Craig McGrath (2nd from right) and his Invictus Games team-mates out on Sydney Harbour (ABC News; Simon Beardsell)
A deployment to the war in Afghanistan in 2012 changed everything for former special operations warrant officer Craig McGrath.
One night on a drug bust in an Afghan village near Tarin Kowt a bomb exploded through the walls of a mud hut the group of Australian army personnel was standing in.
“The bomb that went off was an artillery round, it had been booby trapped in the wall,” McGrath told 7.30.
“Artillery rounds are designed to shed a lot of shrapnel in a lot of directions so I wore all of it.”
The blast burst his eardrum and his skin, peppered with bits of shrapnel, began to burn.
“I looked like I’d been hit by a sandblaster,” he recalled.
“There was a fair few holes in me, shrapnel imbedded in bones, muscle, pretty much everywhere.
“My finger was almost taken off on my right hand.”
The team swung into action and airlifted warrant officer McGrath and a wounded teammate to an army field hospital and then out of the country back to Australia, where doctors tried to remove the rest of the exploded metal lodged in his muscle and bone.
Not all of it could be taken out safely so he still has pieces of shrapnel inside his leg.
Invictus Games helped get my confidence back
Craig McGrath with his wife and sons in Sydney for the Invictus Games (ABC News: Lucy Tassell)
After his physical injuries began to heal, McGrath was faced with the emotional wounds left by the events in Afghanistan — and the reality that his 23-year career with the Army would be over.
“I sort of second-guessed myself as to why we went to that compound, why I stood where I stood, I’ve run it through my mind a lot,” he said.
“I know now there’s nothing I could have changed but I can’t stop those thoughts coming into my head.
“Getting my confidence back is something that’s really important to me and the Invictus Games is something that’s really helping with that.”
For now, the focus is on this weekend’s race at the Invictus Games, where he’ll compete with his team of Army, Navy and Airforce veterans sailing on Sydney Harbour.
For McGrath, sailing is a metaphor for life, with strong parallels to military life.
Out on the water “you can’t do anything on your own really,” he said.
“To make the boat go fast and go around the course like you need it to, you need everyone to do their job at the right time, together.
“And you can’t just walk off the field if you don’t like it.
“Once you’re out on the water you’re out there, that’s it. So it forces you to work as a team.
“The other thing is you’re at the mercy of the weather.
“You’re not necessarily in control, because we’re not in control in our lives either really.
“I like to think we’re sort of moving through, trying to avoid things and go towards things. So that’s a little bit like sailing.”
Physical training ‘the only thing that made me feel normal’
26-year-old Army Private Nathan Whittington’s career took a very different path.
He began as an 18-year-old who thought he “could do anything”.
Whittington’s dreams of rising through the ranks and being part of the special forces unit were cut short just 10 months after he signed up, when he lost his leg in an off-duty boating accident.
“It never really hit home until I left hospital, went home to Mum and Dad’s,” he said.
“That’s when all of the dark times started to kick in.
“Before I got a car, before I got a [prosthetic] leg, before I got my own independence, you just sort of sit there in a wheelchair and watch the same thing over and over on TV or look out the window.
“I thought I was such a burden on everyone, I was in so much pain.”
Nathan said he contemplated suicide but, thankfully, decided not to go through with it at the last minute and sought professional help.
He taught himself to walk again and then run, finding a new passion for sport and a new dream to chase.
Despite never being an athlete, just five months after the accident he began training full time with the ADF’s Paralympics program.
He will represent Australia next week at the Invictus Games for athletics and swimming, and then hopes to use his experience of healing through sport to mentor other injured Defence and emergency services personnel.
“Physical training is pretty much the only thing that’s made me feel normal,” he said.
“It got me out of the really, really dark times and gave me a new focus.”