Finding my feet
"He always has a big smile on his face'' … Damien Thomlinson with his Brazilian girlfriend Tisha Agostini. Photo: Tim Bauer
He approaches with a limp. No, it's more a swagger - a John Wayne, just-off-the-horse swagger. He's handsome in the action-man mould: Matt Damon, but with a broader, show-stopping smile.
Soon the 31-year-old will lift his jeans to reveal his legs. Both are made of titanium and carbon fibre. It is less than three years and eight months since Private Damien Thomlinson, from the 2nd Commando Regiment of the Australian Army, drove over a bomb while on night patrol in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. In that instant, the commando's right leg was blown off to the upper thigh. His lower left leg, his right arm and his life were left hanging by threads.
Steve and Di Thomlinson had their mobile phones on silent, as their golf club rules stipulate, while they played near their home at Terrigal on the NSW central coast. It was Saturday, April 4, 2009 - their daughter Naomi's fifth wedding anniversary. ''A young man from the pro shop, driving a cart, came and found us on the 11th tee,'' Di recalls. Two soldiers in uniform were waiting at the Thomlinsons' front door with news regarding their only other child, Damien.
"I knew immediately that something was wrong" ... Damien Thomlinson. Photo: Tim Bauer
When Tisha Agostini took Di Thomlinson's call that afternoon, ''I knew immediately that something was wrong. Damien had introduced me to his mum and dad before he left, saying, 'If anything happens to me, they'll get the call.' She was breathing heavily. She could barely speak. 'Is he alive?' I asked. 'Is he alive?' ''
Agostini, a biochemist from Brazil, had met Thomlinson the previous October in a bar in Randwick, in Sydney's east. ''When we first started dating, he couldn't tell me what he did for a job because it was so secret. When he finally told me, when we became serious, I was shocked. In Brazil, no one is going off to wars.''
Thomlinson went off to war four months later, with his parents' blessing and, in the end, Agostini's. ''There are heaps of dangerous jobs out there,'' his mother reasons. ''I probably would have worried more if he'd gone down a mine.''
"I felt so free" … Thomlinson training in Canada in January 2011 for the 2014 Winter Paralympics.
The Thomlinsons had witnessed their son's wondrous transformation since becoming a soldier at 24. Until then he'd gone from casual job to casual job while focusing on Terrigal's better offerings: surf, booze, girls and grade cricket. But he was proud of his grandfather, a Rat of Tobruk who had earned a chestful of medals. Thomlinson admits he was lured by the adventure, the romance: ''That was one of the most attractive things - that you had to 'man up' to the whole thing.''
Close to midnight on April 3, 2009, a little more than a month into his regiment's deployment, Thomlinson descended on a village for ''a relatively small direct action. Two guys had been identified. We knew what building they were in. The platoon was walking in. We were driving in - in convoy - watching their backs. I was driving the fifth car, following the tracks of the vehicle in front. Improvised explosive devices [IEDs] were becoming the enemy's weapon of choice, so you'd follow the tracks already made to ensure you were on clear ground the whole time.''
He wasn't. Four cars passed the IED before the driver's-side wheel of Thomlinson's special reconnaissance vehicle made contact. The blast pulverised the car and hurled it three metres. ''The gunner in the back got blown out,'' says Thomlinson. He can joke blackly about it now: ''I took the hit for everyone. I just basically laid on it: 'I got you covered, boys.' ''
His ''boys'' worked furiously for the next 56 minutes to clear his airways, stem the blood flow, find veins for vital fluids - until a chopper could get him out, just within the ''golden hour'' for survival chances. ''At some stage they realised I still had my balls, which they tourniqueted to what was left of my leg. That was a win!''
At nearby Camp Bastian, surgeons amputated his left leg below the knee but saved his right arm. Within days he was in hospital in Germany: ''They started putting me back together - all my broken bones." He woke at one point to find his parents peering through a wall of glass. His face lit up.
Two weeks later, Thomlinson was greeting friends in the intensive care unit at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital. ''Thomo was so positive, trying to make everyone else feel comfortable, perhaps to his own detriment later,'' recalls Andrew ''Freddo'' Sauvage, an old friend from Terrigal High. ''One of our mates came in and as soon as he saw Thomo he had to go to the bathroom to be physically sick. Thomo's never let him live it down.''
About week four, it hit Thomlinson hard. ''I'd really just sussed out that I'd lost my legs. Your nervous system has been sending nerve signals to them for your entire existence ... You can still feel an itch between your toes that you'll never scratch.'' In week five he got his first set of prosthetic legs. The next week he was standing on them and taking his first hop-like steps. Initiating a single step with his right leg required retraining his muscle memory. ''As my brain injury recovered, there was a downside. I realised how much it all hurt.'' He needed heavy painkillers. And soon he was feeling guilty. ''I had hot meals and I could sleep 14 hours a day if I wanted - more than my team might get in five days.''
He vowed he would greet his regiment when it returned to Sydney in three months. Soon he'd be back at work in a desk job for the army, contemplating another stint in Afghanistan.
Thomlinson and Sauvage had been snow-boarding together in Whistler, Canada, shortly before the Afghanistan deployment. The soldier would hit the slopes again in mid-winter 2010. Disabled WinterSport Australia, scouting for future Paralympians, had invited him to Smiggin Holes. The plan was to put him on a ''sit ski''. He wasn't for sitting. In preparation, Thomlinson had spent two months with his prosthetist designing his snow legs: ''But his parting words were, 'Don't be surprised if you don't get 10 metres.' He was one of the first dream thieves I encountered. Then I ran into another one.'' A superior officer on the snow trip had told him, ''It's not going to happen.'' ''I said, 'Go f... yourself.' ''
Peter Higgins, Disabled WinterSport's snowboarding coach, came to his rescue. They spent the next week practising, five or six hours a day. ''On day one, I'd fall and get up again, fall and get up again,'' says Thomlinson. ''But I was hooked. I felt so free. It was the best rehab I'd done.''
Over the next year he would fashion a fin for his left prosthetic leg so he could swim laps at the Bondi Icebergs club. He would try surfing again, even manage to stand up. ''He's no doubt the most determined person I've ever met,'' Agostini says. ''When he first had the accident, people questioned me about why I would still be with him. But I never thought of leaving him.''
Yet there were intense pressures on them. ''It was because we cared so much for each other - each thinking about how the other was fairing - that we broke up,'' says Thomlinson. That was late 2010. For the next year there were ''dark periods, really tough. I was having this painkiller once every morning but you're supposed to have it twice a day. It was running out at midday, so
I'd get to 3pm and I'd drink a shot of vodka to calm down. I was having anxiety attacks. I was probably on the way to becoming an alcoholic.''
Despite it all, he conquered the Kokoda Track last year at the request of Ray Palmer, father of Scott, a soldier who had helped save Thomlinson's life after the blast. Private Palmer, two other Australians and an American were killed in a Black Hawk helicopter crash in Afghanistan in June 2010. ''Ray was going to walk Kokoda with Scott. Now he wanted to do it with me. It was excruciatingly painful, but such an inspiration.''
Nevertheless, Thomlinson hit rock-bottom again one night last December. He called Sauvage, who was working in his bottle shop on the NSW central coast. ''He dropped everything and was in Bondi in two hours.'' It took quite a bit of wine to arrive at the source of Thomlinson's problem: the booze and the painkillers. He stopped the painkillers. He still has the odd drink, but that's all.
Thomlinson called Agostini in January this year. They reunited. ''It was meant to be,'' she says. ''I admire him so much for how he always has a big smile on his face besides everything.''
Peter Higgins called in April. Snowboarding had been accepted as a sport for the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. ''Do you want to come and train with us?'' he asked. Thomlinson had been thinking seriously about returning to Afghanistan. He thought he might work in an operations room, but he could see ''roadblocks''. So he decided there and then to quit the army and to devote himself to snowboarding. Agostini was ecstatic. ''Seriously, I really didn't want to go through that again.''
However, the International Paralympic Committee has just rejected a proposed classification system that would score snowboarders based on their level of disability. Scientific evidence was lacking, so it will go ahead without any system in 2014. ''It means Damo will be competing against single-foot amputees,'' says Higgins. ''Basically, he's snowboarding on a pair of stilts, but he's got to negotiate the same bumps, jumps, undulations, big turns.''
While training, all at his own expense, Thom-linson plans to compete in five major events in preparation for Sochi. ''If anyone can do this, Damo can," says Higgins, now head coach of the Australian Paralympic snowboarding team. "That's because he doesn't say no, he doesn't quit. I'm not saying he'll win, but Damo's got a shot at competing in Sochi.''
When Thomlinson earns money (including occasional work on the speaking circuit), it comes off his army pension. ''My goal is not to rely on my army pension at all. I'm not a dole bludger. I might have lost my legs serving my country, but it doesn't give me the right to sit on my arse and watch TV for the rest of my life.''
Saving Private Thomlinson took a small army. ''I owe everything to the great people who have helped me get through the uncertain times. Here I am, finding my feet.''