The new issue of Pathfinder International is out now and inside we were lucking enough to chat to former Royal Marine, JJ Chalmers before he started the strict regime of dancing training for BBC 1’s flagship show – Strictly Come Dancing.
Read the full interview with editor Mal Robinson below…
“I joined the Royal Marines back in 2005 and I joined the reserve forces to begin with and passed out as a Commando and all that good stuff and absolutely loved it. Then there came a time that I got my personal life in order and went off and joined the Regular Corps” begins JJ as I manage to get hold of him following a day’s filming for the new series of BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing.
“Shortly thereafter came a tour in Afghanistan (Herrick 14). I’d done some mega stuff in my career up to that point and I’d been really lucky doing course and deployments but this (Afghanistan) was the pinnacle of anyone’s career, whether they are full time military or reservist, to deploy on operations and have a mega time is the pinnacle” JJ continues.
“So Herrick 14 and a summer tour and I was in 42 Commando and we were up north on checkpoints working in the green zone and it was amazing and everything you hope it is, challenging, pretty shaky and dodgy at points but then again you look back and they are just some of the best times of your life. They were simple times, and they were just mega to be with the lads, you were facing whatever it was, good and bad together and so it was absolutely hoofing.”
JJ’s life would turn upside down following an explosion from a booby trap in a compound he and his team were clearing, as JJ takes up.
“At the mid-point of the tour and just as fighting season was picking up we deployed on a operation which pressed into Taliban held areas and we went there and got stuck in and one of the tasks was to clear a bomb making factory.
Whilst conducting that operation we triggered an IED within a compound and it went off and it just tore us to pieces. I was one of the guys who fortunately came off the ground, obviously we had casualties and we had fatalities, I was torn to pieces, but I made it home.
I woke up back in Birmingham, in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and in my initial instinct, I checked my legs so I thought I was fine and I thought I would be back in Afghan in a matter of weeks, but the Corps as difficult as it is, the surgeons sat me down and told me this was going to take two to three years to recover from but I would be retained in service in that time.
I was hoping to be retained in service, I said I will do anything to stay, I’ll work in the stores, I’ll work in admin, just whatever job you can find me, I just want to stay in the Corps” JJ explains.
“The Corps was pretty good and got me roles, but your career as you know it is over, and what you need to do aside from getting physically fit and your life back together and regaining your ability, you need to go away and figure out what you want to do with your life and then we will support you to do whatever it is. And that is completely true to word and so what happened was my recovery went on for the best part of five years, throughout that time, in and out of hospital and Headley Court, and you are using that down time to build up qualifications, network, just begin to have understanding of what civilian life is like.
I was very lucky, I didn’t have a day job as such, like I was having to report to Company HQ each day, I was able to make the most of my resettlement time and of course I would urge anyone (going through resettlement) to take this very seriously and it was good to do that because on the outside of this world, I am very lucky now to have a career that I love as much as being in the Corps.
JJ then goes onto talk about finding your way in life and resettling from the military and the importance of finding that something you like, even if its not directly paid work…
“It is challenging, it is entertaining, it is all those things, but when we look at the problems that surround mental health and the struggles that veterans face and one of the things that really underpins that is employment and if it isn’t employment, then it is meaning and purpose. It is why we are getting out of bed each day and as I say, employment is a big part of that and at the very least it needs to be some sort of volunteering. The thing that you love might not pay your bills, but you need to find it and use that time wisely.”
You got into media, how did all that come about?
“It all happened because of the Invictus Games. The games felt like a natural progression of my rehab anyway. The Afghan war was ongoing, and it was full of people going through something similar and we were all becoming physically able again. As a result, we discovered that part of life that was missing, because we take a lot of things for granted in life and in the military. We take for granted our physical ability, the adventure that we see and so when you lose that it is hard, it is soul destroying. The Invictus Games was a platform that allowed us to not to just recover physically, but to regain those parts. The other thing of it was, Prince Harry wanted the games themselves to be a shining beacon for other veterans to come out from the woodwork and engage in recovery, but also for the civilian world to look at it and go, there is lessons to be learned from the veteran community.
To make that fully effective, we need to be on the Telly and we need bums on chairs, and that wasn’t to motivate us, it was to have a meaning and a purpose and to basically have a sense of service again. That’s why we joined the military, to serve, and we were serving again (with the Invictus Games) you know wearing a uniform with the Union Jack on and serving my country.
So this meant I was very involved in the media side of things and I was getting crated left, right and centre off the lads for being on the Telly all of the time, but once you get past that part of it I developed a love for it. It was something I was good at and it was something I could learn and be challenged by it and to say it was worth taking a crack at.
Whilst still in service, I began to look for opportunities, to get myself into the right rooms with the right people that would sort of nurture me and essentially the day I was medically discharged from the Royal Marines in 2016, that very day, I flew out to Orlando to work for the BBC, to work on the Invictus Games.
I was very lucky to transfer from one straight to the other but it was a case of brining the skill set and the motivations that I had, that the military had given me, Invictus had rediscovered in me and now I take that to work every single day and I am going to take this into Strictly!”
It is just operating. It is doing everything the right way, depending on people around you and immersing yourself in whatever job or process it is and to try and deliver the best outcome.
And onto Strictly…
“It is mega! There is a part of me that is still Lance Corporal Chalmers, standing in a sanger in Afghanistan and just going to myself “What? He’s doing what all these years later?” and that is insane, but actually when you look at what I’ve done as in my career and the level I got to as a TV presenter, strangely this is the natural progression. It is of course an unbelievable opportunity that not everyone in my position gets, but I am absolutely winning by getting a ticket and being one of these twelve people.
As mad as it is for Lance Corporal Chalmers ten years ago, it somewhat makes sense because this is the type of opportunity that I have worked hard and nurtured in order so I can have these challenges.
(At the point of writing) I haven’t really started dancing yet, I have done a little bit of this and that, but what I have started doing is immersing myself into the world of dance and that is the costumes, that is the make up and that is just more foreign than anything…well lets be honest it maybe not that foreign for a Royal Marine…it is just now it is work, rather than on a Thursday night” laughs JJ.
“That is the amazing thing about it all (Strictly) is learning a new culture. We come from a culture within the military that we are defined by and when I meet my fellow competitors and the professional dancers, you realise that this is an entire world and you are privileged to get to enter it and the level at which they are operating, well the dancers on Strictly are the Special Forces equivalent of dancers to the military and it is amazing that I am getting them to coach me and that I get to go onto this massive platform.
(At the time of writing) the launch show is next week, and I am ready to take this from zero to one hundred as fast as I possibly can. I have a lot to learn and I mega green behind the ears and I’ll probably find things out the hard way, but I am ready to go.”
And how will JJ cope with flack off the judges on the show?
“I hope it is water off a ducks back and I hope not to take it too personal. Let’s be honest, I have had nastier people do nastier things to me, but at the same time there is this flipside. We have all been on courses, we have all instructed others, and we have all been given feedback, and actually at times, we have all been shouted at, but its all for good reason. Its all to make us better, we need feedback, we need to know what you are doing right and wrong. So of course, I want to get a pat on the back and told I am doing well, but if I am not doing well, I want to get a de-brief, I want to get given my marching orders and come back the next day better…and so I’ll standby!”
Finally, we return to the topic of leaving the forces and the importance of getting military resettlement correct…
“It is mega tricky. The first thing I would say is that there is a lot of help and support out there for veterans and it isn’t all doom and gloom, but there is a lot of noise as well. Use your time in transition from the forces well and start identifying, what it is you want to do and if you can, get an opportunity to get into whatever you want to and spend time doing the job.
Leaving the forces and going and getting a job in civilian life is just like joining the military. You are going to go into a military recruitment office and they tell you what its all about and then the reality is very different and so in this sense it is exactly the same, do your research and see what it says on the tin is actually what it is like.
That is one part of it, but really it is finding meaning and purpose. If that pays the bills then mega, but it might be volunteering, it might be joining the cadet force as an instructor, it could be working for a charity, it might just be a hobby, but you need to find that thing that sets you apart and gives you a bit of identity because for me that’s what you lose more than anything when you leave and you start to think I am a former soldier and in some ways there is a negative part in that, a negative part of not being something you once were.
But actually, you can go out there and redefine who you are and become somebody who was that once and has learnt from it, but actually now something else…I mean I am a dancer now (JJ laughs), a TV presenter and a dancer, but of course I will always be a Royal Marine at heart.”
JJ Chalmers at the time of writing is now in the quarter finals of Strictly Come Dancing and all at Pathfinder wish him well for the remainder of the competition and beyond.
Read the entire new issue of Pathfinder International military resettlement magazine for free HERE!