Story first published in the Plymouth Herald
Apart from a modicum of fading scars on his upper arm, where a piece of shrapnel tore open his bicep, it is impossible to tell just how brutally injured former Royal Marine Gav Bolger was.
Five years ago, the 35-year-old from Plymouth narrowly escaped being blown up alongside five comrades in a cornfield in the heart of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.
Events that day, and those that came before, including seeing friends’ limbs “evaporate” in front of him, and watching others, including one of the worst injured survivors of the conflict Corporal Paul Vice MC from Exeter, almost die in front of him, left him with life-changing injuries.
Hallucinogenic flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, crippling anxiety and frighteningly erratic behaviour characterised Bolger’s odious symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – an all too common legacy of the conflict.
And it was his invisible wounds, not his visible wounds – the shrapnel wounds, lung damage or partial deafness, caused by the blast – which led to his eventual medical discharge from the Corps.
Bolger was one of around 200 injured former, and serving, tri-service forces personnel taking part in the Royal Marines Rehabilitation Triathlon, an annual event which makes them “feel normal” again.
“When the explosion went off and the smoke had cleared, I saw one friend on the floor, his face covered in blood, and Vicey with blood pumping out of his neck,” Bolger recalled. “I thought they were dead. And then I expected to die too – once a bomb has gone off you expect a bullet in your head. But a helicopter arrived instead.
“I remember being in Tesco with my wife a few weeks later and feeling really paranoid,” continued Bolger, who said the effects of combat stress set in during his tour of duty. “I started to do really weird stuff like try and choke her in the night, or lift her up and put her in my son’s cot.
“I started getting intrusive thoughts and lost control of my mind.
“At first I thought it was the medication I was on. Then I became convinced a piece of shrapnel was lodged in my brain.”
For the men and women taking part in the triathlon, including a consortium from the US Marine Corps and Royal Netherlands Marines Corps, the competition is a key component in their arduous road to recovery from their visible, and invisible, wounds.
The swimming, cycling and static rowing challenge, which in the past has attracted the support in person, of Prince Harry and Hollywood actor Heny Cavill, was held on Wednesday, June 15, at the Commando Training Centre near Exeter.
“I was the last person I thought would suffer mental issues,” added Bolger. “Everyone closest to me could see it, but I didn’t want to admit it.
“But you have to have a strategy to get through it – keeping your mind active and keeping physically active. That’s why events like this are great for recovery. As a marine, you may get injured but you crack on – you don’t get a green beret by quitting.”