Story transcripts

Fighting Back

Friday, July 1, 2011

Reporter: Ray Martin
Producer:Steve Burling

Going to war is an act of enormous courage.

There are no guarantees you will make it home alive, as we've been reminded too often recently.

But Australia's toll goes well beyond the fatalities.

There are many soldiers who suffer catastrophic injuries while serving on the front line, and these are the victims we don't hear much about.

Ray Martin has just met a group of returned diggers, far from average men, who aren't going to let their broken bodies stop them from representing their country once again.

The difference is, this time they're hoping to do it on the sporting field, rather than the battlefield.

Full transcript:

RAY MARTIN: 33-year-old Army Sergeant Michael Lyddiard is a machine. This likeable bloke has always been driven by physical challenges. The Taliban bomb which tore that perfect body apart wasn’t going to stop Michael. In fact, sport is a vital part of his recovery from the demons that plague him and so many of our injured diggers.

RAY MARTIN: What do you see when you look in the mirror?

MICHAEL: A lot of history. Guilt, dissatisfaction and that’s something I’ve got to put up with. That’s my burden.

RAY MARTIN: It’s a very different bloke from the one his wife Katri fell in love with more than a decade ago.

KATRI: He was energetic, full on – lots of energy. So, someone who I hadn’t met anyone like that before

RAY MARTIN: Was that the attraction? Is that what drew you to him?

KATRI: Probably and the body.

RAY MARTIN: The explosion took Michael’s right arm and his right eye – along with half his left hand and most of the vision in his left eye. Katri is a hospital pharmacist. She’s used to physical damage but she was shocked by Michael’s emotional scars that run deep and dark.

RAY MARTIN: Do you understand his pain?

KATRI: Yeah, I know, I’ve seen him like he was before the injury and I see what he’s, you know, what he has to put up with or what he, all the struggles that he goes through now, I can see you know.

MICHAEL. She understands me better than I understand myself for crying out loud. My wife has definitely put up with her fair share. She is definitely a heroic person in my life.

KATRI: There’s been a few times when he said you know can you kill me or can you let me die.

RAY MARTIN: Has he?

KATRI: Yeah and when other soldiers have died sometimes he says well that would have been easier. You know why did I survive?

RAY MARTIN: What do you say, what do you say to him those times?

KATRI: Well, you know, you have got children and you’ve got a wife to come home to and you’ve got lots of things, other things that you’ve still got to accomplish.

RAY MARTIN: For Michael Lyddiard, accomplishments came quite easy. he joined the army as a combat engineer and then turned his hand to bomb disposal – what professional soldiers call ‘the toughest job in the army’ and, what Hollywood called “the hurt locker’’.

NANCY: I was really scared, I prayed – I prayed all the time when he was away.

RAY MARTIN: Michael’s parents Nancy and John know all about army life. John is a Vietnam vet and knows how deadly bomb defusing can be. What did you think when he said he’s going to join the bomb disposal squad?

JOHN: He needed bloody certifying.

RAY MARTIN: Did you tell him that?

JOHN: Oh, I told him that, yeah.

NANCY: Yeah.

JOHN: I said ‘you need certifying’. You know, nobody in their right mind would do that type of job.

NANCY: I tried talking to him but he said to me he said ‘mum’ he says ‘I know what I’m doing, the army trained me, I know what I’m doing. I’m not going to do something stupid’. And I said ‘what if it’s something you haven’t seen before?’ He said ‘mum, trust me’.

RAY MARTIN: These are pictures of Michael happy and smiling on the job in Afghanistan just the day before his beloved army life suddenly ended. Do you remember when the bomb went off?

MICHAEL: I can physically see the flames and then it goes black, and then I explain it I come to when I land on my back. I remember everything of that wounding because I honestly thought I was going to die.

JOHN: Yeah, basically, you know, just one side of his face was just gone.

KATRI: There was a knock on the door early in the morning, yeah. And I just said ‘is Michael alive?’ And he said ‘yes’. And I went ‘is it good?’ and he said ‘no’. And I closed the door and ran down the hallway and mum was staying.

RAY MARTIN: Yes

KATRI: So I said ‘mum, there’s been an accident’. And I think as he was alive it was OK but when they couldn’t say if he had brain damage or how his injuries that was really hard. But um…

RAY MARTIN: And yet three months later he was back at work.

KATRI: Yeah.

RAY MARTIN: What does that tell you about him?

KATRI: He’s stubborn.

RAY MARTIN: Stubborn or driven it’s that fierce determination is why the defence force and Australia’s sporting officials are steering athletes like Michael towards Paralympic glory.

MICHAEL: There’d be nothing better other than serving Australia, now representing it.

RAY MARTIN: As a sportsman…Para?

MICHAEL: Yeah. That’s to me what an Australian or the Anzac spirit’s about. That’s to me representing Australia, that’s the core of Australia, getting out and giving things a go.

RAY MARTIN: If you can’t be in the army you’ll be in the Olympics.

MICHAEL: Yeah.

RAY MARTIN: Last year Michael raced from Fremantle to Rottnest Island – a 21 km swim off the West Australian coast. Today he is up in Darwin with number 13 on his back competing against able-bodied athletes in what’s just a bit of a sprint for Michael – 5km swim. All he can see are the splashing feet in front of him but, it’s a warm-up for the Paralympic squad.

CHRIS NUNN: Look, I’m pretty excited about Mike’s chance for Rio. He’s got a wonderful background for triathlon.

RAY MARTIN: Chris Nunn is high performance coach for the Australian team. But is he determined enough do you think?

CHRIS NUNN: Oh, with Mike you have to question his determination, don’t you? No, he’s a rare breed as far as that absolute commitment to what he wants to achieve.

RAY MARTIN: We saw that same kind of absolute commitment when 60 minutes first met ‘Commando’, Damien Thomlinson last year.

DAMIEN: Natural ability mate – natural ability.

RAY MARTIN: When Damien lost both of his legs in Afghanistan. He’s in Darwin playing ‘a supporting role’– for “brother’s in arms” like Michael as they set their sights on Olympic gold. Can you tell this bloke how to do it?

DAMIEN: Oh no, I think I’m learning all the tricks off him so.

RAY MARTIN: It was only after he lost his legs that Damo took up snow-boarding – just for fun.

DAMIEN: I mean, if it was for a competitive thing and medal wise yeah, I would do it competitively because I’m a competitor. I love doing that.

RAY MARTIN: Damo knows that if they decide to make snow-boarding an official Paralympic sport – which is expected next month – then he’s in trouble. Does it scare you that it would suddenly take over your life?

DAMIEN: It would. I mean, it’s yeah, I’m just the type of guy that would end up being, becoming one of those strange 100% obsessions .

RAY MARTIN: Liam Haven is another ‘physical’ competitor – with dreams of winning gold in the shot-put.

LIAM HAVEN: I think at some stage every kid dreams of getting a gold medal in some sort of sport in front of the world.

RAY MARTIN: At 6’2 and 120kg this big West Australian was “ready-made” for the army. He loved being with his mates in Iraq, but just a fortnight before they were due to come home a landmine blew up in his face. Only 23, Liam is now blind. Do you remember much of the explosion three years ago?

LIAM: Actually I remember the whole thing, yeah. Because I couldn’t see, I thought it was from the dust from the explosion and they checked me and found that I had blood pouring from my face and they realised I was in fact quite injured.

RAY MARTIN: Outwardly, Liam is still the larrikin he always was. This big bloke wears his positive ‘attitude to life’ on his sleeve literally and he loves to shock people by wearing a brightly-coloured fake eye.

LIAM: So if I put a coloured eye in like‘s in there now - the blue colour, it looks normal but people look at it as a second glance, so it’s kind of…

RAY MARTIN: What if I told you it’s not blue, it’s red.

LIAM: I’d call you a liar. Or I’d call every single person I’ve met a liar.

RAY MARTIN: Always unpredictable, Liam’s now doing a Portuguese language course at point cook, with dreams of being an interpreter. But, while he laughs a lot, he’s also had his struggles.

LIAM: I did have some bad memories of it and it did affect my life for about a year, a year or so back.

RAY MARTIN: You seem terrific now but what are we talking about?

LIAM: Um, well a bit heavy on the alcohol bit of self medication, mood swings and stuff like that, but that comes with any major trauma. Anyone’s going to resort to something like that or it comes to that point in their life before they turn themselves around.

RAY MARTIN: And Liam has certainly turned himself around – with a little help from Magenta, who’s a kindergarten teacher and his other great love, music.

MAGENTA: He loves this and it’s something that he has the greatest passion about. For him to be able to do it makes him smile every day, so it’s good.

RAY MARTIN: He smiles a lot, doesn’t he?

MAGENTA: He does.

RAY MARTIN: Your attitude’s fantastic, I got to tell you. Do you simply say my life has changed, um get on with it?

LIAM: Pretty much, yeah. Sometimes I feel handicapped with the need to if I’m in a shopping centre or a place I don’t know I have to grab someone, or someone’s shoulder – someone’s arm, get lead around. That kind of makes me feel handicapped a little bit.

RAY MARTIN: Mate, I got to tell you - you’re not handicapped.

LIAM: Yeah. I’m milking it, don’t tell anyone though.

RAY MARTIN: But, it’s the ‘what ifs’ of army life that are hardest to live with. Michael Lyddiard still feels guilty because as an expert he made the decision to defuse the Taliban bomb, instead of destroying it.

MICHAEL: I was trying to recover the device to gather forensic evidence and things like that.

RAY MARTIN: So you think you made a mistake?

MICHAEL: Seeing how it’s impacted on other soldiers, how it’s impacted on my family, yeah, I can say I made a mistake. I impacted on a lot of people’s lives and that bothers me, you know.

RAY MARTIN: But you wouldn’t have a mate who was there who would agree with you.

MICHAEL: Possibly but you always think you’re meant to be better.

RAY MARTIN: So why does he feel guilty?

KATRI: I don’t now. He likes to be perfect. Everything’s 110%.

RAY MARTIN: And the frustration, there’d be anger.

KATRI: Yeah. He has learned a lot of patience.

RAY MARTIN: Townsville is an army world, with the base nearby. Michael and Katri still live there with their two boys, Kyran and Mason, two-year-old ‘tearaway’ Mason was ‘a special gift’ - born after Michael beat the odds and somehow survived.

KATRI: When Michael got injured we said we’re going to live as closely to the life that we had planned as we can and sometimes it’s hard but you know you have to have a focus or endpoint or something to work to otherwise you just end up going around in circles, and probably making nothing out of your life.

RAY MARTIN: Michael’s doing a uni course with the help of the defence department. He knows it’s time to move on, that this is his ‘family’ now and not the army.

MICHAEL: I want to try to prove to my kids, regardless of you know what has happened to me and what I’ve strived to be or what I strive to achieve. I want to prove to them you need to succeed with life, so that’s why I know I’m trying to move on.

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