Strictly's JJ on overcoming war injuries as he backs our poppy campaign
FOR many celebrities, those first steps down the Strictly Come Dancing staircase are among the most terrifying moments of their career.
But when you’ve faced bullets, explosives and stared death in the face, suddenly the prospect of ballroom dancing and sequins doesn’t seem so bad.
Show your support at rbl.org.uk/poppyappeal
And for former Royal Marine turned TV presenter JJ Chalmers, it’s given him an opportunity he never thought would come.
He suffered devastating injuries in Afghanistan when a IED exploded next to him — killing two of his colleagues as well as an interpreter.
The 33-year-old soldier suffered a crushed eye socket and burst eardrums, lost two fingers and his right elbow disintegrated, such was the closeness of the blast.
JJ said: “Getting blown up is the expressway to perspective and being able to not take things for granted. The things that I’ve had to endure were not pleasant at the time and they cause problems to this day.
“But once you’ve endured them, they make you stronger. So you can come into whatever challenges in life and you can apply that, whether you let things pull you down or build you up.
“This is not the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my life, but it’s the challenge in front of me right now. This is the biggest ‘thank you’ I can give to the people that put in these hours of work and just committed their life to putting people like me back together.
“The one thing you can do is go out there and try to make them proud that they played a part in this. I really hope that when I get on that dancefloor, the emotion of it isn’t too much.
“I hope they just have a smile on their face and know that without them I would have never got here.”
This is the biggest ‘thank you’ I can give to the people that put in these hours of work and just committed their life to putting people like me back together.
Backing The Sun’s pandemic poppy campaign, JJ added: “While Remembrance will no doubt look different this year, the support and gratitude of our nation must still be felt, especially with many from our Armed Forces deployed to help battle the pandemic.
“Meanwhile, the Royal British Legion continues to bring together and support our Armed Forces and veterans community, particularly during these challenging times. Having been supported throughout my recovery, to everyone who donates and helps play a small but crucial part in the lives of veterans like me, I thank you.”
JJ, from Edinburgh, is the son of a senior minister in the Church of Scotland, Rev John Chalmers, and dress-shop owner Liz. He studied education at Edinburgh University and became a craft, design and technology teacher at a high school in the Scottish capital.
In 2005 he joined the Royal Marines Reserve before eventually quitting teaching and transferring to the regular service in 2010.
He has been married to Kornelia, 33, for five years and they have a four-year-old daughter and a year-old son. JJ’s journey to Strictly is nothing short of inspirational.
The softly spoken Scot had been in Afghanistan for just eight weeks when in 2011 one of his fellow Royal Marines trod on an explosive device in Helmand. Two colleagues, Marine Sam Alexander and Lt Ollie Augustin, and an Afghan interpreter were killed.
JJ said: “I remember in one of my earliest physio sessions being asked to stand on my tiptoes and I was so weak that I couldn’t even do that.
“At that point you really do begin to question yourself and the first time I looked at myself in a mirror head to toe, I was shocked at the damage that had been done to my body. I burst into tears, but it was tears at the shock of what I was seeing.
How to be a poppy star
THE pandemic may have stopped thousands of sellers from hitting the streets — but it doesn’t have to stop you from buying a poppy. MIKE RIDLEY looks at some of the ways you can do your bit for the appeal by going to:
- Fundraise for appeal: Move to Remember and the 11/11 Challenge are among the fundraising suggestions from the appeal itself. Free fundraising packs on the website will give the help and support you will need.
- Poppies in the post: Help make up for the reduced number of volunteer collectors by requesting 20 poppies free of charge from the RBL — and then giving them to friends and family yourself in return for a donation.
- My poppy run 2020: Run, walk or jog any distance, anywhere and at any time. Get family and friends involved to raise cash. And buy a T-shirt to run in and a medal to give to yourself afterwards!
- Visit the poppy shop: There is an extensive range of products from poppy pins and jewellery to clothing, stationery and homeware. All profits fund the Legion’s work in supporting the Armed Forces community.
- Make online donation: Alternatively, you could just visit the British Legion’s website and make a donation. You can choose a one-off payment or set up a regular amount — and no amount is too small.
…OR POP INTO YOUR LOCAL SAINSBURY’S, TESCO, ASDA, ALDI OR MORRISONS AND BUY A POPPY
“It was also the huge realisation of how close I came to going the other way, especially when you know that that’s the case for a couple of my friends — that actually, as bad as it is, it’s still better than the alternative. I should be in a box in the ground but I’m not, so you’ve got that driving you.”
After more than 30 operations, some lasting more than 12 hours, and years of rehabilitation, JJ turned to recumbent cycling and ended up competing in the Invictus Games, where he won a gold and two bronze medals.
His success in the event, created by his now close friend Prince Harry, led to a number of TV hosting opportunities, including fronting Channel 4’s coverage of the 2016 Paralympic games.
But none of that would have been possible had it not been for the months of work he went through at Headley Court, the Armed Forces’ national rehabilitation centre.
CAPTAIN Carol Betteridge was instrumental in helping JJ through his injuries.
She earned an OBE for her work in Afghanistan as the commanding officer of the Hospital Regiment.
In 2017, Carol was promoted to National Head of Welfare and Clinical Services for veterans’ charity Help For Heroes.
She believes it has never been more important to have a war veteran on a hit show as popular as Strictly Come Dancing.
Carol said: “We need to be more inclusive. There needs to be more adaptive activities in which we can see injured veterans and civilians taking part. They’re an inspiration to others who might not have the self-confidence or support to do that.
“JJ is truly an inspiration – not just to veterans but to all people who have injuries or disabilities – showing that you can actually get out there and do it and that it will make you feel so much better.”
Carol also praised The Sun’s support for Help For Heroes, which we’ve backed since its foundation in 2007.
She said: “Thank you for all you do and helping us fight the cause, helping people understand that veterans are still fighting their own personal battles even today. We’re really, really grateful.”
JJ said: “This is a point when I had a brand-new body, almost ten years ago. It was uncomfortable and painful, it just wasn’t mine. And so I had to learn to use it to do every little function, brushing my teeth, putting clothes on and tying my laces.
“They saw me at my lowest and it’s mentally taxing because four or five months before, I was a Royal Marine commando, I was fiercely independent. I was capable of extraordinary things.
"And here I am, just nothing, basically. So when I compare myself to that guy, I’ve come a million miles but it’s been a gradual process. And every so often you get knocked back. You have surgery, you take two steps back, but you try to get a little further along.
“But at that stage, there was not really any light at the end of the tunnel. Little did I know that the light at the end of the tunnel was in fact a Glitterball.”
I can’t straighten my right arm. I can’t put it above my head, I can’t twist my wrist. And then I’ve got some significant nerve damage, which means it reacts very slowly, not to mention that it’s in constant pain.
In tonight’s show, JJ and his partner Amy Dowden will dance the waltz. But his injuries mean there are things he just cannot do.
He said: “I can’t straighten my right arm. I can’t put it above my head, I can’t twist my wrist. And then I’ve got some significant nerve damage, which means it reacts very slowly, not to mention that it’s in constant pain.
“It looks all right in some respects, but I’ve only got about five per cent function in my right arm, so I’ve got a neoprene splint.
“It is like the arm of a wetsuit. It essentially does three things — it protects the arm itself, it supports it in a way that reduces pain in my elbow and, more than anything, it allows me to put my arms above my head to some degree.”
PHYSIOTHERAPIST Sarah Hughes worked with JJ when he first came to Headley Court for the start of his rehabilitation in 2011.
She witnessed him at his lowest ebb and was part of the team in the Complex Trauma Department who helped JJ adjust to his new life after Afghanistan.
She said: “When JJ came in, he was still incredibly poor. He was really quite thin and deconditioned because he’d had prolonged bed rest.
“We’re not the ones on the ground potentially going to save your life, but we are going to be part of the team to give you that life back. With JJ, we were looking at, ‘Is he going to be able to feed himself? Will he be able to cut his dinner up? Will he be able to sit?’
“JJ had to have his elbow surgically attached to the abdomen. And that was literally trying to save his arm, to get the blood supply to his arm.
“My job was basically trying to get as much movement as you can back in that right elbow, to make him as functional as possible.”
Sarah, now a clinical specialist physiotherapist and part-time university lecturer, added: “People can think, ‘Oh, it can’t be that bad if he is at this stage now’.
"But he really was in a bad way. And it’s testament to JJ and the team around him how far he’s come.”
As the dance routines get faster and more difficult, the main concern from JJ’s team is what will happen if he falls. He said: “There are broken bones held together by metal and the goodwill of surgeons, essentially! If it hits the ground in the wrong way, the consequences could be catastrophic.
"If I fall, I am going back to day one — and the complication that comes from having an elbow that is basically a smashed dinner plate is pretty gnarly.”
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, half of each Strictly dance pairing will have to live alone for as long as they are in the competition. That means JJ could be away from Kornelia and the children until just before Christmas.
But he says he will treat the stint living alone in an apartment near London like just another work gig — or a military tour.
He said: “Any time away from my family is difficult, but it’s far harder for my wife, with the kids. We live in a world of FaceTime and videos and I’m used to being away from them because of work.
“Hopefully, this tour lasts three months, and doesn’t get cut short.”
STRENGTH and conditioning expert JP Nevin is one of those tasked with getting JJ in shape for his Strictly challenge.
The former Army instructor worked with the soldier in the run-up to the Invictus Games.
And JP says that despite being 33/1 to win with some bookmakers, JJ will be there to succeed.
He said: “JJ is professional. He’s got those experiences and he’s been through worse, physically and psychologically. There’s no prizes for coming second-best.
“He is there to be a winner and these are mindset things instilled within the military, especially in the Marines. He’s not just there to take part.”
But JP warned of the dangers of a heavy fall, which could have disastrous consequences for JJ’s already injured arm.
Such is the risk that JP has been teaching him how to fall, turning on to his back if he has the time to react.
He added: “If someone able-bodied was to fall, they’d probably dislocate their shoulder.
“But JJ cannot fully extend his arm and obviously he has extensive trauma.
“So if he was to fall on that arm he would not be able to absorb the force and that would be transmitted straight through the shoulder and most likely cause extensive damage.”
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