One of my goals for this blog is to share the stories of local people.
To kick off the first in my ‘Meet a Didcot resident’ series I’d like to introduce Jack Cummings. Jack suffered life changing injuries in Afghanistan but fought back to fitness through a series of sporting challenges. I caught up with Jack to hear more about his life and to ask him a few Didcot specific questions.
Jack, over to you for a potted life history
I was born in London but moved to Didcot when I was just a few months old. Mum and dad were one of the first people to buy a house on the Fleet Meadow estate. Mum worked at Vauxhall Barracks so I initially went to nursery on camp. From there I moved on to Lydalls Road Nursery, Stephen Freeman Primary School and St Birinus.
As with many teenagers I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I went to the sixth form open day but it didn’t appeal. My dad was in the army and the forces appeared to offer the independence I craved. So I headed into Oxford with dad to go to the recruitment offices. The Navy office was closed for lunch, the RAF said it would take 20 years to get promoted so the army got me!
I passed my selection tests when I was still 15 years old. After completing a variety of aptitude and finess tests I was accepted as an electrician in the Royal Engineers.
I received my GCSE results in August; a couple of weeks later I set off to Harrogate for a year of training. It was a tough year. I was a long way from home, I wasn’t the fittest and the section commander always picked on me.
From Harrogate I transferred to Gibraltar Barracks in Surrey for 10 weeks. This is where I learnt how to build bridges (and to blow them up again), how to purify water, carry out demolitions and basic field engineering. I also passed my driving test after four days of learning. From Surrey I moved on to Kent to train as an electrician.
After training you choose a posting preference for your base. It’s well known that you usually get the opposite of what you ask for. That’s how two thirds of us ended up in 21 Squadron. Better known as the bomb disposal unit.
In October 2007 I was deployed as part of Operation Herrick 7 to Helmand Province in Afghanistan. I was 19 at the time and it was a hell of an adrenaline rush. Our job was to find and disable Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). There were casualties but the IEDs were large, full of metal and easy to detect.
Between tours we were deployed on security duties in England. For me, this involved searching hotel rooms in readiness for the Labour and Conservative Party conferences. More importantly, in 2009 I met my future wife, Sarah, at The Bridge nightclub in Oxford!
My second tour, in the summer of 2010, took me back to Afghanistan. Things had changed. The Taliban watched us as we worked and changed their tactics accordingly. The IEDs were now the size of a smartphone and most of the metals were removed to make them harder to detect. It was completely different to my first tour.
On 14 Aug 2010 I was searching for IEDs. I’ve been told there was a huge bang and that I was propelled 10ft into the air. Both of my legs were blown off above the knee and I landed face down in the earth.
I was evacuated by chopper and flown back to Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital in Birmingham the following day.
I spent the first month in a coma. My parents were told to say goodbye several times. It was very touch and go. After I regained consciousness I spent another month in intensive care and then three months on the military ward.
Learning to live again
After several months in hospital I transferred to Headley Court. This was a Ministry of Defence rehabilitation unit where I spent the next 3 1/2 years learning to be independent again. To drive, to swim and to do things I’d taken for granted before the accident. The rehabilitation facilities were great. There was a hydrotherapy pool, lots of sporting facilities as well as access to physios and prosthetics.
Leaving the army
I was medically discharged from the army in 2014. At this point I had moved from living in my parent’s conservatory into my own adapted bungalow.
Despite my injuries I missed Army life. I needed a challenge; something to motivate me. I chose sport.
That same year I took part in my first event, a week long Paris-London cycle challenge organised by Help for Heroes. It was tough. I’d just come out of hospital after another operation and was struggling with my fitness.
The following year I took part in another Help for Heroes fundraiser, this time cycling from Cardiff to London.
Things snowballed and in 2017 I started training for the Invictus Games. By now I had another motive too; I was getting married the month before the games and wanted to look good for the wedding photos!
I trained hard, both in the pool and on my hand bike, and was fortunate to be selected to represent the UK in swimming and archery. Prince Harry announced the teams at an Invictus launch event. Later the same day I attended a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace courtesy of the Not Forgotten Association. I got to meet Prince Harry twice in one day!
I was approached by the BBC who wanted to film my journey for a documentary about Invictus competitors, Battle to the Start Line. They followed my training and even filmed at our wedding. The documentary was shown the week before the Games and as part of the promotion I was a guest on BBC Breakfast and The One Show.
In Toronto my training paid off. I won a bronze in my breaststroke event and narrowly missed out on qualifying for the freestyle. I won’t talk about the archery!
At the start of 2018 I found out that I’d won the Disability Award at the Oxfordshire Sports Awards for my swimming achievement at the Invictus Games. It was a great evening and a privilege to win.
I’d had an amazing time in Toronto and hoped to take part in the 2018 Invictus Games but it wasn’t to be.
Instead I racked up a few more events. These included the Royal Marine Rehab triathlon in Devon, a Soldier Ride bike ride in New York and my first open water swim raising money for the Felix Fund.
This year’s challenge is the London Marathon, which I’ll be completing in my manual everyday wheelchair. I’m raising money for Blesma which helps ex-servicemen and women who have lost limbs. They supported me and my family after the explosion and it’s time to give something back.
You might have seen me out training. My route takes me on the path out to McDonalds, through Milton Park and back up the killer hill into Great Western Park. I hate going up that!
I’m a little over halfway to my fundraising target so any sponsorship would be greatly appreciated. If you’d like to do so please pop over to my Just Giving page:
Some questions about Didcot now. What’s the best thing about living here?
I love Didcot and have always been drawn back to it. The Orchard Centre is great and I wish it had been there when I was younger. I also like Didcot’s central location. It’s easy to get everywhere from here, for example, to London or Cardiff for events.
Everyone knows Didcot, even royalty. I met Prince Charles in hospital. He said that when he used to fly past the power station in his helicopter he knew he was nearly home!
What’s your favourite place in or around Didcot?
I’ve spent a huge amount of time at the Didcot Wave training for various events. I start most days in the gym or swimming pool. The staff all know me and they’ve been very supportive.
What one thing would you change about the town?
I would love some of the roads and pavements to be resurfaced. When I’m out in my wheelchair or on a hand bike I really notice the bumps and potholes.
Thank you Jack for sharing your story and views on Didcot with us, Good luck for the marathon!
Would you like to take part in a future blog post? If so, please drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Rest assured you don’t need to have led an eventful life like Jack, simply be willing to share your story and have something to say about Didcot.