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JJ Chalmers: ‘In some ways, it’s like I was born again after Afghanistan’

After sustaining horrific injuries in Helmand, JJ Chalmers fought back to make a new life as a TV presenter and disability advocate

In May 2011, while serving in Helmand Province as a Royal Marine, JJ Chalmers was severely injured in an IED blast. Years of surgery and rehabilitation followed. He became a patron of Help for Heroes charity, and in 2014 won bronze and gold in non-amputee cycling at the Invictus Games. He went on to present National Paralympic Day for Channel 4, and returned to the Invictus Games in 2016 as an ambassador.

As his career in television developed, he’s fronted sports segments for the BBC, presented BBC Sport’s coverage of the Commonwealth Games in Australia, and appeared in 2020’s Strictly Come Dancing. He is married with two children. In his Letter to My Younger Self, he talks about the comrades that he’s lost, and how Invictus gave him a renewed sense of purpose. 

At 16, I was a class clown in school. I was pretty confident, pretty chirpy, had lots of friends. I was the stage manager of a theatre group. At the same time, I was a Royal Marine Cadet. Some people didn’t think it was cool, but I completely bought into the idea. I’d already spent time with these ordinary blokes that did an extraordinary job and what really struck me was that they went to work every day, doing something amazing, with their best friends. This was the early 2000s. I was also a big rap fan, so my heroes were as likely to be Tupac as a Royal Marine.

JJ Chalmers marines
2007 On a training exercise with the Marines in Belize Photo: Courtesy of JJ Chalmers

I grew up believing you were part of a community and you should contribute. My sister’s a nurse, my brother’s a teacher – we’ve always played our part. A lot of it comes from our parents. My old man’s a minister, so we could see the community filling a room on a Sunday, and my mum and dad played an active role in nurturing and looking after it. When I left school, I did two things simultaneously – I went to university to study to be a teacher and joined the Royal Marines as a reservist. But I had 40-odd years of a teaching career ahead of me and the Marines is a young man’s game, so I wanted to make the most of it. I had aspirations of going to Afghanistan and thought I would come back to teaching. I’m still a teacher to this day. I pay my subscription to the General Teacher’s Council every year, just in case all this goes wrong and I need to put myself on a supply list.

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I would like to give advice to my younger self before he went to Afghanistan. He probably didn’t quite prepare my family and loved ones enough for the realities of what could happen. That was partly because I didn’t want to confront that it may happen. Also, I thought it wouldn’t happen to me. I looked at the numbers – one in eight were being killed or injured – so I thought of it as a seven-in-eight chance to be fine. But when you wake up from a coma and look up at your family, you realise you could probably have been more honest. 

Help for Heroes
2014 Promotional shot for the Help for Heroes campaign, of which he is a patron Photo: Courtesy of JJ Chalmers

For the person who woke up from that coma, I’d love to tell him it is going to be alright… but not just by magic. It will be alright because of the people around you, your friends and family, the surgeons and doctors. I knew nothing about this world I was about to become an expert in. But I’d tell him to keep plugging away, moving forward, trust the system, trust yourself – and just get up every morning. Don’t be frustrated that you were a Royal Marine Commando who jumped out of the back of helicopters and did extraordinary things. That may not ever be you again. But you will be something. All these doors have closed, but there’s plenty more doors and they’ll open up to you. It’s still up to you to get through them.

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Speaking of my younger self, in some ways it is like I was born again after Afghanistan. Physically I had to be born again. We had to rebuild my body. I had to learn to walk, learn to eat, learn to do everyday functions again. And all sorts of aspects of me had massively changed. 

My disability is far more complicated than just being blown up. That’s not my disability, that’s my mechanism of injury. If you look at how my story was told on Strictly Come Dancing, it all tied back to my being blown up. While a story is a fascinating and sexy thing to tell, and we talk about “overcoming your disability”, you don’t actually overcome your disability. You can overcome the initial trauma, you can get healthy, you can get fit, but what you learn to do is live with your disability and adapt your circumstances.

In 2014, nobody knew what the Invictus Games were. I was sold on the picture that it would be a rehabilitation tool for us physically, mentally and socially. Invictus gave me an opportunity to discover my ambition again, and sense of worth and purpose and service. When I come back to present it, I understand what it is like to stand on that start line. More than that, I understand what it is like to get to that start line. I also want to ask why is it OK that certain buildings aren’t accessible to 10 per cent of the population. It’s about fixing the system. When I was being interviewed in the BBC studio at the first Invictus Games [in 2014], I turned to Jonathan Edwards – who was presenting at the time – and said: the next time we do an interview, I want to be sat in your chair. How do I make that happen? That was a crucial moment. He introduced me to individuals within the industry that still champion me and give me honest feedback.

I listened to the royal wedding, William’s wedding [to Kate Middleton in 2011], on a wind-up radio in Afghanistan. Seven years later, I was at a royal wedding [Prince Harry’s to Meghan Markle]. How that happened is utterly bizarre. Harry’s a friend of mine and someone I dearly love and wish the best for. I wouldn’t be stood here talking to you if it wasn’t for him. Not to lay all of it at his feet, but he’s one of the key people who created one of the key catalysts in my recovery. For that, I’ll be forever grateful. 

I will see Harry out in The Hague. He will be out there doing what he does for Invictus – spearheading it, using his platform to improve the lives of others.

Prince Harry and JJ Chalmers
2016 With his friend Prince Harry at the Invictus Games in Florida Photo: PA IMAGES / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

My younger self would be really proud of presenting the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. To be the first disabled presenter to do that is significant – but it’s not about me being the first, it’s about ensuring I’m not the last to do it. That’s what actually matters. So a kid growing up or someone lying in a hospital bed who has just acquired a disability can go, there’s the opportunity out there. 

What is a Royal Marine doing in these TV studios? That’s how I felt when I first went into TV. I was a fish out of water. But when I was at the Olympics last year, I looked back to being a Marine and thought, what the heck was I doing there? I loved that sense of doing a difficult job with the best people in the world around you. These guys were still heroes to me. But I was blown up on a Friday searching a bomb-making factory in Helmand, Afghanistan. Now, that seems like a crazy thing to be doing. Back then, that was just a Friday afternoon in the Royal Marines.

I understand pacifists. But sometimes there is genuine evil in this world and somebody needs to stand up to it

Last summer, when Afghanistan descended into chaos, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I feel very drawn to conflict. And it feels the same again with Ukraine. We get such exposure through social media to the brutalities of it. I feel compelled to want to do something, but feel powerless. I understand those that detest war; pacifists. I can understand their philosophy. But sometimes there is genuine evil in this world and somebody needs to stand up to it.

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I’m very happily married and have two amazing kids. I always knew I wanted a family. But I’d tell my younger self it will come after failures and heartbreaks and embarrassment and that’s all part of it. I look at my son and daughter, who are only three and five, and know they are going to get their hearts broken one day. And they may break someone’s heart. I want them to know they will be OK and make sure they take care of people. 

When you are in the present, you’re only there because of every experience you’ve had – good or bad. There are great moments in my life I’d love to experience again – winning a medal at the Invictus Games, the birth of my children, my wedding day. But there’s only one thing I would change. The day that I was injured I would see my two friends survive it. But that isn’t going to happen. So all I can do is ensure that the opportunity I’ve got – the life I’ve got that they don’t have – is damn well the best one it can be. 

JJ Chalmers presents the Invictus Games beginning on Sunday April 17 on BBC One

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, vulnerable and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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