This March, Blackhawk crash survivor and now personal trainer, Gary Wilson, is Marching On to support veterans. If Gary can do it, so can you.
It was a pitch-black night. No moon. No one saw the ground coming up. Not even the pilots. Night-vision goggles (NVGs) aren’t that effective on cloudy, moonless nights. “The loadmaster might have seen it coming,” says Gary, “because his last words were on the flight recorder.” The US loadmaster, who lost his life that night, just started to alert the pilot when “we slammed into the ground at a stupid crazy speed,” says Gary, his voice slurred from the brain injuries he suffered because of the crash. “From 200 knots to zero in a second.”
That night, June 21, 2010, at 0339, three Australian Commandos – Private Timothy Aplin, Private Benjamin Chuck and Private Scott Palmer and the US loadmaster, Brendan Silks – lost their lives in a Blackhawk helicopter crash near Kandahar in Afghanistan.
Gary survived. The aircraft hit the ground, tumbled, and caught fire immediately. Pretty soon, the ammunition began cooking off. “They found me crawling away from the burning wreckage,” says Gary, “with one arm and one leg because the other side of my body was broken. And then once I realised I was secure, my body collapsed and I lapsed into a coma, and started convulsing.” Gary was given anti-convulsion medication and casevaced by one of the three other Blackhawks on the mission that night.
He has no memory of the accident or the next three months in Landstuhl Regional Medical Centre in Germany. He doesn’t even remember getting on the chopper. “So my last memory was running past the phone in the hallway [on base] going, I should call Renee [Gary’s wife]. I’ll call her when I get back, it’s a quick mission.”
Gary’s next memory is three months later, waking in a dark room thinking he’d been captured. “I was in a darkened room, tied to a chair. What’s going on here? I hear people moving behind me, so I tried to escape, as you do. I tried to undo what was around my waist, holding me down. And got up to run. As I ran, my left foot didn’t work, so I started to fall forward. And went and landed on both my hands in front of me. My left arm wouldn’t extend, so I smashed my face into the floor as I fell, and split my lip, and all I could taste was blood.
“And then I heard a voice go, “Shit, Mr Wilson, are you OK?” I was like, they speak English, Australian voices, what’s going on here? And then the girl came around and she goes, ‘you were in the helicopter crash. You’re safe’. And she picked me up, put me back in the bed. I was like, how can one person pick me up and put me back into bed? I’m 80 kilos. I was 47 kilos. I’d lost half my body weight.”
Gary suffered bruising on his brain, affecting his personality, temper, memory and cognition. He had to learn to walk, talk and drive again. He also suffered a “diffuse axonal injury”, he explains, “which is essentially shaken baby syndrome, and the injury resembles having a stroke”. Today, that still impacts his muscle control and his speech, which is slurred and slowed.
But Gary is a soldier and a fighter and “likes to prove people wrong”. Gary now runs Bare Coaching, a successful personal training facility.
“I suffered a significant brain injury, which forced me to re-learn everything again,” he says on his website, “from eating to swallowing, from moving to walking. What I learned during my recovery was so profound, I had to share it.”
Gary is doing his first March On this year, despite an ongoing injury to his left foot and hamstring that stops him from taking long strides and makes running uncomfortable. Showing a can-do attitude and uncommon resilience, Gary says, “I can walk until my foot cramps up. So that’s what I’ll do. I’ll grind through it.”