I met Paul De Gelder in 2010, a year after seeing a story about him being mauled by a bull shark, in Sydney Harbour.
An elite navy diver, he was carrying out anti-terrorist exercises early one February morning in 2009, in the waters off Garden Island Naval Base, when a bull shark happened to be lurking in the same area.
What happened on that day has changed De Gelder’s life, but not necessarily for the worst.
The severity of the attack, the injuries sustained, would have ruined, if not killed, most people, but I have seen De Gelder go from strength to strength, not only physically, but with his profile as a motivator and conservationist.
Now based in Los Angeles, he spends his time helping charities, inspiring people, and making documentaries for Shark Week,showing people a different perspective on the species that almost killed him.
Rather than post another story on De Gelder, I found a website by Tim Kolczak – The Veterans’ Project, that presents photographic essays detailing the lives of combat veterans and their return to civilian life.
I found this website unique and honest, and De Gelder’s words so stirring and raw, that I asked if I could share it on my site.
I present to you Paul De Gelder by Tim Kolczak – The Veterans Project.
What brought you into the military?
PD: Life just sucked. It was as good as it had ever been but in the grand scheme of things it still sucked. I was working in a bar at a restaurant and that was my life. I lived with my dog and a couple mates and that was pretty much the extent of what seemed possible in my life. I’d done some cool things before that. I was a rapper in Brisbane. I headlined for Snoop Dogg in Brisbane. Not a lot of money in being a white rapper in Brisbane in the mid to late 90’s however (laughs). Everyone of us was just smoking weed and partying and everything sort of imploded. That’s how I ended up working behind a bar. I just wasn’t fulfilled and I knew there was this fucking incredible world out there. So many different countries, cultures, and experiences to take part in.
I just didn’t have any idea how I’d get to see any of that stuff and my worst nightmare was to be like the people I worked with, just living in the ‘burbs married with a couple kids. That was their life. They got up, tended to their kids, kissed their wives goodbye, and went to their job while pressing repeat daily. That was a nightmare to me. I called my mom for advice and she told me to talk to my two younger brothers who were both in the Army in artillery. I asked them what they thought about me joining the Army and they just laughed at me. They said, “It’s a good life but don’t join the infantry,” so I joined the infantry (laughs). That’s when everything changed for me.
Why’d you specifically join the infantry?
PD: I specifically joined the infantry because my brothers told me not to. Also, I feel like if you’re going to join the Army you need to be a soldier. I wanted to be a soldier. I wanted to serve properly. You never hear heroic stories about the admin officer, do you (laughs)? They don’t make movies about logistics. I wanted to be the action hero. I did my basic training at a place called Kapooka then I did my IETs which is employment training for the specific job I’d chosen. At the end of IETs they gave us choices as to what battalion we wanted to go to but I didn’t know that much about the different battalions.
I remember thinking, “Fuck, I don’t know.” They said, “Who wants to jump out of planes?” I’ve never been accused of doing anything too smart (laughs) so I put my hand in the air and they said, “Congratulations you’re going to be a paratrooper.” I thought to myself, “That sounds badass.” So, I went off and got my maroon beret and became a paratrooper. I was just so proud, man. I had purpose, a uniform, a real vision for my life, and I was being taught how to be a man for the first time. I was a valuable member of society and that’s everything I ever wanted out of life.
What did 9/11 mean to you as an Australian?
PD: I was in bed on the Army base watching TV when the show I was watching cut out and went to the plane crashing into the WTC. I went outside and told the guys and then went back to bed. Then, a few minutes later I could hear the boys yelling and screaming outside my room. There was a second plane crash and I immediately thought, “We’re going to war.” I knew immediately we’d be getting involved. I knew there was no way two times was a fucking accident. Everything that you’re involved in as Americans, we’ll be involved in. We will always be in each other’s pockets and honestly, we will always owe you guys. If the American fleet hadn’t stopped the Japanese on their way to Darwin we’d all be speaking Japanese right now.
Talk about your time as a diver and why you decided to go that route.
PD: I didn’t really want to be running around the bush, again and again, doing the same exercise getting dirty for the same thing over and over. I just got tired of the infantry thing, to be honest. I felt like every exercise was the same year after year. We were about to go on exercise to New Caledonia and do a practice removal of foreign nationals. We were going to be flying choppers over water and anytime you do that you have to do helicopter underwater escape training. So they took us down to the Navy base, we jumped into the mockup helicopter, they turn off all the lights, dunk it in the pool, flipped us upside down, and we had to escape. One of the safety divers there was a clearance diver and I’d heard of them but didn’t really know much about what they did. I knew they were an elite unit kind of like the Commandos and SAS so that really intrigued me.
I started looking into it and thought, “Fuck it, I’m going to give something new a go.” I’d never dived in my life. I put in for an application to have a go at the first course, which was “Ships Divers,” where you learn to scuba dive and search for bombs. Generally, those two things don’t go hand-in-hand so it was a bit of a steep learning curve seeing as how I’d never done either of them. So, I started with the selection course, which was ten days of no sleep, swimming for six hours in the middle of the night across Sydney Harbor, which was the same harbor where I was eaten by a shark (laughs). We did forced marches, stretcher carries, first aid stands, pulling boats, and on and on and on for ten days. Seventy percent of the trainees quit and most of them on the first day. I lost about seven kilos (ten pounds) in those ten days but I passed and went on to the Clearance Diver Course and found my dream life.
How hard is that Clearance Diver Course?
PD: The Clearance Diver Course was really fucking hard, man. Some parts are obviously harder than others but it was extremely hard. We did a really great job of relying on each other as a team during that course though. If someone was struggling they’d rely on you to help them and the same for you if you were struggling. It was really hard for me at the start because I’d just had surgery on a hernia four weeks before I started that course. I was struggling on the runs, struggling with the heavy carries, but the lads all chipped in and helped me while I was struggling until I was fully recovered. I passed that course and started living the dream man. I got to dive all the time, blow shit up, travel all over Southeast Asia. It was a good life until I showed up to work one morning four years into my career and got turned into breakfast (laughs). I went to work at 0700 and found myself in hospital at 0730, nearly dead.
Can you tell me about what happened during the attack?
PD: We were testing new gear for the Defense Science and Technology Organization which is the R&D Department of the military. They wanted to test some unmanned sonar and video equipment. The goal was that you could take that equipment anywhere and put it on a wharf or a ship, turn it on, and it would detect any possible attacks. It wouldn’t need to be manned. So my unit’s job was to pretend to be the attack divers. There were going to be three phases in the attack, which were swimmer, scuba diver, and re-breather diver. We didn’t get that far. We pulled the new guy out of the water and I jumped in and took over for him. I was in the water for about four minutes, on my back on the surface, kicking my legs with a pair of fins on and a wetsuit. A nine-foot bull shark came up from underneath me and grabbed me by the right hand and right leg in one bite. It was a fucking horrible feeling. It was my worst nightmare. I was absolutely terrified of sharks and then all of a sudden that shark is attached to you. What the fuck do you do, man? What do you do? I kind of stared at him for a second and thought, “Fuck. This is bad.”
I started to fight back and tried to poke it in the eye but I couldn’t move my one hand. It was in the shark’s mouth. I tried with my left hand but I couldn’t reach. So then, I started trying to push him off by hitting him in the nose. That didn’t do anything. Then I started to punch it in the face but that didn’t do anything. Then it just started shaking me and I felt like I was being torn to pieces. It took me under water and that’s when the pain started to kick in. I started yelling for help but it kept taking me underwater. It was just shaking me like a fucking rag doll. There’s nothing I could do. At that point, I basically gave up. I knew I was done and I knew I couldn’t fight it off. It was so damn painful. I accepted the fact that I was going to die. Then a weird sort of peace came over me. It’s not that time slows down, it’s that your brain moves so quickly and you can process things very speedily in those moments. Suddenly I could just feel that it wasn’t attached to me anymore. I don’t know how and I felt myself pop to the surface. The shark’s tail splashed water in my face and I thought, “Well shit, I’ve got to get out of here,” and I started swimming back towards our boat.
I took my hand out to swim a stroke but my hand was completely gone. My medical training kicked in and I knew I had to keep that hand above my heart to stem the bleeding. I kept what was left of that arm out of the water and swam with one leg and one arm. I didn’t know what was wrong with the other leg at the time but I couldn’t feel it. The guy’s in the safety boat said I was swimming in a pool of my own blood. They pulled me into the boat and started first aid. I passed out for a couple of seconds and my buddy started slamming me in the chest because he thought I was going into cardiac arrest. I remember being in about an inch of my own blood in the bottom of that boat. My chief came out and took control. He found my artery that was squirting blood and he stuck his hand in my leg and pinched the artery until the paramedics got there. They took me off to the hospital, I had an emergency surgery, and I actually kept my leg for a week. I had to make the decision to have it removed though because I couldn’t feel it and I couldn’t move it. They said that they could cover it up with a skin graft but I’d never be able to actually use it. I’d be carrying it around like a dead hunk of wood. I just thought, “Well, fuck it. Take the leg. I just want to move on.” That was a week after the attack and I just wanted to get back to life at that point.
What was the recovery process like?
PD: The hardest part was right after I’d had my leg removed and the pain management team couldn’t control my pain. My leg swelled up to the point where it looks like an alien was coming out of my ass. They’d just moved me out of my private room into a more common area and I was tripping out on Ketamine. I was high on morphine and I had a curtain around me. I could hear everyone around me and I was in total agony. It was the worst thing I’d ever fucking experienced. All I could do was roll around from side to side and bawl my eyes out. It was a hundred times worse than the initial pain of being attacked by the shark. That lasted eight seconds and this lasted about twenty hours. All I wanted to do was to die. I begged and pleaded to die. I’d wished that the shark had killed me. I asked my mum to bring me a gun so I could kill myself. I wouldn’t wish that pain on another human soul. The only option to stop that pain was to die. Eventually, they got the pain under control then I was left to think, “What’s next?”
I didn’t know what life would be like from that point. I had nothing else in my life besides the military. There was nothing to aim towards. I was really really scared. But then in that moment, I realized I had the power of choice. It was a simple choice. As complicated as the situation was, the choice was really simple. I could curl up in a ball and cry myself to sleep every night while leading a shit life or I could do what the military trained me to do. I could pick myself up, dust myself off, and look at all of the great things I still had in my life. It was now time for me to achieve great things in the future and get on with the fucking job. Like everyone else, I want a good life and that’s what I’m constantly pushing towards. I refused to let the negativity get to me. There were nights where I got down and I’d cry myself to sleep because of the pain, but I refused to let it consume me. I control that. People think that their emotions control them often times. That’s bullshit. I’m the boss of my emotions and nobody else. I’ve stuck to that and it’s worked.
Talk about getting out of the Australian military and what that’s like in getting out.
PD: I honestly don’t have much of a frame of reference as to what it’s like being an American veteran and how that’s different from being an Australian veteran. We all kind of work off the same rules and regulations being in allied militaries. We have pretty similar cultures in the military is what it seems to me. I loved being in the military. Obviously, I had to get used to all of the rules and regulations but I learned pretty quickly. The support upon getting out wasn’t great. They passed me off to this group of civilians who were designated to look at my skills and decide on a career path that was most suited for me. All they could come up with from my career skills was that I should be a security guard (laughs).
That was the pinnacle of my career choices from these civilians dedicated to finding me work after the military. I never talked to them again and never went back of course. I decided at that moment that I’d make it on my own. Obviously, you never do anything totally on your own. I needed the support and a little bit of luck but I knew I had the drive and motivation. In life, you need an end goal and smaller goals along the way to hit in order to achieve your greatest goals. You should have a dream, an impossible dream that you can section up into small, bite-sized pieces. The end goal should be too big for you to picture straight away. It’s like Everest. You don’t go for the pinnacle straight way. You have to divide it up into checkpoints with each point as a goal. The small goals and achievements often turn into bigger goals you never dreamed of achieving.
What led you into the military and what was your childhood like?
PD: I was a very disconnected youth. I was very stubborn and I didn’t like to listen to anyone else. I didn’t know until I joined the military that I had such a rich military lineage. My uncle was in Vietnam, both grandparents on both sides of the family were in WWI and WWII, my father was a cop, my two younger brothers joined the Army, then my sister joined the Army. It seems like it was in our blood and destined to be. I think I always had a craving for structure, discipline, and routine. It really made me grow up. I think it’s one of the best things someone can do if they’re struggling in life with direction as long as they don’t get in and start thinking the military is the be-all, end-all of life. As much as you might plan on staying in the military life, you might end up like me and have your life direction changed. Then what the fuck do you have next? What are you going to do when you get out? Because to be honest, being a soldier doesn’t give you a whole lot of technical skills in other areas besides being a soldier. It scared the shit out of me when I was forced out.
If you could tell a civilian one thing in order to change the perception of veterans what would that be?
PD: Civilians are hard to deal with. I hate painting everyone with the same brush but generally speaking their discipline is lax, their timing is lax, their all around awareness is lax. It’s just flaw after flaw that I’ve noticed since being out. But, they also have all around skills we don’t have like putting up with other civilians (laughs). The one thing that I think that’s amazing about military training that civilians clearly don’t have is that we get trained to look after the people around us. That’s our job, whereas in the civilian world it seems to be much more about self. I don’t know if it’s something I could tell a civilian to help them understand military people better, but it’s a skill I’d love to instill in civilians. Have each other’s back instead of looking after your own career all the time. If you look after your people, the career development, appreciation, and the self-worth comes from that.
What do we do to bridge the gap between civilians and veterans?
PD: Our training is completely different between the civilian population and veteran population. If the civilian world did a little more leadership skill work, group training, with physical, mental, and emotional challenges installed in that work; that would create a more coherent world. You know as well as I do having served in the American Army you truly don’t know a person until they’re pushed to their physical, mental, and emotional limits. You don’t know who they are until they are completely fucked. The only problem is the majority of civilians won’t put themselves in those situations. I’m generalizing here obviously because we have direct entry into the Special Operations world so there are obviously some civilians that don’t mind suffering. But overall, the civilian world is lacking there. I think if there was more of that going on the workplace would be a much more coherent place and the civilian population overall would be better for it. Now I’m going to speak to military people.
Veterans need to have more patience with civilians. I don’t deal with any military people now. I deal with civilians all the time now and I do a lot of speaking engagements. It can be really hard to listen to them sometimes. I get off the stage after pouring my heart out about the challenges I’ve faced and they’ll come up to me and feel like they can open up. That’s nice but when they’re comparing their broken toenail to me being almost consumed as a meal, it’s a little hard to listen. I’ve tried to get better at listening despite the lack of pain they’ve felt compared to mine. Everyone’s experiences are different and pain is relative to those experiences they’ve faced. They haven’t had the trials and tribulations I’ve had, but you have to look at it through the understanding that they probably haven’t had the type of life you’ve had as a military person. They haven’t had those same struggles so their looking glass is different than yours. You can’t have emotional and mental strength unless you’ve gone through some trials. Quite honestly, most civilians have been a little molly-coddled so just realize that when you’re talking to them. You have to understand that, be patient with that, and get to know them better. This is your opportunity to guide them and be a leader.
Talk about the pride of being an infantryman and what it meant to you.
PD: Seek out and close in on the enemy to kill or capture, to repel attack day or night regardless of season, weather, or terrain. The infantryman’s creed is something I’ll always remember. There’s a lot of pride in that and if you don’t do that what are you? It’s a wonderful thing to be a soldier. It’s one of the oldest professions on earth. Men live and die by that creed. I took great pride in that, wearing that uniform, wearing the Australian flag on my shoulder, wearing my unit’s emblem, looking after my brothers whether it be on deployment, or on exercise or out on the piss. That’s what we do.
What’s been your most educational experience or most frightening experience while working on Shark Week?
PD: Every experience working with the teams at Shark Week is educational and a lot of them are frightening too. Shit, just being in front of the camera to begin with was daunting enough. And then you’re jumping out of a boat in the middle of the night into water full of aggressive salt water crocodiles and the camera fear doesn’t mean anything. In February this year, I was on assignment to film Great Whites and I had the chance to get out of the protective cage a hundred feet under the surface. I eventually ventured out along the bottom about twenty feet from the cage and had three very large male great whites circling me and yet they didn’t attack or even act threatening. It was something I’d dreamed of doing since I started this journey but never knew if I’d actually be able to bring myself to do it. To join these animals that people are so deathly afraid of in their realm with nothing but a go pro on a stick to protect me, is something I’ll never forget and it gave me a new perspective on the fiercest animal of the sea.
Why is the battle against terrorism such a tough one?
PD: Terrorists have been fighting this battle since the beginning of time. What would they do if they weren’t terrorists? What would they do if they weren’t having their tribal wars? They don’t even fucking know. Look I can’t speak because I haven’t been there and I’d never assume that role of speaking for the guys who’ve been there. My sister went to Iraq and Afghanistan. My bros that saved me after the shark attack served over there with her three months after that attack. I don’t intrinsically know because I’ve never been there. But, I know enough about history to know that those people over there don’t give a fuck.
Who lifts you up on your bad days?
PD: I’ll take inspiration from anywhere I can get it. On my worst days, the gym will always be there. I’ve read about this before, I’ve seen it myself, and the weights will never fucking lie to you. They’ll never judge you and they’ll always be there for you. I don’t know what it is about lifting heavy things up and down repetitively. I don’t know if it’s the changes in my body or the complete exhaustion but I love that shit. I’ll never be the biggest bodybuilder in the world or the strongest or fastest but I love it to death. I get into that gym, put my headphones on, zone out and it’s simple. All I have to do is worry about my sets and my reps. It’s almost like automatic pilot therapy. It’s like meditation. That’s what motivates me. First thing in the morning, just like I did as a soldier, just like I did as a clearance diver after that workout I know I can go about my day knowing full well I’ve done something worthwhile. Everything else is gold.
If I really do have dramas I go to my specific friends. I’ve had a friend of mine who I’ve had since I was ten years old who’s gone with me through some of my hardest times in life. We were stealing stuff, doing drugs, fighting with our parents, breaking up with girls, and he was there with me while I was in hospital after the shark attack. He’s taught me so many lessons and has always been much wiser than me. He’s always told me, “Don’t feel bad about feeling bad. Just don’t let it ruin your day, your week, or your whole life. Identify why you feel bad and either fix it or move on.” There’s really nothing too much that can get to me anymore. People let you down, jobs suck sometimes, you get sick, you break up with girls and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter in the long run because there is always something to look forward to later. Life is long so why let it be shit. Fucking deal with the shit and if you can’t fix it, move on and my friends have taught me that. I go to the guys that know me the best, and if that’s not working there’s always CT Fletcher telling me to shut the fuck up and lift some weights (laughs).
What is it like working as a shark conservationist after almost being killed by a shark?
PD: It’s ironic right (working as a shark conservationist)? It’s actually pretty amazing to go from hating something to really appreciating and respecting something. It showed me that perceptions can change when you’re given the right knowledge by which to understand something properly. Ignorance isn’t bliss. It’s just ignorance.
Can you talk about public support for the Australian military and how good or bad it is over there?
PD: There’s no real problem with public support for the military in Australia, because we have just come to not expect it. I mean it’s there, sometimes, by some people but I can count on one hand how many times I’ve been thanked for my service in Australia. By contrast, I couldn’t even tell you how many times that’s happened in the U.S. when I’m there. It was a strange experience actually the first few times it happened because I wasn’t used to it. It’s really sweet of people to say things like that because they don’t have to, we don’t expect it. We do our jobs because we love it, we love our country and its people and we want to protect them, not for thanks or support. That’s an added bonus.
If you had any advice for those looking to join the military what would you tell them?
PD: If I had any advice to someone thinking about joining the military I’d say to really think about it. Think about whether you are a career soldier or it’s just a stepping stone and choose your job accordingly. It really changed my life for the better and gave me direction and helped me grow up. If you’re stuck in a rut like I was then I think it’s a fantastic idea. You will never ever forget those years, adventures, or the family you make.
What do you love about Australia and what do you think your country needs to work on currently?
PD: Australia is truly beautiful. It’s an ever-changing landscape that has every conceivable climate and the weirdest damn animals. We actually take pride in the fact that we have so many deadly animals. I also love that we’re growing and learning as a people. We’re a very young country compared to most and I’m grateful that most of the population have very open minds. Unfortunately, it feels like our government is selling us out though and exploiting our resources for money to foreign corporations like Indian mining companies and Chinese industry.
How do you feel about your time in America and what have you liked/disliked about it?
PD: I love visiting and living in the US. Just because we’re both western cultures doesn’t mean it’s the same and I find the diversity of America to be truly fascinating. The accents change, the pastimes change but the hospitality doesn’t. I’ve spent a lot of time in LA but also travelled coast to coast and I’m looking forward to seeing more cities and towns and meeting more wonderful people. You can complain, be indifferent or happy about your political climate but that doesn’t change the people themselves. Your patriotism and willingness to help those around you is extremely admirable.
Can you talk a little bit about growing up in Australia and how your parents raised you?
PD: We were quite poor when I was growing up. My dad was a policeman in the 70’s and 80’s trying to raise a family of 6. It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world. There was never enough to eat and sometimes we were reduced to things like sheep’s brains for dinner (not my favourite), our clothes were all second hand or mum made them. Christmas was second hand as well but we managed. We were raised in the Catholic Church and hit mass every Sunday but I’m not very religious anymore. Dad was away a lot and mum was super strict which I rebelled against through my teenage years eventually getting kicked out at 17. It was probably the best thing my dad could have done, forcing me to grow up instead of being a whiny, fed from the teat, waste of space. The foundations they laid in my early years eventually came back to assist me in life. All my siblings were in the Army. My sister deployed to Iraq and Afghan as a combat medic, going on patrols outside the wire. That’s not something that ever happens as a female in the Australian Army.
What’s been your most powerful experience post-military where you felt like you were making a difference?
PD: To be honest, it’s not one big thing that’s been the most powerful experience, post-military. It’s every time I do a motivational talk or a TV show, or visit someone in hospital, or even if I’m approached on the street by someone I’ve never met before. If a single person writes to me or talks to me and tells me how much of a difference I’ve made in their lives or how I’ve helped them overcome something they never thought they could or taught them how change and struggle can be a good thing if you learn from it. In those moments, I feel like I’ve really done something special and I’ve made life better for each of those people, and perhaps they will go on to do the same for someone else.
What was your greatest impact while you were serving where you felt like you were making a difference?
PD: My greatest impact during my time in the military was probably when I deployed to the small island nation of Timor. With the brutal Indonesian military crossing the border into East Timor and slaughtering hundreds of thousands of East Timorese, Australia was called in for help in 1999. My Airborne unit went in 2002 and prevented further massacre. I was given a two week course in their language Tetum and was then the platoon translator. I was able to converse with village elders and leaders to gain a broader knowledge of these peace loving people and how much suffering they’d been through. To be able to provide the safety for these people so they could go on with their lives and raise their children safely was hugely rewarding and coming home to Australia after spending 6 months in a third-world country of truly happy people made me appreciate everything I had so much more.
Talk a little bit about what you’re doing now and what your goals are moving forward.
PD: When I became an infantry soldier, the Army taught me how to push past my own limitations. When I became a clearance diver the Navy taught me that there were no limitations. I try to remember that as a civilian. When I started doing speaking tours I tried to be the best at everything I possibly could. I tried to be the best soldier while emulating and watching our Special Forces guys, then tried to be the best clearance diver and always watched out for my chiefs and warrant officers. Now that I’m doing other jobs, I try to be the best in my industry no matter what I’m doing. I look up to other speakers, storytellers, and now that I’m on television it’s the same with that. You’re never too old or experienced to have idols and heroes. The TV stuff is my goal and it started off very slowly. I was doing interviews and lots of them.
I got comfortable in front of the camera and that led to Discovery giving me a Shark Week show, then another one the next year, and another one the year after that to the point where I got offered my own show. That continued success gives me the confidence to seek more and this month I pitched my own show. I looked at how the producers and production companies put together show treatments. I looked at how they approached the networks and I constantly tried to learn from those guys. Now I put together a treatment to give to Discover Channel for my own Shark Week show. They love it. The producer that I want on the show loves and the cameramen love it, so it seems like I’ve learned well.
I’m going to keep following this path and see where it leads me. I never thought in a million years when I started out that I’d be applying for my own fucking Shark Week special. This is the highest viewed week in television in the world and I may get my own show. Who the fuck gets to do that? So in anything you do, constantly strive to be the best. If you want to wash dishes be the best damn dish washer in the fucking world. Whatever it is, be as good as you possibly can at it and life will get easier and easier and you’ll excel. I look at Steve Irwin and Bear Grylls and Dwayne Johnson. Those guys all worked every step of the way to get where they got to. Be the best at whatever you want to do.