Firefighter has the ‘Right Stuff’

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Overcoming injury and adversity to succeed

Surviving 28 days in a coma, the result of a serious motor accident, suffering a spate of head and brain injuries, followed by months of rehabilitation and three years of reconstructive facial surgery has not stopped LACW Melissa Roberts realising her ambition of an Air Force career.

Melissa’s injuries would be enough to turn most people away from fighting on, to continue a career in the Australian Defence Force, let alone trying to get back to a ‘normal’ life, but this Air Force firefighter has the “right stuff” to overcome adversity to succeed.

Her strength and determination as well as the curative power of sport has helped Melissa to not only remain in the RAAF, but also to compete in the Invictus Games.

LACW Roberts joined the RAAF in 2010 as a firefighter, wanting a career that was physically challenging. Military service also allowed her to follow in the footsteps of her father, Warrant Officer Brian Roberts – a RAAF firefighter of 35 years.

“Being active and playing sports has always been a big part of my life,” LACW Roberts said.

“[Firefighting] was the most active role females could do at the time.”

In a cruel twist of fate, Melissa had to face her most physically demanding challenge following a car accident on RAAF Tindal Base near Katherine in 2013.

“It has been the most intense rollercoaster ride you could ever imagine being on, it was [and continues to be]just so uncertain,” LACW Roberts said.

For Melissa and for many others recovering from a brain injury, waking up each day feels like an intense hangover.  Throughout her recovery the hangover feeling changed to constantly feeling seasick. With poor depth perception, spatial awareness and body balance, plus surgeries to correct her vision, Melissa even had to learn how to walk again.

If that wasn’t enough of an achievement, Melissa eventually returned to sports and to part-time study.

Through hard work and determination she has now graduated from the University of Southern Queensland with a Bachelor of Education.

Feeling confident enough in her progress and recovery, Melissa applied to compete in the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto.

“The power of sport was the driving force behind my recovery, but it gave me a goal to pursue,” said LACW Roberts.

“Every day, those goals kept increasing and you know, the local Park Run eventually became the Invictus Games.

Melissa was selected among 42 other current and former Australian military personnel. Competing in various athletics and swimming events, Melissa walked away with three bronze medals and four silver medals, as well as the honour of meeting Prince Harry. But it was the unspoken bond and universal understanding she experienced with other injured military members and veterans that was the most important part of the Games.

“It was not about the results at all, the whole week showed me that,” LACW Roberts said.

“Everyone was equal, and they saw you for who you are and not your injury. It was the safest environment I’ve ever been in, no prejudice or discrimination.

“Sport has no barriers – that’s the main lesson I came away with from Invictus Games.”

As she currently works in an administrative role at RAAF Base Amberley, Melissa is now considering other job opportunities her teaching degree provides.

“I would love to work in education and training within the Defence force, that would be a big goal of mine. Education and training is obviously a big passion of mine,” she said.

However, with the extent of her injuries Melissa realises that commitments such as deployments may impact her employability within the RAAF, but she’s learning to be okay with that. “Now it’s coming to fruition that leaving the RAAF may be the outcome; through the Invictus Games where I met ex-serving veterans who can’t serve anymore, it helped me to accept that.. and that yes, life does go on.”

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