ANZAC Day is one of the most important dates on the Australian calendar – especially for serving members of the Australian Defence Force, veterans, and their families. Despite what some believe, ANZAC Day is not about celebrating war – rather it is a time of reflection on the sacrifices made by men and women who lost their lives, and for those whose lives will never be the same.
The ANZAC legend was born in World War I when Australian and New Zealand troops fought together for the first time on the shores of Gallipoli. This became one of the worst military defeats for the ANZACs but also the most powerful in defining who we are as a nation. Mateship, camaraderie, and the fair go were born from the ANZAC legend, and it is this vision that draws many into the armed forces.
Gary Wilson is one of those people drawn to serve his country. Coming from a small town, Gary explained that “the more I grew up, the more I realized where we were in the world and how awesome it is to be Australian”.
Gary reminisced about his youth saying, “as early as I can remember I always wanted to join the army, that desire to part of the green machine…and support the government as best I can…support the rest of the country and look after it the best I can and to be a part of something bigger than I am”.
After joining the Australian Army at 17 years of age, Gary found himself in Timor only 2 years later as a member of 3RAR. He recalled that “most of the unit were already deployed so [I] marched into my platoon in West Timor and greeted with a ‘G’day, put your stuff over there, you’re on picket’”. From that point on, Gary worked tirelessly to represent Australia and help the people of Timor. Finding he had a knack for languages, Gary spent his deployment learning the local Tetum language, strengthening his skills by using every opportunity to learn from the unit’s interpreter and speaking with the locals.
After suffering an injury that saw him in rehabilitation for 12 months, Gary was given the opportunity to study at the Australian Defence Force School of Languages (referred to as Langs). Unbeknownst to him at the time, this was to be a life-changing opportunity for Gary that would set the course of his future.
During his second language course at Langs, Gary met a group of soldiers from the Royal Australian Corps of Signals (Sigs) who encouraged him to become a Signaler (Sig). After some persuasion, Gary put in a transfer from 3RAR to become a Sig.
Before qualifying as a Sig, Gary faced one of his biggest challenges. The training to become a Sig is intense and lengthy. It requires commitment, drive, and a no-quit attitude. The amount of study required would put any university student to shame. At the end of the course, Gary and the rest of his class failed on their final exam – not because they could not do the job, but because that is how the military likes to work. Having to justify why he and the rest of his class should be allowed to pass and move into their final career would be stressful for some, but Gary’s drive saw him not only pass the course but also blitz the final hurdle to becoming a full-blown Sig.
After consolidating his Sig skills, Gary faced one of the biggest physical challenges of his career when he endured commando fitness testing to enable him to be deployed with Special Operations Command. By his admission, Gary is not a tall man so having the weight of his equipment and short legs meant he had to go the extra yards to keep up with the six-foot-plus troops he would be working alongside.
After successfully completing his training, Gary was deployed with the Special Operations Command as their Signaler. His role was vital for ensuring the safety of our forces in Afghanistan and it was there that Gary recalled one of his greatest career achievements.
In 2010, Gary was deployed in Afghanistan as a Sig and had identified that his sister platoon, which was out on patrol was about to be engaged by fighters. Gary contacted the other platoon to advise them that they had about 5 minutes before they were to be engaged. After another 4 minutes, Gary again contacted his sister platoon to say, “guys you are about to be engaged like right now”. At that point, the Sig Gary was speaking with leaned forward to advise his boss of the danger, just as a bullet passed behind the other Sig’s head.
Gary relived the moment explaining, if the Sig “hadn’t told his boss at that time, he might have gotten shot in the head and he thinks that as well, that I saved him and as you know being an [Sig] on the ground [if] I miss a call that causes someone else to die and that is a burden that is on me. So potentially knowing I saved someone, for me that is one of my proudest moments. That I did my job to the best of my ability.”
Shortly before Gary’s tour of Afghanistan was to finish, he sustained life-threatening injuries in a fatal helicopter crash that saw three Australians killed and Gary and one other left fighting for their lives. Gary suffered a severe brain injury, multiple fractures, burns, and breaks all over his body and was in a coma for many months. (the “adding insult to injury” part is that the breaks were along the left side of my body, so were the burns, but on top of that, the brain injury was/ is on the right side of my brain, which affects the movement of the muscles on the left side of my body as well.) #doublewhammy
Gary explained that “the biggest challenge post-accident [was to] wake up and realize my career is over and I basically had to fight for my life and recover.” He described waking up and “not moving because of the severity of my brain injury.” Describing it as being ‘locked in,’ cognitively aware but unable to move or communicate.
Gary’s injuries were extensive. Only a very small percentage of people ever wake up from the significant injuries Gary received. He recalled hearing the doctors say he would be “in palliative care for the rest of my life.” Gary was given a 4% chance of survival after the accident (most severe cases result in coma and 90% don’t wake up, and a majority of those who do will remain significantly impaired), but with his soon to be wife by his side, Gary beat the odds to marry, have children, and become the owner of Bare Coaching.
When asked what helped him to get through so much adversity, Gary said “I’d say love from my family, my wife, and mum and my mates.” He recalled when he met his wife Renee many years before and said “we’re gonna have kids” and she said, “easy there turbo.” He went on to explain, that he knew his kids would be full of energy, and “if I was wheelchair-bound, I would hate having kids so active and I couldn’t be with them…so I had those things ahead of me to drive me.”
Gary recalled how the neurosurgeon had discussed his injuries with Renee, stating that although the personality side of Gary’s brain was healing, there was still much that could go wrong. But just like Gary, his wife saw the positives and said, “oh no he’ll be fine, he won’t take no for an answer.” Gary explained, “when someone says no, I’m like why not and I go to prove people wrong, so personality-wise my driving factor is having my family and if I have a black day and no one is immune to having those kind of bad days and I don’t feel like going to the gym, or going to train and then you go and train and you feel a lot better after you train so little bit of a combo, my personality and under everything and then more my family kicking me in the bum”.
This combination has seen Gary overcome immense challenges. Shortly after his release from hospital (although still a day patient) Gary took part in Commando Steve’s 300 Burpee Challenge (Gary is in the red and white shirt) as part of the Spartan Race in Australia. Anyone who has attempted even one burpee knows how challenging this is, so given Gary’s significant and lifelong injuries – this in itself is a testament to the power of positive thinking, supportive networks, and a no-quit attitude.
Despite the fact that he will have a lifelong recovery, Gary continues to give back to his country. Not only is Gary an Ambassador for Soldier On he has represented Australia at the Invictus Games and runs his own physical training company to help others reach their full potential, gain confidence, and live their life to the full.
Along with his support network and his no-quit attitude is Gary’s undying sense of humour. When asked whether he believed a sense of humour had helped in his remarkable recovery Gary said, “absolutely, and people can take their injuries really seriously, and that becomes who they are…but what happens to you doesn’t define you, it’s part of you but doesn’t define you.” Gary also explained the power of mind over matter and the importance of taking time to just breathe, use healthy brain training, and meditate to tackle life’s challenges.
When asked about what ANZAC Day means to him, Gary explained that it is an opportunity for him to sit quietly alongside the names of his fallen mates at the Australian War Memorial, “sit a while and pay my respects as hard as it is.” And really this is what ANZAC Day is all about, remembering those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, recalling the mateship, camaraderie, and the ongoing sacrifice of families left behind and returning soldiers who will forever be changed by the experiences of war.
This ANZAC Day we pay special tribute to Private Benjamin Chuck, Private Timothy Aplin, and Private Scott Palmer as well as the 38 other brave Australian soldiers who gave their lives in Afghanistan and for those who came home but are forever impacted by their service.