Para­trooper to Par­a­lympian

Scott Meenagh was just 21 when he lost his legs on duty in Afghanistan. Did he call it a day? Did he hell – he set his sights on row­ing suc­cess in­stead. Here’s his story of go­ing from para­trooper to para-ath­lete

Men's Fitness - - Contents -

Scott Meenagh hasn’t looked back since los­ing his legs in Afghanistan – and now the rower is fo­cused on Rio 2016

It’s a mis­er­able, wet morn­ing when for­mer para­trooper Scott Meenagh walks into MF’s photo stu­dio wear­ing a hoodie and shorts, his pros­thetic legs on dis­play. He’s got the quiet swag­ger of a man who knows he’s the fittest man in the room and doesn’t need to shout about it ei­ther.

Let’s get one thing clear from the start: this man doesn’t see him­self as a vic­tim.

He’s well aware his legs at­tract at­ten­tion but rather than get­ting im­pa­tient or an­noyed with peo­ple, the 26-year-old Meenagh tries to see it from their point of view. “When peo­ple stare at me I don’t get of­fended. It might be the hun­dredth time for me but for many peo­ple it’s a new ex­pe­ri­ence. You have to treat that with re­spect. If I had seen some­one with no legs I wouldn’t be star­ing be­cause I think they’re a freak, I’d be star­ing be­cause I was think­ing, ‘Wow, those things are re­ally cool’. Peo­ple are cu­ri­ous so I just take it as a com­pli­ment.” Meenagh smiles and nods at his state-of-the-art pros­thet­ics. “Be­sides, why would you hide th­ese bad boys?”

Meenagh may joke a lot – to put oth­ers at ease, per­haps, as much as thanks to his own sense of hu­mour – but he never triv­i­alises the in­ci­dent in Afghanistan that robbed him of his legs at 21. “I re­mem­ber it all, in HD,” says Meenagh. He was part of a re­cov­ery op­er­a­tion to find the kit be­long­ing to a sol­dier in­jured by a road­side bomb when, in a cruel irony, he stepped on another ex­plo­sive. “I thought I was go­ing to die.”

When a man has faced his own mor­tal­ity so young, it’s lit­tle won­der a few stares roll off him eas­ily. Even when talk­ing about his in­juries, he has the kind of en­thu­si­asm and at­ti­tude you of­ten find in squad­dies – in fact, the only time the for­mer para­trooper looks slightly fazed all day is when Laura, our hair and make-up artist, gets him ready for the cam­era (“the boys are go­ing to give me so much stick about this!”). Meenagh isn’t in­ter­ested in preen­ing. He’s here to get things done.

If the dice had fallen dif­fer­ently, we could eas­ily be talk­ing about Meenagh the rugby player. He played for Scot­land’s un­der 18 team, but a sense of duty nagged at him. “I didn’t want to get to 30 or 40 and be­come one of those guys who sits in the pub and goes, ‘Oh yeah I was go­ing to go but I didn’t get around to it’. I didn’t want to re­gret it.”

If he was go­ing to join the army, he was go­ing to do it right. “I wanted to be a para­trooper be­cause they’re the hard­est

“I wanted to be a para­trooper be­cause they’re the hard­est to get into”

to get into,” says the Scot, who hails from Cum­ber­nauld in North La­nark­shire, a few miles north-east of Glas­gow. Meenagh didn’t like the idea that there were oth­ers bet­ter than him so he was right at home with the 2nd Bat­tal­ion Parachute Reg­i­ment. Of the 64 men who at­tempted se­lec­tion only 14, in­clud­ing Meenagh, qual­i­fied. “The way I saw it, if I was go­ing to go to war, I may as well be around the most elite professional sol­diers.” The flip side is that be­ing part of the elite meant he’d be in the riski­est sit­u­a­tions.

Re­call­ing the ex­plo­sion that took his legs, Meenagh says ev­ery­thing was in slow mo­tion for a few mo­ments af­ter the blast be­fore sud­denly snap­ping back to nor­mal. That’s when the train­ing kicked in. “I started do­ing first aid on my­self. You stop look­ing at them as your legs. It’s bleeding, so you put a tourni­quet on it,” Meenagh says with as­ton­ish­ing calm.

De­spite the hor­rific cir­cum­stances, it was at this point that Meenagh’s de­sire to be around the best paid off. His squad­mates jumped into action, ap­ply­ing first aid even thought they were all deal­ing with in­juries of their own. One of the sol­diers had been blinded by the blast yet stayed calm enough to make sure Meenagh was on the stretcher and carry him out. His vi­sion took sev­eral days to re­turn. You’d for­give Meenagh a lit­tle self-pity, but that’s not how he dealt with things. In­ci­dents like th­ese take a long time to come to terms with, and the heal­ing process isn’t just about the phys­i­cal in­juries, but he never stopped looked forward. “I just started think­ing log­i­cally about what the fu­ture was go­ing to look like, what I was go­ing to do, and started break­ing that into lit­tle bite-size chunks. It’s amaz­ing how nat­u­ral walk­ing with pros­thet­ics be­comes when it’s the only op­tion you’ve got.” Sadly, Meenagh’s story isn’t unique: of all the mil­i­tary per­son­nel med­i­cally dis­charged since the Afghan cam­paign started in 2001, 145 have en­dured am­pu­ta­tions. Meenagh never talks of re­gret, though – for him, be­ing in the paras was the best job he’s ever had, and when asked how he feels about the war, he says that’s not for him to say be­fore quot­ing a line from Ten­nyson’s The Charge Of The Light Bri­gade: “Theirs not to rea­son why, theirs but to do and die.” For Meenagh it was just some­thing that hap­pened at work one day. “The minute I was given pros­thet­ics, I said, ‘Th­ese are my legs now so I’m go­ing to use them or I’m go­ing to suf­fer’,” says Meenagh. He ac­tu­ally uses two pairs: a set of ev­ery­day legs, which hinge at the knee for walk­ing, and a set of “stub­bies”, which are shorter and rigid, for play­ing sport.

Sport was Meenagh’s goal from the start of his re­cov­ery. On his first day in hos­pi­tal he was told he’d never play con­tact rugby again. That may sound like a given but Meenagh says it was some­thing he needed to hear so he could turn his at­ten­tion to sports he was able to play. “I thought wa­ter and horses – let’s go kayak­ing or riding,” he says. “I didn’t

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