JJ Chalmers recalls his remarkable journey for Motivational Monday
16th June 2021 - “One moment I was talking to my friend. The next second I was on the ground in more pain than I’ve ever felt. I’d been blown up. I woke up every morning knowing there was a one in eight chance. That day, I was the one.”
JJ Chalmers has lived an extraordinary life, but much of the story he told for June’s Motivational Monday revolved around a single, terrible moment. One Tuesday afternoon, during routine patrol in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, he was caught in the blast of an IED.
It was a pivotal moment. In a second, his active career in the forces was cut short; he was now on a different track – one that would lead to Invictus Games gold, a new career in broadcasting and even a stint on Strictly Come Dancing.
However, it wasn’t a smooth or simple transition. JJ’s story is one of constant determination in the face of great odds, but it isn’t a lonely one.
Far from the caricature of a grizzled military vet, JJ was beaming as he told of the strong support network that helped him face down every challenge: during his service, during his recovery and during his transition into the world of broadcasting.
This theme – making connections with others to bring out the best in yourself – begins with JJ joining the Royal Marines.
“I was raised in a house where service was held in high regard. I always wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to be one of the good guys.
JJ entered basic training:
“They issue you with a lot: boots, hat, a rifle, but more than any of that, they make you realise that you have the attributes of a Royal Marine inside of you. It’s just about bringing that out. They make you cold, wet and miserable. They take you to where you think your limit is and push you further. You quickly learn that hard work and determination can get you much further than you think is possible. It was like a sea change in my head. I realised any challenge which lay ahead of me could be solved with will, cunning and the application of my skills.”
After graduating from training, JJ was sent to serve in Afghanistan. His unit was stationed in ‘the green zone’, a lush, fertile area in the south-east of the country that extends out from the Helmand river.
It was an area riddled with IEDs:
“They’re designed to kill, and they’re completely indiscriminate. It could be a British soldier, but it’s much more likely to be a civilian.”
JJ’s squad was sent to investigate a suspected bomb-making site, to shut down IED production in the area.
“It would be the most catastrophic place I ever visited”
After the bomb went off JJ recalled that:
“It was absolute pandemonium. We’d been taught to give ourselves first aid, but my right arm was almost gone and the fingers that remained on my left hand were barely hanging on. There was nothing I could do for myself.”
JJ received first aid from a fellow soldier. He recalls how he was told:
JJ that’s all I can do. I have to deal with the other lads now. Keep shouting, let us know you’re with us.”
“I knew the helicopter would take 25 minutes and I knew there was a 98% chance of survival if I got on it. So I had to grin and bear it. I’d never known pain like it but I knew I needed to get on and getting on was all I could do.”
Despite not knowing the full extent of his injuries, JJ was relieved to be going home. He was put into an induced coma and transferred to the trauma unit of Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.
“You put broken men and women in at one end, and hopefully get superheroes out the other. I needed to start again like a child. I was physically broken, and in a tough place mentally. Those demons start speaking to you at that point. When they did, I realised I had two choices. Giving up and feeling sorry for myself, laying in the hospital bed and accepting I had a miserable existence. Or I could do what I was told and listen to the doctors, nurses and physios who were putting me back together.”
JJ returned to that moment in Afghanistan
“When I was lying there, I heard ‘I’ve done all I can for you, I need to go for the others’.”
But there weren’t any others in the beds around me.
“Two of our friends and our Afghan interpreter had died in the blast. They were snuffed out in an instant. That’s when I knew I didn’t have a choice. They weren’t given one, why should I be? The only option was to move forward and get better.”
As he went through recovery, JJ regained his independence. He started cycling with the use of a recumbent bicycle, saying.
“I re-learnt the benefits of exercise. I felt a reason to push myself again. But there was a huge part missing, the part the Marines gave me, sharing that experience with a team”.
In 2014, JJ took part in the first Invictus Games. He captained the men’s trike team, in a race that would prove pivotal in his recovery. He says:
“I was there for gold, or so I thought. It was an individual race but we could work together to position better. After 40 minutes all three of us were well placed for the sprint finish, but when it came time to leave the others I couldn’t do it. We’d worked as a team in that race and at every point during our recovery. Why did I deserve gold any more than them? We could only come through and finish together. We crossed the finish line hand-in-hand. I knew then that I wasn’t alone. That I could achieve anything with the help of others.”
That image of JJ and his teammates, crossing together, defined the first Invictus Games. All three were awarded gold and JJ was later interviewed by Jonathan Edwards.
“I knew on the Monday after, I didn’t want to be an athlete,”
“When I spoke to Jonathan, I said ‘The next time we talk, I want to be sat in your chair. How do I do that?’”
That marked the start of a broadcasting career that’s gone from strength to strength. JJ was a presenter at the Rio Paralympics, got involved in the D-Day Memorial coverage and had just wrapped up broadcasting from the Leeds triathlon the day before his talk.
JJ finished with some advice for listeners about staying positive post-pandemic:
“My recovery will never be complete. But my support network looks after me. When you’re at the end of a pointy spear, it’s the people behind you that power you. Whether you’re going onto the battlefield, onto the bike, or on air.”
“I encourage people to take little victories and learn from little slip-ups. In the last year I was able to look at the circumstances imposed on us and wonder ‘How do I make the best of these?’”
He finished by saying:
“Keep on going. Keep on smiling. We’ll all get there together.”
JJ was joined by Trevor Fudger from Help for Heroes, the charity providing lifelong recovery support to service personnel who have been wounded or injured in the line of duty. He mentioned how the work they do can send an ex service person down a new path where they still get meaning and purpose outside of service. Thanks to our donors, the BigChange network raised £630 for their cause.
Next month, we’ll hear from John Stiles, the former professional footballer, son of 1966 World Cup-winner Nobby Stiles and campaigner raising awareness of dementia in football. Our charity partner will be Head for Change, for whom John is an ambassador. We hope to see you again then.