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.
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.
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.
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.