Under cover of night, army rifleman Matt Model was on the trail of former Timorese rebel leader, Alfredo Reinado, during a peacekeeping mission in East Timor in early 2007.
Back home, his wife, Rosie, had just given birth prematurely to twin sons Cohen and Noah, and it had been a “hard decision” says Model, to leave his family behind to deploy again.
Then “I sustained a fall,” says Model, 34, who lives in NSW’s Port Macquarie. “I sort of had to brush myself off and continue, but I didn’t realise at the time that the impact from that fall damaged discs in my lumbar spine.”
The ramifications of that injury would prove far reaching, with Model soon in severe pain and rushed back to Australia for tests.
“It was a very emotional time, very mentally draining, have newborn twins to come home to with a back injury. Mentally, it was a very dark time not being able to do all those dad duties, picking my child up and feeding my child properly. I did a lot of laying around,” says Model, who began what would turn out to be an 18-month-long rehabilitation.
I thought there was no chance that I’m ever going to be the same. It was a dark time in my life.”
“With the injury that I had, it didn’t take much for things to flare up again. I had a couple of incidents where I sneezed and it was like being back at day one,” explains Model, who was told he had the back of a 65-year-old and was medically discharged in 2008.
“I thought there was no chance that I’m ever going to be the same. It was a dark time in my life.”
That darkness began to lift, thanks to the love and support of Model’s family and the healing power of sports.
“Against a lot of odds and advice,” he went on to run in three marathons, but it was the achievements of his long-time friend and colleague, Tyrone Gawthorne, at the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto, that spurred him on to front up for his biggest challenge yet.
“That was the trigger for me, seeing him and what great things the journey did for him,” he says. “I decided to put my entry forward.”
The Invictus selection process began this year in Canberra at the Australian Institute of Sport, where Model bonded with many inspiring veterans.
“To share some of their stories and hear what brought them on this path was quite amazing.”
So life-changing was that experience, that “whether I was selected or not” seemed inconsequential, says Model. Which made it all the more memorable when, standing with his mate Gawthorne on the Opera House stairs in June, both heard their names announced as members of this year’s Australian Invictus team.
“It was a special moment for both of us.”
The athletics and indoor-rowing competitor stars in the ABC’s My Invictus Games Hero (from 6am on October 20 on the ABC Me app), which documents Model’s preparation through the eyes of Rosie and their excited boys, now 11.
“They’re little sporty kids, like I was when I was their age. They’re a great encouragement,” he says, chuckling. “They’d poke their head out in the shed when I was rowing and give me a little ‘Go, dad!’”
As for Rosie, “She’s the rock of our family. The wheels would fall off pretty quick if she wasn’t there”, says Model, who’ll be leaning on his family again to achieve his dream of competing at the 2020 Invictus Games in The Hague, in The Netherlands.
“It has been a rough ride. I’d be lying if I said everything was smooth sailing,” he reflects. “But this journey has brought us closer together.”