No-one likes to be told they can’t do something,” says Rob Cromey-Hawke. “The military mentality is ‘Adapt and overcome’. We find ways to manage.”
Hearing Rob’s story, it’s immediately apparent that this is no platitude. In 2012, an explosion in Afghanistan left the Royal Engineers Captain with serious spinal cord injuries and a traumatic brain injury. He was 29, and told he would never be active again.
Just over three years on, Rob is vice-captain of the British team competing in the Invictus Games, the global sporting event for injured servicemen and women. Launched by Prince Harry in 2014, the inaugural Invictus Games saw 300 competitors from 13 different countries compete in London’s Olympic Park. This year the event heads to America and Disney World Florida. “Great for our families,” jokes Rob.
But this is no Mickey Mouse competition, not when you understand exactly what the athletes here have been through to make it to the start line.
“I was on my second tour of Afghanistan,” explains Rob (above), now 32. “In December 2012, the vehicle I was travelling in went over an IED [improvised explosive device], which detonated under the vehicle.”
At first he believed the injuries weren’t that bad; he even stayed out to complete his task before returning to base to get checked out.
It was only gradually that he realised how serious the incident had been: “I was sent to the military hospital in Camp Bastion, where they scanned my back and realised I’d fractured some vertebrae. I was sent back to the UK, and when I got back Karen, my partner at the time who’s now my wife, realised that there was quite a lot more that had changed in me that I wasn’t aware of. I couldn’t hear properly, I was very forgetful, I couldn’t talk properly.
“I was then admitted to [military rehabilitation centre] Headley Court for assessment, and they confirmed that I had a traumatic brain injury and hearing loss. Further investigation revealed a partial spinal cord injury: I wasn’t totally paralysed but I have numbness in my feet, and I lose power in my legs and my right arm.”
Rob would be in and out of specialist treatment for almost two years. Learning to cope physically was one thing, but it was the brain injury that became most frustrating. “The biggest problem I still have, and which I believe I’ll have for ever, are the memory and concentration difficulties. I’ve lost a lot of long-and short-term memory,” he says. He cannot, for example, remember much of his three-month tour of Afghanistan. He cannot even remember competing in the first Invictus Games in 2014, where he remarkably won two gold medals despite having only just emerged from treatment.
“I don’t remember much of the last Games; I’ve created my memories,” he explains. “That’s one of my strategies now: we take a lot of photos, and I make quite a lot of notes on an iPad.”
Rob was medically discharged from the Army last year, but sport still helps his recovery. A keen triathlete before the injury, the charity Help for Heroes introduced Rob to the recumbent tricycle, which allows him to still use his legs to cycle without losing his balance. “It helped me lose a lot of weight. It brought me out of quite a dark place, and proved to all those doubters that I could do it again.”
This year, as well as trying to defend his two cycling gold medals, Rob will be competing in wheelchair track racing, swimming and sitting volleyball. His whole family, Karen, four-month-old Pippa and his stepsons Connor and Charlie, are flying out to Florida to support him. And there will be plenty of photos.
“Relearning yourself with a brain injury is hard. Your head still tells you you can do everything, but actually when you start doing things you fail, which is very frustrating,” he says.“That is the challenge that I’ve had to deal with. It’s almost a grieving process: to be able to accept, overcome and then find ways of still trying to succeed in everything that I do.”