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
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