Warrior amputee Mark Daniels a force for contemporary Veterans


by Maxine Brown

WHEN rock bottom hit new amputee Mark Daniels, he’d literally faceplanted out of his wheelchair onto the concrete floor – the Able Seaman’s attempt at pouring dog food for his beloved border collie, Diesel, having proved disastrous following a recent near-fatal accident.

The weight of the 15kg bag had wrenched his freshly broken ribs and tipped his wheelchair off balance, hurling both the dog biscuits – and Mark – to the floor. While Diesel was delighted with fate’s bounty, Mark was gutted and in excruciating pain. Howling in frustration at how inept his newly broken body was proving, he waited for Diesel to finish hoovering up the food before curling into him to sob desperately, uncontrollably.  He stayed like that, arms seeking comfort around his devoted pooch, until his mum returned home about 30 minutes later.

It’s hard to believe that it’s just four years since Mark lay helpless in that cold, unyielding space – where he vowed to rebuild his shattered body into one so strong that it would never betray him like that again.

The fact that Mark did not bleed out on the road after his motorbike was T-boned at 70km/h by an inattentive driver in Port Kennedy was nothing short of a medical miracle.

That he’s since managed to combat his body AND suicidal thoughts to emerge as one of Australia’s brightest adaptive sporting athletes – you may recognise him as a 2018 Invictus Games gold and bronze medallist, and viewer favourite on Channel Nine’s smash TV hit Ninja Warrior – is all Mark Daniels, and testament to the pure grit of this determined young man.

Why was he so depressed? When Mark was rushed to hospital on the night of that fateful 2015 accident, he died three times on the table. Medics brought him back to life but then had to put the 22-year-old into a coma to treat his broken neck, ruptured kidney, punctured lung, 11 broken ribs, a damaged heart, broken hand and split femoral artery that, ultimately, caused the amputation of his right leg at the knee. When he awoke in a morphine haze to agonising pain and the news he had lost his leg, he was so traumatised that he repeatedly tried to rip the lifesaving tubes from his body and throat before being handcuffed to the bed.

It’s been a painful yet determined road back, with Mark so committed to reclaiming his life as an amputee, that he not only rebuilt his body, but packed in a superhero’s worth of action along the way. He’s also mastered a string of sports, from 24-hour obstacle races against able-bodied athletes, to para sports such as weightlifting, powerlifting, triathlons, wheelchair rugby and basketball, volleyball, swimming, rowing and snowboarding – all in the drive to get fitter, stronger and never feel weak again.

Along the way, he’s picked up plenty of media acclaim, a swag of sporting medals and accolades, and a steadily growing army of admirers.

‘’I get that I’m only 25 and just an Able Seaman, but I’ve seen things and experienced things over the past three years that people can’t even imagine.  I’ve learnt lessons that people don’t usually learn for another 30 years.

‘’So I feel like I have the ability to see people, to inspire people and move people by example, like ‘ok, if you’re doing it then what is my excuse’. So yeah, I’ll always be up the front leading if I can,’’ he says quietly but resolutely.

Today, this means getting behind the RSLWA ANZAC Street Appeal on April 23

As Mark contemplates a career crossroads and the very real threat of having to transition out of the Navy service that has been his dream career since boyhood, he is turning his attention to finding healthy solutions to some of the very real struggles of our contemporary Veterans – many of whom fall through society’s cracks after transitioning back to civilian life.

The Veteran community carries the weight of a unique set of issues – and tends to be fairly insular because outsiders ‘’just don’t understand’’. PTSD is widespread, while suicide and homelessness rates are horrific.

It’s why Mark is urging the Western Australian community to join him in getting behind the cause, by supporting RSLWA’s ANZAC Street Appeal on April 23.

‘’I think when you’re serving you’ve got a sense of purpose, you’ve got drive, you’ve got your whole life set in front of you by somebody else. Most decisions in Defence are made by someone else. It just depends where you fit in the wheel,’’ he explains. ‘’Then, you transition out … I’m facing this option at the moment, and there’s a lot of doubt and cloud in trying to work out where I fit in the world.

‘’And yeah, you transition out and you’re trying to work out who you are, all you’ve ever known is military life so now you’ve got to figure out who you are, you’ve got to figure out how to be a normal civilian and you face losing that mateship.

‘’The frustrating thing is, I got myself back to being redeployable, but had to be downgraded again, just because I’m having so many complications with my leg.’’

But as Mark has learnt during his own remarkable journey, sport and the sense of belonging that comes from being part of an active sporting community can be a lifesaver to those feeling isolated and desperate.

He wants to set up a series of sporting activities through RSL Sub-Branches to get Veterans engaged, talking about their issues and feeling worthy among peers.

‘’I’m noticing a huge cultural shift when it comes to the needs of Veterans,’’ Mark says. ‘’We’re not looking for somewhere to sit and drink and talk anymore.

‘’I’d love for the community to rally behind this cause. These people have given up so much … including the time away from their families.

‘’When people say you know what you signed up for, you have no idea as a 19-year-old kid signing on the dotted line. And it is hard. You see so many people falling apart, families falling apart, the mental health, which you have to hide because you feel like you could lose your job.

‘’Right now there’s been a massive shift but 10 years ago when these guys were at war and were going through everything that wasn’t the case. You went there, you did your job and you went home. You didn’t talk about what you did.

‘’ And having activities like this would get Veterans going from being ‘you know what, I’m alone’, to having hundreds of Veteran mates …. We’d get together once a week and in that time it’s a safe space where you can open up and talk to people and the mental health issues we have people get but it’s like you actually have that ability to have a conversation without feeling alone, or falling into a bottle, or feeling like you’re forced to go see a psychologist, which, I know myself, you hate it.

‘’It doesn’t feel natural opening up but when it’s people you shared similar experiences to, you can’t put a price on that. So there is a massive need for that funding to come from the community, to be able to help to allow that.’’

Mark is delighted that there’s been in a community mindset shift when it comes to acceptance of mental health issues, but says there is a long way to go when it comes to saving lives.

“From what everyone talks about suicide prevention and everything, and you’ve got all the social media posts …. a social media post is never going to stop someone killing themselves,’’ he says.

‘’What’s going to stop someone killing themselves are these groups, the support, knowing that they’re actually cared about. So we can actually get these activities happening, especially in WA, there’s not a lot of activities going that actually get the younger Veterans out and engaged.’’

Nobody knows or understands this more than Mark. It was watching the Invictus Games from his hospital bed while recovering from his injuries that lit the first sporting warrior flames within. And despite his now-many remarkable feats and accomplishments, the battle to stay healthy continues.

The mind can be a nightmarish place. Even now, Mark has to work on staying on top of his PTSD. It’s a constant battle.

But he has plenty to get out of bed for these days: whether it’s inspiring the masses by sharing what he’s learned along the way; or training four hours daily in pursuit of his dream of representing Australia in wheelchair rugby and wearing the green-and-gold at next year’s Tokyo Paralympics Games, there’s no stopping him.

But first, he has his sights set on another Invictus Games – with RSLWA financially assisting local athletes selected to compete.

‘’You’ve got that choice,’’ Mark says humbly. ‘’You can be the victim or the victor. For me, my disability doesn’t define me, it doesn’t hold me back. Disability only defines you when you let it. So for me, I use my disability, but I’m not disabled.’’