10 September 2012


Cpl. Rory Mackenzie
If you watched the Paralymics closing ceremony, you might have recognised the accent of the narrator atop the sun dial stage. Corporal Rory Douglas Mackenzie (30) is a South African who served in the British Army as a Combat Medic. He was born in South Africa to parents from Edinburgh and Yorkshire and moved to Britain in 2004 to fulfil his ambition of joining the Army. He joined the Parachute Regiment in 2004, transferred to the Medical Corps and went to Iraq with the Staffordshire Regiment in October 2006. Three months into his six-month tour, in January 2007, his routine early morning patrol in Basra hit a road-side bomb. The device detonated, penetrated their Warrior armoured vehicle and tore through his leg, stopping in the chest of the soldier across from him. That soldier died instantly, the youngest serving soldier in the British Army in Iraq at that time.

Rory realised he had lost his leg. He was placed into a helicopter, and a 16-hour operation at a field hospital followed to stabilise him, before he was flown to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham. Seven operations followed, and he contracted MRSA. He was supported by his mother, brother, and his then girlfriend, Storm Makings, who had flown out from South Africa. Once he was stronger, he was moved to Headley Court, where he spent seven months and many hours in the prosthetics department. His mother and girlfriend were temporarily housed in a small property available to relatives next to Headley Court, sharing with family of another wounded soldier.

When a British soldier is killed in action, he is publicly named so that proper tributes can be made. The wounded soldiers are not identified. Britain's last specialist military hospital at Haslar, near Portsmouth, was closed in 2007. An ordinary NHS hospital, Selly Oak in Birmingham, has a ward for the care of wounded soldiers. After discharge, the lucky ones get a place at Headley Court Army rehabilitation centre in Surrey. Wounded soldiers who remain in the Army are prohibited from speaking about their treatment.

Rory made a complete physical recovery and started walking again. The reality of what had happened led to anger. Fortunately, Rory received an invitation from Help for Heroes to go adaptive skiing in Bavaria, Germany, under a new military programme called Battle Back. He took to skiing with ease, after three days of learning. His frame of mind changed for the better.

Rory Mackenzie at the Paralympics Closing Ceremony
He took part in the first Help for Heroes Big Battlefield Bike Ride in 2008, using a hand bike. The 350-mile bike ride was made by 300 riders. Using specially adapted bikes, a team of six wounded soldiers toured historic European battlegrounds over seven days, laying a wreath at each destination as a tribute to those who have died for their countries. In October 2008 he was chosen along with five other British servicemen to go to the US national Olympic training centre in California to develop his sporting prowess.

Rory also took part in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge as part of the Row2Recovery team, rowing from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Port St Charles in Barbados in January 2012. He heard about the Row2Recovery challenge when visiting Headley Court for a prosthetics appointment. He saw a poster saying: "More than 4,000 people have climbed Everest. More than 500 have been into space. Only 473 have ever rowed an ocean." On signing up, he discovered one of the co-founders was his commander when he first joined the Parachute Regiment in 2004. He was initially a back-up member of the team, but two months before they set off, he was selected for the team.

The rowing trip took 51 days and involved a six-man team – four of whom lost limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan. The crew, none of whom had any rowing experience before they started training, suffered with sea sickness and sores caused by the salty water. They went through a force-six gale and 50ft waves. The boat's autohelm - the computer system that steered the boat – packed up, damaged beyond repair. The crew had to use a foot-steering mechanism. Eventually the weather calmed down and they set up a regime - while three rowed, the other three crew members slept. No one ever slept for more than two-and-a-half hours. On a good day, they covered 70 miles. They had to consume 4,500 calories a day, made up from freeze-dried meals re-hydrated by adding boiling water, cereal bars, sweets, meat sticks and powdered energy drink mixes. At night they mostly rowed in silence, using iPods to listen to audio books, including biographies of great explorers. The three amputees had to keep up their stump management, which involved rubbing white spirits into the skin to desensitise it, and regular cleaning with wet wipes to prevent infection. Rory experienced immense pain, as during the trip five pieces of shrapnel left in his body had worked their way to the surface of his skin. He had to pull them out using tweezers, a mirror, and painkillers, on Christmas Day. On December 30, day 27 of the crossing, the boat’s desalinator, which converts sea water to drinking water, failed. When they switched to a manual pump, that broke as well. The only drinking water left was the 200 litres of bottled water they were carrying as ballast. They had to ask the rescue yacht to help them, which meant they would be disqualified. They started rationing the water to 2.5 litres per person per day, and had to drop anchor until the rescue yacht, 1,000 miles away, reached them. As the ocean current swirled around the stationary boat, pressure increased on the rudder and the rudder split in two. One of the crew attempted a makeshift repair, removing then re-screwing the rudder, and it worked. They reached the finish line in late January 2012, where Rory was met by his Spanish fiancee, Lara Pardo Martinez.

Rory was part of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Thames flotilla. He was on the Gloriana, a row barge gifted to the Queen on behalf of the nation. It carried a team of 18 rowers led by Olympic champions Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent. Rory was one of the rowers.

He is now a keen skier, cyclist and swimmer, and rides a quad bike. After working at his regiment’s sports shop, as an analyst and adviser for the Army rugby team, and training Comabt Medics at Keogh Barracks, he has now left the Army and is a motivational speaker. He says that losing his leg has opened many doors, and he takes every opportunity that he gets. In 2009 he posed for a portrait by the war artist Arabella Dorman. He has a dream to compete in the Paralympics.