by PREETI VIRDEE
I had the honour of being introduced to Derek Derenalagi at 10 Downing Street, along with former British Lion, England international and now Board Director at London Wasps, Lawrence Dallaglio, and the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. The group were together to promote the launch of the St George's Day Game at Twickenham on 24th April 2010; the designated charity for the match is Help For Heroes and Derek was their to represent injured servicemen. The match ball was signed and the new limited edition matchday shirt was unveiled.
This is one very special man, and technically he should not be alive today.
Ten years ago, Derek was an electrician who had been living in New Zealand for two years, and playing rugby 7s when he, like many Fijians including members of his own family in the past, joined the British Army. Since joining up, he has served three tours in Belfast, Northern Ireland, as well as Kosovo and two tours in Afghanistan. This is the story from his last tour...
It was dawn on a Thursday morning in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Private Derenalagi from 2 Mercian Regiment had command of the machine gun on the Land Rover. The driver reversed; two Taliban anti-tank mines exploded which flipped the Land Rover like it was a Matchbox® car, and Derek was thrown into the air, landing 30ft away on rocks.
Derek woke for a short time but soon passed out as a result of his multiple injuries; the last thing he heard was someone saying to him "Derek be strong". The extent of the injuries was severe; he lost five of his front teeth, broke his collarbone, his back, his right leg was blown clear off and left leg was hanging by a thread. His heart stopped three times, was pronounced dead and Derek was being put in a body bag to be transferred back to the UK. He was 34 years old. His commanding officer was informed of his demise, but then one of the medical team found a pulse, realised he was in a coma and he was transferred to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham back home.
After 8 days he woke to see his wife, Anna at his bedside, and figured that he probably was no longer in Afghanistan. It wasn't until he asked Anna if he could go to the bathroom that she broke down and he remembered seeing his legs blown away before he fell into the coma in Helmand.
But this hero, though speechless for a moment, asked his wife to come closer, said "I just thank God and we'll start again. This is the new beginning to great opportunities". And this was the start of his new life. He regrets none of his choices; he has a new life; he does fall quite often, but if you suddenly had your legs taken away after 30-something years, you would to. He just gets up and carries on.
In 2 Mercian Regiment, at that time, Derek lost 9 of his fellow servicemen, and many more were injured.
But Derek and Anna were not totally devastated by what happened to them, even though Anna says it took a week for it to sink in. What has got them through this terrible ordeal is their faith in God as well as in each other. They both strongly believe that everything happens for a reason, and it's Derek's faith that has allowed him to both cope and heal faster.
Christianity and its values is woven into the Fijian culture; they are rooted into the faith thanks to the English bringing it to the shores of the Pacific Islands.
Unfortunately, Derek and Anna's 18 year old daughter did not cope so well with what happened to them as a family. But again their faith is what has helped them through, and Anna just takes one day at a time dealing with her teenage daughter, and slowly things are improving.
The Army has helped too; Battle Back was set up to help injured servicemen to rehabilitate, and they are encouraged to get involved in sports. Derek is a product of this initiative.
Derek is training to be part of the GB squad for the 2012 Paralympics. It's only been two and a half years since his life-changing injuries, and yet he is ranked No. 1 in the UK and 5th in the world for disabled athletics. Derek will be aiming to represent GB in shotput, discus and javelin. His aim is to win a medal or two on that podium and we have no doubt he will!
And so to rugby...he was born a rugby player and is a huge fan as well. He's played all his life at various levels including premiership level in Fiji, for Staines Rugby Club in England, and has represented his regiment in the British Army. He still has no idea how his name was put forward and to whom, but he was called up and asked if he'd like to spend some time promoting rugby with Lawrence Dallaglio, Will Greenwood, Jason Robinson and Jonny Wilkinson. And thus his relationship with London Wasps began.
Derek is a massive England fan, and obviously his club side is London Wasps, which he hopes to visit quite regularly from now on.
Of course now he cannot play full contact rugby, I asked if he'd tried out wheelchair rugby. Then I heard one the most ridiculous comments ever - he doesn't qualify because he is not injured enough! Being THE most un-PC person I know, even I asked if that had to be the most politically incorrect discrimination ever; if you don't have a spinal injury then you can't play. Utter nonsense if you ask me.
He does miss active tours of duty - Derek now has a desk job - he sometimes does wish he could just get up and do the stuff his colleagues take for granted as soldiers. He is at heart a soldier, and just wants to serve his country. The man is a true inspiration.
Anna is as positive as Derek about the future. She says he has never been so fit as he is, he's never been so busy in his life, and has never been so involved in sport despite growing up with rugby since childhood.
Both Derek and his wife are a force to be reckoned with.
The last thing Derek said to me was "Anything is possible if you're positive". Well there's a lesson to us all.
UPDATE: 10th July 2012
Derek was announced as part of Team GB and will make his Paralympic debut at London 2012, competing in the F57 Discus.