Mark Ormrod remembers everything about that day. The cloud of dust dispersing. The intense yet painless throbbing sensation in his shredded limbs. His young squad mate dropping to the ground to search for more explosive devices. The overwhelming sensation that this was all just a dream, a nightmare that he would wake from.
It was only when the helicopter landed did his release come. It was a sleep far, far closer to death, and it would last for three days.
Fade to black.
There is an undoubted filmic quality to the life of Mark Ormrod, an unfolding three act structure of rise, fall and rise again. A Royal Marines Commando at the age of 18; the first triple amputee to survive the Afghanistan War, losing both legs and his right arm to an improvised explosive device; a husband and father refusing to accept life in a wheelchair and learning to walk again; a medal-winning para-athlete inspiring thousands through social media.
Today, the 35-year-old is on campus to tell his story, face-to-face. It’s the second time in a couple of months that he’s been a guest of the University, having received an Honorary Fellowship at the 2018 Graduation ceremonies. And that meant more to him than you could know, such is the pride and love he feels for this city, his city.
“I grew up half a mile away from here,” he says, looking out of the window of the Roland Levinsky Building. “I lived right next to Central Park, where I had all of that green space on my doorstep. I was lucky in that respect. And I love coming back to this place. I was born here, fortunate enough to be based here for 80 per cent of my military career, met my wife here. I’ve travelled the world and been to some great cities. But Plymouth is home.”
And right now, there is a sense that Mark is coming back home again – or at least back down to Earth – after a remarkable few weeks at the Invictus Games in Sydney. Taking part in the adaptive multi-sport event for wounded, injured and ill veterans and active defence personnel, Mark won seven medals, including four golds. He’s been on national television, recorded a documentary, been the subject of a sculpture recently unveiled in London, and finished 2018 as the South West’s Sports Personality of the Year. He’s simply not stopped.
“It’s been epic, crazy,” he says. “But I’m now heading in the direction I want to take my life. Everything is falling into place after ten years of hard work.”
As understatements go, ‘hard work’ is up there with the best of them – but then this is a man who has been pushing himself to the limit since he first enrolled in the Royal Marines at the age of 16. A pupil at Hyde Park Junior School and Stoke Damerel College, renowned for his cheeky nature, Mark traded the GCSE exam hall for the gruelling 32 week training and selection programme at Lympstone, South Devon.
"Nothing can prepare you for that you experience,” he says. “You could be the fittest person on the planet and it wouldn’t matter. Imagine being thrown in a river, and then for the next seven days you’re cold, tired, wet, hungry. You’re yomping across difficult terrain with seven stone across your back. And at 2am, when you’re in your sleeping bag in your warm dry clothes, you get a shake to get up and put on your soaking wet gear and lie in the grass for an hour because you’re on sentry duty protecting everyone else. For the best part of a year you’re cold, wet, hungry, and sleep deprived. And that’s when I have seen some of the fittest guys I have ever met quit.”
A fear of failure drove him on, as well as a desire to emulate his uncle, who had been a captain in the Marines. And despite the daily temptation to quit, and being the second youngest in the cohort, Mark did follow in the family footsteps and secured his Green Beret. Tours of duty followed in Iraq – where Mark was among the first of the armed forces to invade the country – and in Norway and the United States. And after a year out of the Marines, during which time he became a father and retrained as a bodyguard, Mark re-enlisted and was sent to Afghanistan. It was an experience quite unlike anything that had come before.
“From the moment you landed at your forward operating base (in Mark’s case, F.O.B. Robinson in Southern Helmand), it was mayhem,” he says. “It was so kinetic; you were always on the ground, patrolling, conducting missions, defending your position. It was, unlike Iraq, what I expected a war to be.”
On Christmas Eve 2007, that expectation was realised with huge personal consequence. Mark had had a morning briefing at 6am, detailing the ‘routine’ foot patrol that lay ahead. He’d intended to send a letter that day to the father of his girlfriend Becky, asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage. It would never leave the ammunition box under his bed in which he’d stored it.
“I knelt on it as I was getting down onto my stomach,” Mark says, when I ask how he had come to trigger the improvised explosive device (IED) during that fateful patrol. “We were in a slight bowl in the ground and the IED must have been at an angle. It was very surreal. Once the dust cloud settled, I saw my legs and my arm but I wasn’t in any pain. It was an intense throbbing, like pins and needles. And I saw all of the damage and thought ‘this ain’t me, I’m just having a nightmare and I’ll wake up in a minute’.”
The Commando closest to Mark – a teenager just eight weeks out of training – began to check for more devices and clear a safe zone, while the rest of the squad assumed defensive positions and summoned emergency medical support.
“The way they dealt with it was phenomenal,” Mark says. “As a human being, if you see a friend hurt, your initial instinct is to run towards them and help. But we are trained not to do that. In this case there were seven more IEDs there. And for that young Commando to hold it together and do his job without panicking and getting flustered was phenomenal and that is the reason I didn’t die.”
It wasn’t the only reason. On board the helicopter, the Medical Emergency Response Team faced the almost impossible task of getting fluids into Mark’s body. His veins had collapsed, and there was no prospect of using his tibias as an alternative. But the team – Charlotte Thompson-Edgar and Keith Mills – managed to pierce Mark’s pelvis and bring him back from the brink. And while Mark has no memory of anything that happened on board that helicopter, he has come to regard it as a blessing that he was conscious in the aftermath of the explosion.
“I remember it all and I think I am quite fortunate for that,” he says. “A lot of the guys I was with in rehab had lost consciousness and then later in life the stored memories would come back. And I don’t have any of that because I remember it. So I’m quite lucky.”
By the time Mark regained consciousness he was 4,500 miles away in Birmingham’s Selly Oak Hospital. His first action, quite naturally, was to propose to his girlfriend, waiting by his bedside.
Mark had met Becky in 2006, during his 12 months out of the Marines. She was a University of Plymouth student, converting a Foundation Degree into a full honours in Public Service Management, and he was the club doorman with whom she used to banter. By the time he went to Afghanistan, they were a couple and marriage had been on Mark’s mind.
“She’s been a huge factor in my recovery,” he says. “A lot of people over the years have seen one part or other of my journey. But they didn’t see the two o’clock in the morning bit when I’m in agony, or when I’m fighting for prosthetics funding. Only she has seen that."
“But at the time I remember thinking that she should just leave and go. We’d only been together for a year, she’d got her degree, her family lived in Surrey, and I would never have held it against her if she had said ‘I can’t deal with this, I’m young and I have my whole life ahead of me’. But she didn’t. She helped me get through it.”
Mark spent six weeks in Birmingham on a high dependency ward, gradually recovering from his open injuries. He had a wound on his arm that initially refused to heal, a chunk of flesh missing from one of his thighs, and burns to his side – all of which were enough to delay any prospect of prostheses. But the biggest setback was delivered by a consultant at the hospital, a national amputation specialist.
“He was very unemotional about the whole thing,” Mark recalls, his voice thick with a mixture of anger and distaste. “He’d been doing it for 30 years, and he said ‘I’m sorry to tell you that I’ve never met anyone who has one leg missing above the knee and has successful prosthetics. They are too painful, too difficult to use, and take up too much energy.’ He added that most people in that situation would put them on, make a cup of tea, and then get back in their wheelchair. And then he left. I was 24 years old and in my head I was a fully functioning marine. And this guy was saying that I would spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair with people pushing me around. I didn’t want to hear that.”
It was the first of two emotional and mental setbacks for Mark. The second occurred soon afterwards, when he was allowed to visit Becky in her temporary flat near to the hospital. Although his wheelchair fitted through the door into the property, he could not access any of the rooms, and had to spend most of the evening sitting in the hallway.
"Eventually we figured out a way to get me into the bedroom and it was the first time I had gone past a full length mirror,” he says. “And I saw what I looked like. I don’t mind admitting that I spent the entire night crying. I had been 6ft 2ins tall, 16 stone, and really fit. Now I was 8st 11lbs, and four foot tall. How did I get to this? How am I going to spend the rest of my life like this? I didn’t want to imagine my future like that.”
Dark days and darker thoughts followed, but what pulled him through was, he says, the “350 years of Royal Marines history on his shoulders” and the standards expected from commandos, serving or retired. By the time he had transferred to the specialist rehabilitation centre at Headley Court in Surrey, Mark was already retraining his core muscles and taking a holistic approach to his health, focusing on diet, rest and recovery, stretching and mobility.
And then came the time to walk again.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m a Royal Marine, I’m as fit as hell, just give me the legs and get out of my way!’” he says. “I got them on after an hour of trying, and I stood up at the parallel bars and I remember feeling terrified. I was set at six-foot and it felt like I was stood on the edge of Everest, looking over the precipice. I was gripping this bar for dear life and taking one step at a time. And the knees weren’t bending, and they were falling off, and I had these straps around my stomach to hold them on, and it was awful. I got to the other end eventually, and I was exhausted. I was done. I thought that guy was right. I took off the legs, went back to my room and went to bed. I was gone.”
Today, dressed in his customary shorts and t-shirt, Mark is in every respects a walking advertisement for the transformative potential of prostheses. With gyroscopes, pistons and a CPU, the legs are capable of adapting to a range of uses and scenarios, and via a Bluetooth remote control, Mark can set the knees to different positions, such as for driving or training in the gym. They’ve given him the freedom to use his car undertake remarkable feats of sporting endurance.
How quickly did you learn to master them, I ask?
“I’ll let you know” he says, that old teenage cheek suddenly shining through.
“The thing about prosthetics is that every day is different,” he continues. “I’ve recently changed into some different legs. And though they are technically identical, they never feel the same. You have to proactively get involved and learn about how they work and how to adjust them and what works best for you.”
This extends to the very time consuming and expensive business of maintaining and managing the legs. Mark has two sets, one provided by the NHS and one by the Royal Marines Charity. Every four years, their warranty expires, and he has to make a choice between having them replaced at a cost of up to $100,000, or serviced, which could be £10,000. Factor in specially-made components, such as sockets, which Mark has used in competition, and frustrating bureaucracy with NHS budget holders and insurance conditions, and you have a full-time occupation.
“It’s like being a new parent,” he says with a thin smile. “And the companies that manufacture them are quite happy to rip you off because they know you need them!”
Mark improved steadily at Headley Court, and when he received his Campaign Medal in July 2008, he would do so standing alongside his comrades. He would also take that first dance with his wife Becky on their wedding day. But the turning point came in the early summer of 2009, when he learned about Cameron Clapp, a fellow triple amputee who was a mentor at Dream Team Prosthetics in Oklahoma City. He contacted him online, and flew out in June to undergo Dream Team’s four-day boot camp, as well as extra training with Cameron.
“That is what changed my life,” he says. “The experience was very similar to Royal Marines training. It was a lot of hurt and hard work, and sitting up at night questioning whether I could achieve it. I’d get up in the morning in pain, but I’d put on the legs and say to myself ‘just one more day, make it through one more day’. I knew that at the end of those three weeks I’d be much more independent and maybe I could leave my wheelchair there for the rest of my life.”
June 9 2009 was the last day that Mark used that wheelchair – ‘Independence Day’ as he’s dubbed it. And when he flew home from the US, he was a man a new mission. Mark knew that his military career was over – a graduated return to work programme, in which he’d been given a desk job in the pay office, had already left him 'embarrassed' and frustrated. So he set in progress his medical discharge, and began to put his affairs in order, including a house for his family, and the pension that would secure their financial future. He also accepted a job at the Royal Marines Association as the Welfare and Operations Assistant, helping to organise and coordinate events and supporting former Commandos who were struggling with their own lives.
“This was ideal for me,” he says. “It felt like I hadn’t left. In fact, it was like I had been promoted. People were coming to me for advice as though I was a sergeant. And I was also able to raise the association’s profile with some of my own events.”
The first of those events was the Gumpathon in September 2010, a 3,563 mile run across America undertaken in relay by Mark and five other servicemen. He followed that with the Tour de Force, hand-cycling 3,103 miles around the country.
“I knew what was possible to achieve with the right technology and set up,” Mark says. “I saw events like these as a way to challenge myself mentally and physically but also use them as a platform to give back to the charities that had helped me and my family.”
If those events, and others since, were inspired by the desire to help others, then the Invictus Games have very much represented a personal ambition for Mark. Having observed how some of his fellow amputees had benefited from adaptive sport, and the Invictus Games in particular, Mark decided to apply even though he had no experience with any of the disciplines.
“I didn’t think I’d even make the team,” he says. “But I started training, and physically it was hard – especially the rowing. I had no real idea what I was doing, so I went with pure brute force and ignorance. I knew nothing about strategy and technique; I just went at it like a lunatic.”
This was certainly true of the cycling, when Mark – who had only received his competition bike six days before he landed in Toronto – broke the hand crank as he launched from the start-line, and crashed out on the first corner. But, those 2017 Games were ultimately a huge success for him, as he secured two silver medals in the rowing, and two bronzes in the pool. To cap it off, he received the Jaguar Award for Exceptional Performance, and had a brush with royalty during one of the medal presentations.
“That was a special moment, to have your medal presented by Prince Harry,” he says. “And the kids saw that too, which was great.”
Mark’s intention had been to compete in the games just the once, but having returned from Toronto without a gold medal, he realised he had 'unfinished business'. So he reapplied for the 2018 games, and with the benefit of experience, learning some of the rules, and even listening to what his coaches were telling him, he secured four golds, two bronzes and a silver. Job done. Journey’s end.
“I’ve bust my ass for ten years straight in rehab, trying to build a career, looking after my family, competing in the Games, and it can get quite stressful,” Mark says when I ask how he can possibly follow up on 2018. The answer, perhaps for the first time in his life, certainly in a decade, is that he has no intention of doing so.
“I travel a lot, I drive myself across the country, and fly everywhere, and it gets tiring. So in 2019, I’m still going to set goals and map it out, but I’m going to take my foot off the gas. I’m going to narrow down the things I want to do rather than taking on everything.”
So that means focusing on his podcast No Limits and his professional speaking, which he does through the JLA agency. He’s also half-way through writing his second book, a follow up to 2009’s Man Down, which won the Royal Marines Historical Society Award.
“I’m going to read more and learn more,” he says. “I’d love to explore the possibility of doing more with the University, especially through my connections to the military and the experience I have with rehabilitation. I want to spend more time on personal development, more time in Plymouth, more time with the family and leave more space in my diary. I think I’ve earned it.”