TACOMA — British Lance Corporal Cayle Royce was climbing out of an irrigation ditch in Afghanistan when he stepped on a pressure activated 20-kilogram mine, throwing him into the air. When he landed, he was missing his legs, a part of his left hand and his reason to live.
“You’re essentially saying goodbye to the guys at that point,” Royce said of that day in 2012. “There’s not really much else going through your mind. Everything’s getting a bit darker and slower and you feel like you’re getting sucked into a bit of a black hole.”
Royce woke up 48 days later in a medical hospital in Birmingham, England. He had gone from being the toughest and strongest he’d ever been to becoming helpless, seemingly overnight.
“I remember once I came out of intensive care ... lying in bed, just crying,” Royce, now 37, recalled. “It was awful. Because I needed to go to the toilet. And I was too embarrassed to call a nurse.
“That just broke me.”
Today, Royce is far from a broken man. On Sunday, he and five other wounded British veterans left Sunnyside Beach in Steilacoom on a 1,200-mile sea kayak journey to Skagway, Alaska on the fabled Inland Passage.
The journey will be proof for the men who range in age from 35 to 58 and who have a variety of war time injuries and disabilities — proof that they can accomplish feats that few fully abled people would dare try. And, they say, it sets an example for other physically or mentally wounded vets who struggle with their changed lives.
An estimated 53,000 U.S. troops were wounded in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“If you want to see a mountain, go climb that mountain. You don’t have to climb it in a day,” team member Markus Strydom said. “If you just get up and drive to the mountain, that’s half the battle. You’ve already started your journey.”
The six men and two other non-disabled support members call themselves Team Forces of Nature. The veterans served in the Falklands War, Afghanistan and Iraq.
They expect the trip to take 100 days. They spent their first night camping on Vashon Island.
They are supporters of and supported by the London-based military charity, The Not Forgotten, along with other charities, including Prince Harry’s Invictus Games Foundation.
Planning for the trip began in 2018 when the goal then was to kayak 2,500 miles down the Amazon River from the center of Peru.
“That was about two years of planning,” Jones said. “And then COVID came along.”
Their Amazonian dreams were permanently dashed when they learned that the journey would be too dangerous. The men regrouped and chose the Inland Passage. Another two years of planning ensued.
Rage and anger
Lance-Sergeant Markus Strydom was halfway through his second Afghanistan tour with the Grenadier Guards when his military career abruptly ended one day in 2012.
While his platoon was clearing a compound, an insurgent shot him from about 15 feet away. As Strydom fell on his back he saw the shooter prepare to lob a grenade at him.
“You know when they say your life flashes in front of your eyes? All I had going through my mind were a lot of explicit words. ‘My day can’t get any worse’.”
Strydom rolled over and waited for the bang that arrived moments later.
A medic started working on Strydom immediately. Soon, four troops were carrying him through knee-deep mud and finally to a vehicle driven by his sergeant major.
“So I’m there, my bits everywhere,” Strydom recalled. “I’m strapped to a trailer. He looked at me and deadpan as possible said, ‘Scream if you want to go faster’.”
Strydom was discharged after three months in a hospital. The injuries left him without stomach muscles. But for Strydom, the bigger obstacle to recovery was his state of mind.
Following his military discharge, Strydom struggled with survivor’s guilt. His job was to look after his men. Not all came home alive.
“I got diagnosed with rage and anger problems, PTSD, you name it, I got diagnosed with everything,” he said.
Strydom felt adrift, cut off from the bonds that a tight military unit develops.
“Once you leave the Army, you don’t have that brotherhood, that closeness,” he said. “And you struggle to adjust.”
Steilacoom resident Barb Przasnyski, an avid kayaker, heard about Team Forces of Nature during a presentation by a member of the Washington Waters Trails Association.
The team needed lodging while their kayaks and gear were shipped over from Great Britain. She had an unused basement. The men moved in April 18.
“The guys got to sleep on the beach for three months, for Pete’s sake, so they can sleep in there for a week or two and get their things squared away,” Przasnyski said in late April as most of the team milled about her swimming pool. “And this community wraps their arms around veterans.”
When one of the men lost a tooth filling, Quality Dentistry stepped in and fixed it for free, she said. Other residents provided the men with meals.
“I’ve never eaten so much in my whole life,” Royce said. “Everybody invites us around for dinners and snacks and drinks. And it’s wonderful.”
That all changed the moment the men departed on Sunday. Now, they are carrying everything they need with them. They’ll restock at points along the way.
A new brotherhood
The Brits’ banter is filled with joking insults lobbed at each other — the kind men use to show affection without having to admit they care for each other.
It’s the sort of bond that forms in face of adversity. For these men, it began in war and came to deafening, sudden ends. The camaraderie developed between Strydom and the other members of Forces of Nature has renewed what he felt all those years ago in Afghanistan.
“I can operate in a jungle, I can operate in the desert, but I can’t operate outside of the Army,” Strydom said. “And this is what this group actually gives. It gives you that sense of belonging, that sense of brotherhood, that shared goal, that shared mission.
“They’re closer to me than my family.”
Helping each other
American or British, Strydom urges ex-military who feel isolated to reconnect with their old platoon mates. Those friends might need help as well, he said.
“(It’s) those small little things that just makes another person feel like he’s worth something,” Strydom said. “Because after you leave, you kind of feel lost. You are pretty much rudderless.”
Suffering in silence and isolation is not a healthy route.
“That’s the thing — men don’t talk,” Strydom said. “And that is a big, big problem with our society. We get used as a tool, then we stop becoming useful.”
He urges service men and women to find their groove in life — “that thing that makes you tick.”
Team project manager Theo Jones, 35, echos Styrdom’s advice: Be active, don’t isolate.
“Even if it is going for a stroll with a mate or going for a drink, whatever it is, it does not have to be as extreme as climbing mountains or kayaking up British Columbia,” Jones said. “The important simple equation is just be active.”
“Fall in love with the beauty of the mundane,” Strydom said. “When’s the last time you looked up at the stars? We are so engrossed in phones and technology and you lose everything that’s beautiful.”
The physical exertions and mental skills needed for the Inland Passage trip are therapeutic, Jones said.
The team’s bosun, Marty Wilson, was shot in the head during his third tour in Afghanistan in 2011. After, he could “hardly string a sentence together” according to Jones.
“And now he is just non-stop,” Jones said. “You wouldn’t know that he had a head injury, especially one that severe. So, that’s such an incredible feeling for the rest of the boys on the team, seeing that development.”
Long periods on water aren’t new to the men. Cayle, Jones and second-in-command Neil Heritage have all rowed across the Atlantic.
“Pure misery,” is how Jones describes the 3,000 mile, 7-week journey across the sea.
Like his fellow expedition members, Royce’s story comes in a matter-of-fact cadence tempered by time and countless retellings. If it wasn’t for the two artificial limbs he stands on, it might seem hard to believe.
He grew up on a farm in South Africa and moved to the UK in 2006. Whether it was as a civilian or in the military, Royce had always been drawn to adventures.
“From the point of injury, my biggest concern was that adventure side had ended,” Royce said. “And that I would no longer have the support of the individuals around me, because it’d be too much of a liability, too much of a hazard to have along on these sorts of things.”
Even though those wartime bonds remain, a newly injured service member must come to grips with the changed relationship — at least in the short term, he said.
“You’re not functioning on a level where you can continue to do things with them,” Royce said. “And that is devastating. And a lot of people really struggle to get over that.”
Because Royce is in a single kayak, he’s had to modify it with the installation of hand-operated steering. He will wear much shorter prosthetic legs during the entirety of the trip. There’s no room for his taller legs.
“Which means that I am sort of a 4-foot-nothing when I’m walking around in those legs and I will remain at that height from the time that I leave here to the time that I get off in Alaska,” Royce said.
Heritage, who is also a double amputee, will also used truncated legs on the trip but he’s traveling in a two-man kayak which his partner will steer with foot pedals.
The men estimate they’ll travel 15 miles a day.
“Depending on how lost we get,” Royce said. “That’s Theo’s job. If we do get lost, it’s his fault.”
Some parts of the Inland Passage are directly exposed to the Pacific Ocean. Strong tidal currents, whirlpools and waves make the going “hairy” as Royce puts it.
They’ve identified likely campsites. Few, if any, have any amenities.
“In some places, you’ve got three quarters of a mile that you have to trek,” Royce said. “Very slimy, gritty, grimy, rough terrain, with boats that are weighing hundreds and hundreds of pounds.”
Add in extreme tidal changes, hordes of mosquitoes, bears and other challenges and it means some rough camping.
A new mission
While he was in the hospital recovering, Royce finally realized that the medical staff was there to help him and he had nothing to be ashamed of. But it was a Army mate who finally set Royce on the road to mental recovery.
“He came into the hospital while I was sort of a vegetable and said, ‘We’re gonna be rowing across the Atlantic, do you want to come’?”
Royce thought about it for a moment.
“Screw the bedpan,” he replied. “We’re off on another mission.”