13 May 2020

Resilience

Jaco_1_sm

With the nation currently in lockdown, we are certainly living in unprecedented times.

This Covid-19 crisis is perhaps the most sweeping in recent memory as it has spread across the world causing stress, concern and fear. These feelings are of course natural responses to uncertain and challenging situations. The world has effectively taken a “breather” from daily life as we know it as we attempt to combat and conquer the crisis.

During these times, the best reaction we can have as a society is to remain resilient. A man more qualified than most to talk about the topic of resilience is Jaco Van Gass.

South African born, Jaco was a member of the British Armed Forces Parachute Regiment. 

The military and its challenges

When I asked Jaco what drew him to a career in the military, he explained.

“I have always had a love for the outdoors and adventure. As a young boy, I wanted to join the South African Police Force but with corruption running extremely high in South Africa at the time and still to this day, any respect towards to police and army has diminished. I was working for my father at the time when I heard that South Africans were eligible to join the British Army. As South Africa is part of the Commonwealth, we were eligible to join and so my hopes of becoming a soldier were alive once again.”

Jaco went on to explain his reasoning for choosing the parachute regiment in particular.

“I knew I wanted to join the army or an Infantry Unit but I was not sure which one exactly. I made a visit to the Army Recruitment Centre in London and it was there that I was introduced to The Parachute Regiment. Only few will pass the basic training. It is known as the hardest training course in the army and that suited me perfectly. Tthat’s why I joined the Parachute Regiment.”

Whilst on deployment, Jaco faced both severe physical and mental challenges and admits.



“There is no doubt we faced tough challenges at the time but we were well trained in how to deal with a number of scenarios. We also knew that we could always talk to someone when we needed to - be that a friend, a corporal or the Padre… anyone you felt comfortable with, to share anything that might be bothering you and on your mind.”

Injury and the Road to Recovery

It was during Jaco’s second tour of Afghanistan in 2009 that he sustained severe life-changing injuries. Jaco and his platoon were engaged by Enemy Forces and after an intense 45-minute fire fight, Jaco was hit by an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade).

The injuries he sustained included the loss of his left arm at the elbow, a collapsed left lung, shrapnel wounds to his left side, punctured internal organs, blast wounds to upper thigh, a broken tibia and a fractured knee. Jaco had 11 operations and intense rehabilitation.

To describe Jaco’s road to recovery as long and arduous would be an understatement. Acceptance was key to him in mentally overcoming such a challenge having sustained such life-changing injuries. 

Jaco explains. 

“I had to accept what had happened to me and that life as I knew it would be very different going forward. This took some time and it wasn't easy to get to the point that I am now. I had many battles with myself, between what my mind wanted to do and what my body couldn't do at the time. The biggest battle I had believing I could get back to Afghanistan and continue my role as a soldier. This held me back for a long time, but it was just not going to happen. Once I accepted this and turned my attention to the new challenges of what was possible as an amputee, there was no stopping me from then on.”

Prosthetics and their Challenges

For many people, getting a prosthetic limb fitted can be a scary and overwhelming process. For Jaco, this process was one of excitement although he states,

“it did take some time getting used to having a prosthetic limb. It certainly did help with the phantom limb pains too. This is the pain you would experience from the damaged and confused nerves which are still sending signals to your brain.”

He found the whole process of building a prosthetic arm very interesting and the creativity one can achieve with design and functionality.

The process of finding a prosthetic that worked for him was one of ‘trial and error.’ As Jaco explains, 



“I had a few. I can’t remember exactly how many. Your stump changes shape all the time, it takes about a year for it to settle into a shape that it might remain in for some time. Sockets had to be adjusted all the time. I would try a number of different activities with the prosthetic, damage it and as a result my stump lost a lot of muscle and became very bony. We had to adapt to that in searching for a good fit.”

Currently, Jaco has three prosthetics that he uses either for sport or for daily use. Two are for cycling and one is a gym arm prosthetic. Regarding day-to-day difficulties with his prosthetics, Jaco admits,

“the only challenge is just the fit of them. There are days when your stump is more swollen due to tiredness or the heat and then there are other days when your prosthetic constantly feels like it’s going to fall off!”

The physical difficulties of becoming a primary amputee are coupled with mental challenges. To those who are struggling to find their way through the mental challenges associated with amputation, Jaco believes,

“it is best to be open minded and work together with your prosthetist to get the best limb that suits you. Also be patient, you won’t get the best looking, shiniest, all-singing, all-dancing prosthetic on day one. Whether you’ve lost an arm, a leg or a finger, you need to adjust to the changes first with very basic kit. Once you mastered the basics and improve, you will progress to the nicer,more advanced prosthetics.”

The impact of losing a limb can be severe but Jaco reiterates how acceptance again helped him overcome this impact. He states,

“my arm isn't going to grow back, so I might as well just carry on without it!”

Achieving Adventure and Sporting Success

Jaco’s recovery both mentally and physically is nothing short of remarkable. Almost immediately after his injury, he turned to the sport of sitting volleyball.

So why this particular sport? Jaco explains, 



“you don't need to be able to do much. As long as you had one good arm or hand and could hit the ball, you got a spot in the team. You can place yourself on one spot and make sure nothing comes past you. It is simple but yet effective and playing a part in a team gives you a feeling of belonging and importance.”

Sport to Jaco post-injury became a form of rehab.

“It played a very big role in my rehabilitation! I was introduced to new sports and the willingness to get better was a driver to better myself through my rehab in order to do so.”

When it comes to choosing his next challenge, Jaco is undecided.

“I don't have a process in place. I tend to do something that I like or have an interest in. From there, a few extra ordinary opportunities have come my way to go and I have been on some wonderful expeditions.”

Despite the physical and mental trauma endured, Jaco has become a first-class downhill skier and a multiple marathon runner. He was a member of the record-breaking team of wounded soldiers to trek unsupported to the North Pole (joined partly by Prince Harry), and he’s also climbed Alaska’s 6000m Mt Denali and Everest (narrowly missing the summit due to adverse weather). 

Jaco Van Gass - Expedition modeJaco is now also a member of the Adaptive Grand Slam Team. He explains,

“this is a team of disabled adventurers who are on a mission to be the first disabled team in history to complete the notorious Grand Slam. Very few adventurers have completed all stages of this impressive feat, which entails summiting the highest peak on each of the 7 continents and walking unsupported to the geographic North and South Poles. The Adaptive Grand Slam team will learn to climb using modified techniques and equipment in order to take on the world’s most challenging mountains. This evolving team is comprised of disabled adventurers, professional mountaineers and expedition leaders and supportive members of the extreme adventure community."

Back in 2013, Jaco was a member of the GB Para-Cycling team competing internationally at the World Championships. He also competed in 2014 and 2015. He has become a National Champion Cyclist on the road multiple times. He has represented Team GB across the globe on the track and on the road. He is a multiple time National Champion. In 2014, Jaco won double gold at the Invictus Games in London and in 2016, he won a Gold and Silver medal at the Invictus Games Orlando. Jaco's love for cycling continued as he cycled through Patagonia in December 2016.

Jaco Van Gass - Photo Credit: SW Pics

In September 2019, Jaco raced in the Road World Championships in Emmen, The Netherlands and came a very close second, winning a Silver medal in the road race. He was then invited to join the GB Cycling Team once again. In January 2020, he competed in the Track World Championships in Canada and became a Triple World Champion in the Kilo, Scratch and the Omnium. He also won a Silver medal in the Pursuit and the Team Sprint.

Jaco’s cycling achievements are truly astonishing and whilst it certainly goes a long way to keeping him fit, he explains another benefit.

“As a young boy I used the bike as a way to ‘escape’ from the world. When I had a long day at school or when exams were getting too much, I jumped on my bike and after a ride felt refreshed and ready to go again. So, for a long time, cycling has been a part of my life. It has only been over the last 11 years post incident that I have turned to racing and competing.”

It is safe to say that Jaco and resilience go hand in hand. He has, without a doubt, overcome adversity and is literally taking on the world. His experiences range from war to Mount Everest, from the Invictus Games in London to the velodrome of Rio De Janeiro. He has been through the toughest challenges life can throw at you and come out the other side stronger.

We are all currently living in difficult and uncertain times for which we must remain resilient. Jaco’s closing sentiments on our current situation provide not only a welcomed message of hope but are testament to the remarkable character he is.

Jaco explains,

“these are truly remarkable times we are currently facing. This is a time where we need to be strong within ourselves and for others. My motto in life is … life is 10% what happens to us but 90% how we respond to it. So, it’s your response that’s going to define you. If you react positively and know that soon things will get better, it will help you through the next few weeks.”

Jamie McGill - Trainee Solicitor

Many thanks to Jaco for his time, effort and input into the above article. It has been a real honour and privilege in being able to hear his experiences and his remarkable stories. Thank you Jaco.

Jaco is also fascinating motivational speaker, visiting businesses, charities and organisations across the world, telling his story, inspiring others by helping them to reach new goals and adapt to change. If you are interested to learn more about Jaco please visit;
www.jacovangass.com

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