15 September 2023
Justin Donnelly is lucky to be alive. And he knows it.
Following a horrific high-speed motorcycle crash during a race in the United Arab Emirates in 2017, the former commando was left with shocking injuries and fractures to 70 per cent of his body.
“I broke my ankles, my left shin; I fractured my right femur, left shoulder, right shoulder; I fractured my collarbone and ruptured a lung. I ended up with a brain injury, and three parts of my brain are dead,” said Justin.
“I have amnesia and aphasia, which affects my language and memory.
“I’m very lucky to be here today,” he said.
What followed was an intensive almost three-year recovery and rehabilitation process for the man who has also sustained a number of parachuting and combat-related injuries during his career and suffers from post-traumatic stress.
It began with an 18-month stay in a brain injury and recovery unit in a Queensland hospital, after which he was moved to a rehabilitation ward to undergo speech and occupational therapy, and work with neuropsychologists and a social worker.
Learning how to walk, talk and dress again was Justin’s priority. Showing the strength and mental fortitude that drove him to become a Commando and serve in East Timor and Afghanistan, he set himself a personal, physical and mental training regime to assist his recovery.
'A lot of people didn’t think I could achieve much after my accident. Even me. I’m still fighting through that and trying to believe in myself'
Post-rehab, he entered supported accommodation and gradually took on more independent living tasks such as cooking for himself and cleaning. Eventually he was able to get his licence, buy a car and move into his own place, getting back to some sort of normality.
“It was a three-year struggle for me,” said the father of two girls, Jordan, 17, and Jade, 14.
Getting involved with the Invictus Games seemed like a logical next step.
“My Sergeant in the regiment, Pete Rudland (a former Invictus Games competitor and current staff member), reached out to me a couple of years ago and suggested I try doing this.
“I thought, OK, I’ll throw it out there and give it a go.”
Although the COVID pandemic threw a spanner in the works – albeit temporarily – it didn’t stop his adventurous spirit. Justin still managed to cycle through New Zealand and across the US (amongst other things), keen to prove himself at Invictus in Düsseldorf through cycling, swimming and wheelchair basketball.
“One of my main reasons for applying for Invictus Games was to prove a point,” Justin said.
“A lot of people didn’t think I could achieve much after my accident. Even me. I’m still fighting through that and trying to believe in myself.
“But I’ll keep pushing and pushing and pushing; trying to be the better individual I’m supposed to be.
“I judge myself pretty hard. It’s not enough; it’s never enough and I’ll keep going because I don’t know what the ultimate goal is, what the next chapter is,” he said.
If he’s completely honest, Justin, who followed his grandfather into the military, admits to thriving on what he has missed most since leaving the service – the camaraderie and banter that goes along with being part of a tight-knit team.
“It’s been emotional for me because it’s back to what I’m used to – the mateship, that feeling of belonging,” Justin said.
“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, we’re all feeling the same thing. I was having lunch with some dudes from Europe the other day and we really couldn’t speak each other’s language but we tried. We connected.
“It doesn’t matter how broken we are, we are lucky to be here.
“I will go out and try and do the best I physically can. I will push myself as hard as possible. I have no set times or goals to reach. I broke 70 per cent of my body and have a brain injury. Really, every day is a blessing,” he said.
Wrapping up on September 16, Invictus Games is an international adaptive multi-sports competition for serving and former serving military personnel who have been wounded, injured or become ill during their military service.
Read more about Team Australia at www.defence.gov.au/invictusgames