Anzac hero: ‘I lost my leg but it won’t stop me’

Curtis was determined not to give up

Curtis McGrath had always lived an active lifestyle. After joining the Army aged 18, he was deployed to Afghanistan as a combat engineer – a role that is well-known as one of the most dangerous in the world.

It was during this deployment that Curtis had his entire life turned upside down. But it was a promise he made to his fellow troops that got him through his darkest days and saw him push himself to represent Australia in the Paralympics Games.

Here, brave Curtis shares his inspirational story…

Gliding across the water in my kayak, a sense of calm washed over me.

Even as a teenager, the serenity of being in the outdoors put me at ease.

I’d always had an adventurous lifestyle, playing rugby, cricket or going white water kayaking.

As my high school graduation approached, most of my friends were talking about going off to university, but I knew that wasn’t the path for me.

So when I turned 18, I enlisted in the Australian Army as a Combat Engineer.

My role was to provide mobility to the Army and local communities while denying the enemy access.

My parents, Paul and Kim, and my grandma Lorraine were all very proud.

Over the next five years, I was posted to different operations all over the world, where my duties ranged from building structures and providing safe drinking water for locals to destroying bridges and clearing mines and other booby traps.

It was rewarding to see the positive impact we were making to local communities.

When I had time off, I would fly home as often as possible to catch up with my friends.

During one visit, I met Rachel, 24, at a party. She was studying to become a doctor, and I admired her desire to help others.

Though we knew it would be challenging having a long-distance relationship, we knew it’d be worth it.

Me and Rachel (Credit: Supplied)

Then, aged 24, exactly six years after enlisting in the Army, I was deployed to Afghanistan in the Middle East for six months with 90 other troops. Considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, it was up to me and my team to ensure the Australian Army and other forces had a safe pathway to their destination.

Using metal detectors, we’d scan the ground for any detection of explosives and have them removed before they could bring harm to others.

When we were back at the barracks, I was able to phone Rachel and my family every few days.

Though it wasn’t quite the same as seeing them all face-to-face, I’d formed close bonds with other members of my squad and that helped to keep my spirits up.

Spending so much time together on the other side of the world, we were more like brothers.

Thankfully, three months into our deployment, I hadn’t come across a single explosive.

But when we were ordered to take part in a clearance project in a different province, things started to feel real.

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During our first day of the mission, an improvised explosive device (IED) was spotted by a fellow soldier.

Calling the technicians in charge of destroying these devices, they came to safely remove it.

Three days later, we finally reached a checkpoint.

But the main track in and out of the province was blocked by a large boulder, so we needed to break it into smaller pieces to make way for others to pass through.

The next day, we were tasked with removing another huge rock the size of a Volkswagen Beetle car.

Situated in the middle of the desert, these masses were everywhere.

By mid-morning, the temperature had reached a scorching 45 degrees and the harsh conditions had left me feeling fatigued.

I was so exhausted that I’d gone to the wrong place and was preparing to blow up a different boulder.

‘It’s over here,’ a search team member radioed through, directing me to another giant rock around 150 metres away.

Packing up my metal detector, I started making my way over.

Suddenly, there was a huge blast as I stepped on an explosive.

The impact was so strong it blew me onto my back and knocked me unconscious.

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When I came to, the sky was dark and full of falling debris, and the world around me was eerily quiet.

Lifting myself up on my elbows, I looked down.

Both my legs were gone and there was a huge crater next to me from the explosion.

Just then, excruciating pain hit me like a freight train.

My head, face, chest and hands were in agony and I felt like my whole body was being crushed and on fire at the same time.

Thankfully, my friend Pitch, who was just metres away when the explosive went off, had been uninjured in the blast and bravely rushed to my side.

Having been the only one of my four-person team with advanced training in first aid, I knew I needed fluid and a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Instructing Pitch on how to wrap my wounds, I couldn’t believe how quickly my life had changed.

Just 30 seconds ago I was healthy and walking around and now I could die,
I thought.

By now, the rest of my patrol had rushed over and applied first aid before loading me on a stretcher.

As they carried me over a steep hill, I knew my legs were never coming back.

It was heartbreaking, but I knew the trauma of seeing me so badly injured would haunt my fellow soldiers, and I wanted to try and ease their minds.

‘It’s alright guys, I’ll go into the Paralympics and I’ll be sweet,’ I joked.

But as I waited for the chopper, I accepted I was likely going to die.

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Thinking of how my family would react when they received a knock on the door to learn their son was gone, I burst into tears.

Thankfully, the helicopter arrived five minutes later and I was rushed to hospital.

There, I learned that along with losing my legs, the bones in my left wrist had been severely injured, I’d suffered burns and bruises to my left arm and the back of my thigh, and both ear drums were perforated.

My life as I knew it was over.

But, as I looked around at the other wounded soldiers around me, including a man whose entire body had been burned in a blast, I realised I was one of the lucky ones.

Just two days later my parents arrived to travel home with me.

‘We’re so glad you’re okay,’ they said, hugging me.

Rachel had been doing medical training in a rural area and wasn’t able to fly over right away. So she met me at Royal Brisbane Hospital.

‘I love you so much,’ she cried.

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Over the next five days, I underwent skin grafts on my legs and hands to help my wounds heal.

‘I want to walk by the time the guys get home from Afghanistan,’ I vowed to my family.

Incredibly, I was able to begin physiotherapy just five weeks later.

And in November – three months after the accident – I was able to take my first steps using prosthetics.

That same month, when my fellow troops arrived back on home soil, I was waiting at the plane door dressed in my uniform.

‘It’s so good to see you,’ the boys smiled.

Taking part in the welcome home march, I knew my time in the Army had come to an end.

So I decided I should live up to my words and get involved in sports so I could work my way up to the Paralympics.

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Choosing canoeing, I was instantly hooked on the sensation of gliding across the water. Training with my coach six days a week, I loved the sense of purpose it gave me.

Making the World Championships in 2015, I managed to come second and was selected for the team to go to the Paralympic Games in Rio a year later.

With my family there to cheer me on, I was determined to make them proud.

Incredibly, I won the race.

Standing at the top of the podium as I was awarded a gold medal, I couldn’t believe how far I’d come.

I was even asked to be the Australian flag bearer for theclosing ceremony of the Games. Waving the red, white and blue flag above my head, it was the proudest moment of my life.

The promise I’d made while I was waiting to die had changed my life.

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Last June, Rachel and I married in front of all our family and friends.

Now, eight years on from the explosion, I’m so grateful that I survived.

If it wasn’t for the selflessness of my fellow troops who helped me that day, I might not have gotten that opportunity.

Though traditional ANZAC celebrations have sadly been cancelled across the country due to coronavirus this year, I will pause to recognise the people that supported me and to remember the resilience of our servicemen and women who have served before me.

Lest we forget.

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