A traumatic brain injury, punctured lungs, eight fractured ribs and an amputated leg. After two years in rehab, former commando Garry Robinson struggled to see a future for himself. Then he discovered Prince Harry’s Invictus Games.
Former commando Garry Robinson credits Prince Harry’s Invictus Games with saving his life. (Getty Images: John Stillwell)
It was March 2008 when Prince Harry was flying home from Afghanistan after a secret tour of duty. In the plane with the then-23-year-old were three critically injured British soldiers and the coffin of a Danish soldier.
“That kind of hit me quite hard to see the injuries these guys had sustained and that war ultimately had its price,” he told Australian Story during filming at London’s Kensington Palace.
That moment set him on a journey that would change the life of a Sydney soldier years later and half a world away.
Prince Harry sits on his camp bed on deployment in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (Reuters/Pool)
In 2010, Garry was flying home from a German military hospital with catastrophic injuries, after he was critically wounded in a Black Hawk helicopter crash.
“My body was in so much pain. I was so drugged up all the time, but the pain for me was constant, so that was my biggest memory is just the pain and emotional pain going along with that,” he said.
As Garry worked to piece his life back together, His Royal Highness The Duke of Sussex (HRH), was working behind the scenes to create the Invictus Games.
The event brings together hundreds of wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel from across the world to take part in sports including wheelchair basketball, archery and swimming.
“Never underestimate the power of sport,” HRH said.
“Let’s recover together and not just the individuals themselves but the families.”
The Invictus Games were pivotal in Garry’s recovery.
Former commando Garry Robinson was medically discharged from the Australian Royal Army in 2016. (Australian Story: Anthony Frisina)
Garry says he is proud his son Joshua has gone on to choose a career with the Army. Garry joined at age 21. (Supplied: Katrina Robinson)
Garry Robinson (DSM) served in Afghanistan in the 2nd Commando Regiment. (Supplied: Garry Robinson)
‘Bullets flying out at 360 degrees’
Eight years ago, sniper team commander Garry Robinson and other members of the 2nd Commando Regiment were preparing for their final operation before returning home from Afghanistan.
Just days previously, the commandos had been involved in the bloody and brutal Battle of Shah Wali Kot in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
Australian War Memorial director Dr Brendan Nelson described it as the most “significant battle in Australia’s military history for 50 years”.
Now there was one more operation to complete.
In the early hours of June 21, 2010, Garry and his fellow commandos boarded a Black Hawk helicopter — the lead helicopter in a joint operation with US forces.
On board was Garry’s best friend, Ben Chuck, and the platoon sergeant Pete Rudland, both of whom had worked closely with Garry.
It was a similar mission to one flown the night before, but this night was particularly dark.
“Even with the night-vision goggles you can’t see a lot,” the American co-pilot of the joint operation, Trevor Baucom, told Australian Story.
“It’s like if you go into a closet in the middle of your house at night and you close the door — it’s that kind of dark.”
As the Black Hawk approached its target, Trevor prepared to land.
“I remember telling my co-pilot to start our descent,” he recalled.
Without warning, the helicopter slammed into the rocky terrain with devastating impact.
Former commando Kurt Ludke was in one of the helicopters following close behind and one of the first on the scene.
“I went to the wreckage and began pulling bodies out. The immediate area was on fire and bullets were flying out at 360 degrees. I knew Garry was somewhere in that wreckage,” Kurt said.
X-rays show Garry Robinson’s extensive injuries, including a fractured hip, from a Black Hawk helicopter crash. (Supplied: Garry Robinson)
Katrina Robinson stayed by her husband Garry’s side through two years of intense rehabilitation. (Supplied: Katrina Robinson)
Former Australian commando Garry Robinson suffered severe leg injuries in a Black Hawk helicopter crash in 2010. (Supplied: Garry Robinson)
‘Just a freak accident’
Back in Sydney, news of the crash filtered through to Garry’s wife Katrina.
“I’d just picked the kids up from school and at the door were three uniformed army officers and a padre,” she recalled.
“I knew this wasn’t going to bring good news.”
Garry had sustained massive injuries, multiple fractures, internal injuries and a traumatic brain injury.
Their daughter, Carly, then 14, remembers visiting her father in hospital for the first time.
“It was shocking,” Carly said.
“He was just out of it, cords everywhere and it was really hard to look at.”
It took Garry a few weeks to realise that three of his mates, Tim Aplin, Scott Palmer and Ben Chuck, had not survived the crash.
Ben’s death hit Garry particularly hard. The two had been inseparable. They shared a love of sport and a similar work ethic.
“I just thought, ‘why did I survive and they didn’t’,” Garry said.
Garry Robinson was involved in a Black Hawk helicopter crash in 2010 while serving in Afghanistan. Four soldiers were killed in the crash, including his best friend, Ben Chuck (left). (Supplied: Garry Robinson)
During those first few months in hospital Garry wondered how the operation could have gone so wrong with such an elite crew.
“The inquiry into the crash made a clear finding. Long story short, pilot error. But things happen. Nothing ever goes perfectly. Unfortunately in this case it’s a catastrophic event,” Pete said.
‘I have nothing against Trevor or the other pilot that was in the aircraft at all,” Garry said. “Just a freak accident that’s all it was.”
Co-pilot Trevor Baucom is surprisingly frank.
“The success or the failure of the mission is my fault and I obviously failed pretty badly. And so that comes down to me. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about the guys that were in the back that lost their lives,” he said.
Putting Garry back together
For Garry, the pain was not just emotional. As he underwent operation after operation, the physical pain was often overwhelming. The idea of living with ongoing physical disabilities was particularly hard to bear.
He had been one of the fittest soldiers in his regiment and had been a member of the Australian triathlon team.
Now, it would be almost two years before he could get out of a chair.
Occupational therapist Kelly Gerrard worked with Garry during his first stint in rehab and said his brain injury meant he often had memory loss or confusion.
“He didn’t understand any of the injuries that he actually had,” she said.
As Garry became aware of the extent of his injuries, he struggled to cope.
“I didn’t have the coordination or the ability to screw a nut onto a simple bolt. It was very hard. My whole military career I had been in charge of someone or something and to have that taken away from you in a split-second and thrown to the bottom of the barrel is hard to stomach,” he said.
Garry’s left leg had been badly injured in the accident and eventually doctors decided to amputate. After two years in rehab, and just starting to walk again, he was sent home.
Balance and coordination were key for Garry learning to walk again. (Supplied: Katrina Robinson)
But he felt lost and had difficulty relying on others for help.
“I was breaking TVs and punching walls and smashing windscreens. And that was pretty fearful for Katrina, seeing her husband sitting next to her punching a windscreen,” Garry said, visibly embarrassed thinking back to that time.
He was unmotivated and would spend most of his time at home sitting in his wheelchair with a blanket over his knees.
But during a physio session at Holsworthy Army Base, he was told about the Invictus Games, a new sporting event created by Prince Harry for wounded, injured and ill military personnel, former and current.
HRH told Australian Story he took inspiration for the Invictus Games from the Warrior Games in the US after attending in Colorado in 2013.
“I could see on their face the impact that sport was having so there and then the Invictus Games was kind of half stolen from the Americans.
‘[I] said, ‘What they’ve done here is absolutely amazing. What if we could do this internationally?’.”
Nine months later the inaugural Games were staged in London. And Garry and his family were on their way over.
Prince Harry speaks to athletes at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre ahead of the Invictus Games in Toronto last year. (Reuters: Mark Blinch)
How Invictus helped Garry heal
As the first Invictus Games competitors arrived in London, HRH took time to meet with them and their families. Among them was Garry.
“Meeting Prince Harry for the very first time I still remember that day. For me I just thought, ‘Wow, why am I here? How did I get here?’.
“Competing was something I needed. The old Garry was still there and being around those guys with no arms and no legs, they may have come last but the expression on their face and the emotion spilling out on the track, you can’t get that anywhere else.”
Garry didn’t do too well in the archery or the cycling, but he bagged a silver medal in the swimming.
Garry Robinson has adapted to different sports over time. He started archery using his mouth to pull the bow string before gaining full strength. (Supplied: Invictus Games/Salty Dingo Images)
Garry Robinson competes in the breaststroke in the 2017 Toronto Invictus Games. (Supplied: Katrina Robinson)
When he returned to Australia, Katrina Lethbridge from his rehab team was stunned by the change in him.
“I was here the day he walked into the health centre. He had his Invictus gear on and was wearing one of his medals. And he had no crutches, no wheelchair and you could just see that he was confident,” she said.
Garry’s since gone on to compete in three Invictus Games.
“The difference that Prince Harry and the Invictus Games have made to my life, I think it has almost saved my life,” Garry said.
“I’ve seen guys pass away alongside me through suicide and depression. I’ve just been fortunate the Invictus Games has given me that sense of belonging.”
HRH told Australian Story: “I first heard Garry’s remarkable story in 2014 when we met at the London Games and I am thrilled to see how far he has come since then.
“We’ve had people sending in emails, thousands of civilians who have broken backs, who have broken collar bones, whatever it is, something that has put them on their sofa for a period of weeks or months, and they’ve written in saying, ‘Thank you, I have just watched somebody who should be dead run the 100 metres and that has given me a whole new lease of life’.”
Read the full letter: Garry’s wife, Katrina, penned a letter to Prince Harry to express how the Invictus Games changed their family’s life.
Three years ago when His Royal Highness, The Duke of Sussex was visiting Sydney, Katrina wanted to express her family’s gratitude.
“We’ve met Prince Harry now a few times over the years and I thought I need to write a letter to him just to thank him. If I get the opportunity I’ll give it to him. I was just standing there and I just said to him, ‘Oh look, I’ve got a letter for you, I don’t know if you want it?’,” she said.
Katrina was thrilled when HRH took the letter and placed it in his back pocket.
As Garry gets ready for his fourth Invictus Games he is looking forward to showing everyone how far he’s come and demonstrating the spirit of the Invictus Games.
“That human spirit is incredibly strong. If you have the will you can achieve absolutely anything,” HRH said.
The Duke of Sussex says he’s received thousands of emails from people saying their lives have been transformed by watching the Invictus Games (Supplied: Katrina Robinson)
Watch Australian Story’s Unbreakable 8pm (AEST) on ABCTV and ABCiview.
Producer: Jennifer Feller
Photographer: Katrina Robinson, Anthony Frisina, Salty Dingo Images, Reuters, Getty Images