The term legend is thrown around fairly loosely these days. Anybody from top footy players to the guy who can smack the most beers at the pub is a ‘legend.’ But when I spoke with Paul de Gelder – ex-Navy clearance diver, author, speaker, wildlife advocate, and shark attack survivor – I got the sense I was talking to a legend, in every sense of the word.
I spoke with Paul about his biggest tragedies and triumphs, as well as the release of the upcoming Fighting Season, an Australian-produced mini-series drama that takes a close look at the ongoing inner battles our Veterans face upon returning home from war.
Paul de Gelder lived a pretty turbulent younger life. Late nights working bars, casual drugs, and living in what he described as a ‘constant fog’, chasing thrills was part of what young Paul did. Hopeless and without direction, Paul turned to the army.
I began by asking if high-energy lost souls were common sights in the military:
‘I think it is quite common, actually. My youngest brother, Sean, did the same thing. He got into a bunch of trouble. He actually joined before me. He was in the same sort of situations I was. I was posted to Third Batallion, we were all along those same sorts of lines – but not everyone.’
After his first deployment to East Timor in the early 2000s as a paratrooper, Paul realised he had found his purpose in life – he was fighting for his country with a close coalition of his best mates. But what, I wondered, was it like to transition from battle-hardened warrior to docile citizen in a matter of days. This is a strong theme in Fighting Season and an every day fact of life for Paul in the early days of his military career.
‘It really does create almost a duality of personalities within inside yourself. And sometimes those two personalities bleed into each other, more so military bleeding into the civilian world. You spend so much time away from home. A lot of single guys especially, will come home and just go off the rails. Then you’ve got the guys that are in relationships or married and have families and just spent so much time roughing it out.’
Following Paul’s return to Australia, he decided to make the transition from Army paratrooper to Navy clearance diver. Although he knew it would be a challenge, Paul de Gelder understood that clearance diving was where his true destiny lay.
After a cancelled tour of Iraq, Paul had time to reconsider his direction:
‘I was going to go back to the same old exercises on repeat that we do every year. I got a little bit disenchanted and then I went on a course called HUET (Helicopter Underwater Escape Training), you’ve got to do this course anytime you’re in a helicopter over the water and it teaches you how to escape if it crashes into the ocean. One of the safety divers there was this thing called a clearance diver.’
Intrigued, Paul looked into his potential new calling.
‘I thought ‘You know what, the universe is speaking to me, this is going to be the next challenge that I’m going to try.’ And so I just went full steam ahead. I knew there was this crazy selection process so I started training my little heart out, just getting ready for it and in passing that selection course I found my dream job.’
The years went on and Paul de Gelder thrived; he had found meaning in his new work. Until February 11, 2009, when an event that would define Paul’s entire life occurred during a Navy testing dive.
Paul was attacked by a shark and fought the great fish for his life. Thankfully, Paul escaped with his life but he lost his hand immediately and eventually lost his right leg. Lying on the hospital bed in agonising pain and already fighting the early stages of an uphill battle with morphine addiction, Paul knew he had to make moves.
‘The motivator that I had there was fear. And fear can be a very great strength. So I utilised that into a determination of trying to keep my job and trying to keep this dream alive that I fought tooth and nail to achieve. Because I did know what it was like to have nothing and I knew what it was like to struggle.’
Paul’s brief morphine addiction was cut in the bud with flashbacks to his earlier days as a young man struggling against himself.
‘All those years working behind the bars – we had no electricity, we were showering at the public showers at Southbank in Brisbane. Eating two-minute noodles on toast and I smoked weed and lived in a fog. I was so absolutely determined not to return to that and get back into my career.’
‘Tiny little steps – get up earlier, get off the drugs, eat healthier, get to the gym, learn to use my body, get a leg, learn to walk. And all those little goals and challenges helped so much that within 6 months I got to go back to work.’
Paul needed the Navy and couldn’t see a life without them. He found some self-assurance from his old boss, though it wasn’t necessarily the assurance he had in mind.
‘The chief of Navy said that as long as I wanted a job, I would have one. So that took a lot of the pressure off, but I’m not sure he realised I wanted my old job back. So I went to the Navy and I asked them after about 6 months of recovery if I could go back to work and go back to the dive team. And they said no. So my heart sunk and they said ‘you can’t go to the diving team – you have to be deployable for war.’’
But Paul de Gelder wasn’t done with the Navy just yet, and he found a way to give back.
‘’I could teach; I could pass on the knowledge that you’ve invested in me and perhaps I could inspire the next generation as well.’ They thought about that for a while and they said ‘OK, you can go back to work at the dive school for three and a half days of the week.’ And so I just went five full days a week.’
Paul’s personal physical recovery, as well as his re-introduction into the Navy and the society at large continued to improve after the incident. In essence, he was a man reborn.
‘Three months to the day I went back to Bondi and tried to surf with one leg and two of my friends. There were only two things in life that I was deathly afraid of: public speaking and sharks. Aside from public speaking at that point, there was just nothing else to be afraid of. It didn’t worry me if I died. Because I’d come so close to death that everything else was bonus time.’
The ex-Navy diver had a new take not just on life, but on death.
‘Believe me when I say, dying is not scary. I’ve faced it in the most horrific and violent ways, most people’s worst nightmare. The dying part is not scary. The bit where you’re dying and you have regrets is scary. And I didn’t have any regrets because I’d achieved so much more than what I thought was possible in my life. And now it’s come to the point where I’m on bonus time, I’ve got my second chance, so there’s absolutely no way I’m going to waste that now.’
Paul de Gelder had fought a shark and lived. His brush with death was humbling. But there was one more fear for Paul to overcome – public speaking. His story was incredible, inspiring, and the world needed to hear what Paul had to share. As his life was thrust into the limelight, he had to learn to access his emotions and display his realness.
‘A very good friend of mine, Layne Beachley, said ‘strength is vulnerability’. She heard me speaking and said that I was good, but that it was just ‘so damn military’. I didn’t know what she meant by that. Am I supposed to cry on stage?’
Layne’s advice clearly hit home with Paul, and another personal evolution took place within.
‘What I thought I was supposed to be doing was just telling a story. Little did I realise that people couldn’t relate to that story if I didn’t give some of my human side. Over the months and years, I had to delve into that side of my personality and give it an even balance of every aspect of who I am and what the story involves. And how it applies to everyone in Australia – whether it’s going through a struggle in your personal life in relationships, or in jobs, or your embracing change and you have to find a new way of life like I did. It’s not a military story and it’s not a shark attack story, it’s just a story about life. I have been fortunate to be able to find a way to make that appeal to everyone at any time of their life.’
Paul de Gelder’s life is incredible. Many public speakers live their life in the past, considering and reflecting on events that have already happened. I couldn’t help but ask, how did Paul live his life now? Was it fulfilling?
‘My life is ridiculous. I can’t even believe the life that I live. It’s something that I dreamed about. You know, it’s hard – the first thing I do in the morning is, I’ve got to put my leg on. I’ve nearly died half a dozen times jumping into the shower on one leg and nearly breaking my spine. I have one hand now, but it’s a robot hand. I live in LA and I travel the world and I get to film documentaries and walk in the footsteps of people like David Attenborough and Steve Irwin that I grew up watching. These are the people that inspired me to want to have these adventures in the first place. And now, I get paid to do that. I get to swim with sharks and I get to travel around the world and speak on stage and share all of these life lessons that I’ve been so fortunate to learn. I wouldn’t change it anymore. I wouldn’t go back and have my leg and my hand back. Because I don’t know who that guy would be. But I know who I am now, and I’m happy. I embrace it and I’m just trying to keep the growth of this career going that I’ve accidentally fallen into going’
Catch Paul on Fighting Season – out now on DVD.