Rahmon Zondervan knows it was his body armour that saved his life, when his Dutch infantry unit was on a NATO social patrol in the southern Uruzgan province of Afghanistan in 2007.

He and the 15 other soldiers he was with were talking with local medical staff and residents, including plenty of children, when a suicide bomb was detonated by remote-control.

The only part of Zondervan’s body that was not riddled with metal shrapnel was his torso.

The only thing that didn’t get hurt was my body because of my body armour.

His upper and lower legs, and arms are riddled with a variety of deep wound marks and scars. The fragments busted his right cheekbone, smashed his collarbone and took out his right eye.

But he considers himself extremely lucky.

“Lots of Afghani people died as there were children all around us.”

News reports at the time said 13 children died among the 35 casualties.

Zondervan doesn’t know how many pieces of metal they dug out of his body.

But he needed 250 stitches to put everything back together again. He was in hospital for 30 days just so doctors could patch him up enough for him to travel home.

He wasn’t wearing a helmet because the patrol was of a social nature, reaching out to villagers. He thought the full kit might have been off-putting and he wanted the locals to see his face.

So he now has a fake eye that perfectly matches his natural left.

“They did a good job getting the colour right. They painted it,” he said, after completing a training session at the Sydney Olympic Park Athletics Centre warm-up track on Wednesday.

The two-day athletics competition at the Invictus Games Sydney 2018 gets underway on Thursday. There are five individual track events – 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m – plus the 4x100m relays. There are also three field events – discus, shot put and long jump.

Zondervan is entered in the 1500m.

“It’s another kind of hell for the body,” he said, with a grin.

What happened to him in Afghanistan was horrendous. But he doesn’t mind talking about it.

“It’s not difficult to tell my story because you can see it in my face, and everywhere,” the 31-year-old said pointing to both his legs.

“And I remember everything up until I went into the helicopter for the medivac (ambulance retrieval).

“I had to have a lot of operations and surgeries. But I think I got lucky because the mental scars aren’t that bad.”

Running did help because it made Zondervan feel strong again and helped clear his thoughts as he concentrated on his rehabilitation.

And now here he is in Sydney.

“It’s my fourth and last Invictus Games. I am closing the wounded book.

“I want to give someone else a chance to compete (at Invictus). It’s not just the sport. You learn so much from each other and meet so many good people.

“Their stories are great and it’s important to help others. When it’s your fourth Games it’s less for yourself and more for others.”

Athletics will be his third and last sport. He competed in the road cycling at the Royal Botanic Garden on Sunday, the swimming on Tuesday and then athletics on Friday.

As he leaves his Invictus Games experience behind, he has a message for all those still to compete in the years ahead.

“Use sports to help you and always try to talk to people. Don’t stay at home and keep quiet. Talk about it.”

Margie McDonald
Invictus Games Sydney 2018