diverse challenges. For a start it will feel much colder than the Antarctic due to increased humidity with low cloud and fog blocking out the sun’s warming rays. Some days will see them dragging their sledges over flat ice fields just like their Antarctic forebears, however many of these ice sheets will actually be floating and mobile. There may be occasions when they make a negative daily gain due to the fact that the ground beneath them will literally be floating in the opposite direction propelled at the mercy of ocean currents! These vast ice sheets in some ways behave like mini tectonic plates. Instead of throwing up mountains, they throw up vast boulder-fields of ice rubble. Lifting and lowering their heavy sledges over these will be painfully slow and energy sapping. And then there are the ‘leads’. These are expanses of open water exposed by the shifting and melting ice. Travelling ultra-lightweight will mean that they will only have one way to get across… swim! Each will use specially designed immersion suits to reduce the risk of hypothermia. They will swim across pulling their sledges behind them. And throughout all of this they run the possibility of encountering hungry Polar Bears!

    And of course the Pole itself is only half-way on their total round trip of over 1000km. I asked Jaco if he had any concerns for the trip. “I’m a little concerned about possible frostbite in what remains of my left limb,“ he told me. Unused muscle tissues wither and atrophy quite quickly. Whilst the muscles in Jaco’s remaining limbs, shoulders and chest are now visibly strong and well formed, his remaining stump of an arm is noticeably withered in comparison. Because he cannot exercise what remains of his left arm the blood flow is diminished and this could contribute to the risk of frostbite.

    It takes a very special man to consider an expedition like this, but it takes a truly extraordinary man to surmount the seemingly impossible obstacles Jaco has. I wanted to really understand what it was that made a man like this tick. In my last two questions to Jaco I asked him firstly what the worst thing in this whole experience had been. He replied in two sentences: “The fact that I can’t do the job that I trained to do. I loved being a soldier and I feel that I’ve let my battalion down.”

    But it was the answer to the second and final question that gave me much more insight into what drove this man. I asked the converse – what had been the best thing to come out of this whole experience. From that point onwards I couldn’t get a word in edge-ways! “This experience has opened up a world of possibilities for me. First of all I want to do this expedition. But after that the possibilities are endless! There’s just so much I want to do. Having one arm has improved my golf no end!” he laughed. “You have no idea how satisfying it is hitting the ball harder and further than my mates with 2 arms! I want to do more running and get back into cycling again. I’ve got a prosthetic arm that’s been specially designed to hold the handlebars. And I really want to get into moto cross [motorbike scrambling] and continue my involvement with the Combined Services Disabled Ski Team…”

    Jaco paused… “But first of all I just want to do this expedition and start to give back the debt I feel I owe to society. I can’t explain how grateful I am to all the people at Selly Oaks Hospital and Headley Court and all the other people that have helped me. They’ve given me back my life. I just really want to help give other people the support and chances I’ve had. That’s why I want to do this expedition and raise the funds for other injured service men and women.”

    I can’t help thinking how meeting Jaco has changed my own life in a small way. His enthusiasm, positivity, happy-go-lucky attitude, and beaming smile are infectious. He simply emanates positivity - seemingly because of, rather than in spite of, all he’s been through. Over the forthcoming weeks I will often think of him and his team struggling across ice rubble and swimming across ‘leads’ in impossibly freezing conditions. Meanwhile I’ll sit in my office, city traders will drink coffee in Starbucks, mums will take their kids to school, and anti-establishment activists will sit at computers in their centrally heated homes pounding clichéd comments about how blood is thicker than oil – all of them insulated and cosseted in the security and peace of our oil-dependent economy in an emerging new world order.

    For all of us, life goes on. At a price.








    Jaco’s team are scheduled to set off for the North Pole today – 24th March 2011

    For more information, to follow their journey, their blog and offer support visit walkingwiththewounded.org.uk

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