“I looked down and realised I’d lost my left arm”
Jaco Van Gass grew up with a sense of adventure and a need for independence. Born in South Africa, he spent his childhood between the family home in the city and his grandparents farm in the country.
Jaco admits he “was very privileged to live an active, outdoor lifestyle”, growing up with a love for adventure. It was this sense of adventure and a ‘[craving] for independence’ that led to Jaco joining the British Military in 2006.
“I found out that because [South Africa] was part of the Commonwealth, I could join the British Army. Knowing they were active all over the world, the standard of training, the respect they have for the armed forces and the history of the various regiments, it ticked all the boxes for me.
“I have always had a sense of adventure. The army could take me all over the world.”
The British Military
Jaco decided the Parachute Regiment was where he wanted to serve. Only 20% of week-one recruits go onto to serve in the regiment, but the challenge of being one of the select few was an attractive proposition.
“I love pushing myself, pushing the boundaries. The parachute regiment is the hardest regiment in the army to join and the challenge it brought was attractive to me, thinking of jumping out of a perfectly fine aeroplane even more so!”
There is a reason only 20% of recruits make it through basic training.
“It was tough. There were stages where I thought, ‘If this is what the army is about then I don’t want much of this.’
“It’s only looking back on it once you’ve finished do you go, ‘It wasn’t that bad’, but when you are there, it’s shocking. Once you pass, go to parachute school, get your wings and join your battalion, that’s the life.”
After making it through training, Jaco wasn’t disappointed with what met him. Going on to do two tours of Afghanistan, he loved it.
“I love pushing myself, pushing the boundaries. The parachute
regiment is the hardest regiment in the army to join
and the challenge it brought was attractive to me.”
Whilst his first tour focused on ‘training some of the Afghan forces’ and ‘not so much on the frontline fighting’, the second tour lived up to expectations.
“My second tour was purely to go and do a job, push the Taliban back. The first one gave me a good insight and I learned a great deal. The second tour was even better, it lived up to my standards and what I expected.
“I loved every second out there. I loved every bit of the job . You get 14 days rest and recovery throughout the 6 months [on tour] and that was probably the worst bit. I didn’t want to come back to the UK.”
It was towards the end of the second tour that Jaco’s life changed. He was part of a successful mission that captured the leader of a terrorist training cell planning to carry out attacks around the Afghan election. On the way back from the mission, Jaco’s platoon came across a Taliban stronghold they didn’t know was in the area.
After 40-50 minutes of intense firefighting, Jaco was hit with a rocket propelled grenade (RPG).
“The rocket exploded right next to me, the blast ripped my arm off and a third of the muscular tissue of my left upper thigh. I was thrown in the air and [landed] about five metres from my original position. I landed badly on my leg and broke my ankle really badly.
“I remember hearing the guys still firing. All that’s running through my head is that I need to get back and help them out. I tried to hold my rifle in a correct firing position but it fell to the ground. I didn’t understand why. I looked down and realised I’d lost my left arm.”
“I tried to hold my rifle in a correct firing position
but it fell to the ground. I didn’t understand why.
I looked down and realised I’d lost my left arm.”
Jaco was aided by one of his teammates and admits if it wasn’t for him, he ‘probably wouldn’t have survived that night.’ A helicopter was sent in to pick him up, even though they were still under severe fire.
“Once on the helicopter, I knew I was going home. I just relaxed. I thought, ‘I can die, I can survive, I don’t care.’ I just gave in knowing I was going home, whether that was in a body bag or not.”
Once back in the UK, Jaco began his rehabilitation but couldn’t come to grips with his injuries straight away. He had gone from being in the ‘best shape of his life’ to ‘drinking protein shakes through a straw.’
For someone who craved independence, suddenly, Jaco found himself in a “hospital bed [with a] catheter and a colostomy bag, very reliant on hospital staff and family members.
“In my mind I was still a soldier, I was going back to Afghanistan, but my body was like ‘no this is not happening.’ [My body and mind] were fighting against each other. I got very frustrated and angry easily.”
The ambition was to reach Headley Court, the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre. However, once there, he caught a virus and was sent back to civilian hospital. This forced Jaco to come to terms with his injury.
“In my mind I was still a soldier, I was
going back to Afghanistan, but my
body was like ‘no this is not happening.”
“That was really tough for me. That’s when I realised something serious had happened and that I might not be able to be a soldier anymore. My mind and body synced. Once that happened, it was like a fast forward button was pushed and my real recovery started.
“I knew to take things a little slower, step by step, set realistic goals and keep building on that.
“There is a fantastic environment created when you’re in Headley Court. Sometimes people look at me and think, ‘You’ve picked up horrific injuries’, that’s true, but I look at some of the guys at Headley Court and I’m lucky compared to them. There were triple amputees, guys losing their sight, extremely bad burn injuries and I could see them cracking on, having a smile on their face, doing things I [thought] I could do. I would grab that energy and inspiration from them to continue my journey.”
Sport was the next step in Jaco’s journey and played a huge part in his rehabilitation process.
“I went out with the mindset of ‘let’s see what I can and can’t do.”
As it turns out, Jaco can do a lot.
You hear a lot of the pain threshold and mental resilience that being in the armed forces brings. For Jaco, ‘over the years [he’s] constantly pushed it further away’ and the ‘mental resilience you learn in the army’ gives you an ability to ‘push that little bit more, where someone else may give up.’
“You know just to hang on a little bit more and break through that pain barrier.”
This resilience and mindset has led to a number of remarkable achievements. Jaco was part of the record-breaking team of wounded soldiers to trek unsupported to the North Pole (joined by Prince Harry), climbed Alaska’s 6000m Mt Denali and, in 2012 with the ex-servicemen charity Walking With The Wounded, attempted Everest (narrowly missing the summit due to adverse weather).
When returning to England following the Everest attempt, Jaco was inspired by the London 2012 Paralympic Games and turned his attention to the triathlon.
“I was okay at the running, shockingly bad at the swimming and very good at the cycling.”
Whilst at school Jaco had played rugby but, after breaking his knee, he took up cycling and fell in love with the sport.
“You know just to hang on a little bit
more and break through that pain barrier.”
The GB Triathlon coach told Jaco to focus on his cycling. That’s exactly what he did and went on to win two Invictus Games gold medals in 2014, Gold and Silver medals in 2016 as well as representing Team GB all over the world.
However, the achievement he is most proud of is a Bronze medal in the 2018 Para World Championships.
Having made numerous sacrifices whilst trying to reach the Rio Paralympics, Jaco was not selected for the Games. Jaco began training his own way, taking a step back from Team GB. After riding a very good time in a competition, Jaco was asked to represent Great Britain at the 2018 World Championships in Rio.
“I had a chance to prove to them that I should have gone on
the plane and that I had a medal ride in me and I did that.”
The event would take place against the same riders and in the same velodrome as the Paralympic event Jaco had missed.
“I had a chance to prove to them that I should have gone on the plane and that I had a medal ride in me and I did that. I broke the British record within my category and came away with a bronze medal.”
Whatever Jaco has turned his hand to, he has succeeded. His mental resilience and ‘never say die’ attitude has taken him to the top of mountains and podiums across the world, not allowing his life-changing injuries to hold him back. Next for Jaco is a mountain bike race in his native South Africa and, potentially, another Everest attempt. There is no doubt that, just like the rest of the challenges and hurdles Jaco has faced, he will succeed.