Melissa Roberts was so determined to stay with the Royal Australian Air Force following a crippling car accident she has reinvented herself following years of rehab and surgery.
ANDREW MOLE caught up with her following her return from the Invictus Games trials in Sydney
FOUR YEARS ago, Royal Australian Air Force firefighter Melissa Roberts swerved to avoid a wallaby while serving on a base near Katherine, NT.
She doesn’t remember much after that. But what followed was 28 days of coma, a traumatic brain injury, months of rehabilitation and three years of reconstructive face surgery.
Her injuries, in a nutshell, were:
■traumatic brain injury;
■BOS-severe blunt trauma;
■diffuse axonal injury;
■right subdural haematoma;
■right subarachnoid haemorrhage;
■left orbital fractures;
■congenital fourth nerve palsy; and
Melissa’s emergency services career, the role she cherry-picked with the RAAF because it offered everything she wanted in a physically demanding commitment, was gone. Forever.
Her perfect vision had been ruined by the crash and there is now so much titanium in her skull she cannot wear the necessary headgear to be an effective team member.
But the other day the 30-year-old Cohuna woman was happily hanging on the edge of a swimming pool in Sydney chatting with Prince Harry about her dreams of being part of Australia’s team going to Canada for the 2017 Invictus Games.
‘‘Invictus is giving me a lot of hope where once there was only despair,’’ Melissa said.
“I have had so much uncertainty for so long, wondering whether I would get my eyesight back, wondering if I would get my cognitives back, stop slurring my speech.
“But this experience, Invictus, gives me so much.
“Even if I don’t make the team I have won already.”
With more than half the people trying out for the 40 spots coming from the army, Melissa said the whole training camp had been so enlightening and inspiring. She said as a swimmer recovering from injury she thought she had been doing it tough but was about to learn some important lessons.
“I am trying out as a swimmer – with two arms and two legs, walking to and from the pool and doing pretty well,” Melissa explained. “And found myself swimming alongside soldiers missing an arm, a leg, or both. I watched the wheelchair sports, basketball, rugby, tennis and realised you have to find your own place in life. These people all had great personalities, were competitive and fiercely enthusiastic and have to deal with some real problems.
“I was injured in a car crash; some of these people have been physically shattered on active service in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
“IN SYDNEY we even had Legacy bring down some children of families where a parent had been killed on duty.
“Before I got to Invictus I felt as though I had been able to accept what had happened to me – but not like I do now.
“I would have struggled to come anywhere near embracing the new me like I do now.
“I am undefeated, that’s how I feel right now, undefeated.”
Melissa said she had fallen under the spell of sport and the way Invictus has brought it all together to reach so many people, to touch them with its magic.
She said they were all serving men and women, including veterans of combat deployments and despite the different injuries and backgrounds suddenly they all had sport in common.
“It was so inclusive, so safe, all of us together,” she added.
While she waits to hear about her Invictus selection — the team will be named next Wednesday — Melissa isn’t exactly treading water.
Despite undergoing 10 surgeries in the past three years to rebuild her smashed skull she has insisted in getting on with life.
During rehab she worked incredibly hard to force her damaged brain to rewire itself so she could continue the teaching degree she had already started.
Now in her final year of study, for the past few weeks she has been on placement at Cohuna Secondary College, where she went to school.
And with the military drummed into her she can’t help addressing former teachers still there as Mr, or Mrs or Miss despite them all laughing at a 30-year-old battling with the concept of being colleagues.
But that’s not all.
At Christmas Melissa got engaged to Kiwi Ryan Soper after six years together and they will marry next year.
Ryan, she said, was her rock.
“He was with me when it happened and has never left my side, I owe him, so much,” Melissa said.
‘‘He stopped work for nearly a whole year to care for me, he was amazing.
“Just as I owe my family, the RAAF and the whole community in Cohuna and district, you don’t know how lucky you can be, and how good people are, until you are caught in something like this,” she said.
“My goal once I complete my degree is to apply for an education officer position with the RAAF. The last thing I wanted when I started with the air force was a desk job but that’s where I am right now.
“If I was in the army I would almost certainly have been discharged by now, theirs unfortunately is a numbers game and they need people on the ground now.
“If you have a long-term recovery ahead of you then you have to be replaced. In the RAAF it is a bit different and the support there has been astonishing.”
Even so, her current workplace restrictions include no shift work, physical training at self pace, no driving Australian Defence Force vehicles, no access to live ammunition or weapons, no wearing of head gear, no heavy lifting or intense physical duties.
She had to pass no fewer than three physical fitness tests to meet RAAF standards.
Today, as Melissa completes her last week of the placement at Cohuna, waits to get her final assessments for her degree, waits to hear if she is going to the Invictus Games, waits for her 2018 marriage and waits to see if there is an opening as an education officer there is one thing that makes her laugh.
If she does get the new job she will be promoted from her current rank of LACW (leading aircraftswoman) to Flight Lieutenant (the equivalent of a captain in the army).
And people get to salute her.
Maybe even her little brother — Leading Aircraftsman (LAC) James Roberts or, horror of horrors, her father, Warrant Officer Brian Roberts.
Sky blue runs deep in the Roberts family.
Yep, Melissa Roberts RAAF, wannabe teacher, former firefighter, wife-to-be and dedicated athlete is, as she will happily tell you, alive and undefeated, and fighting fit for the rest of her life.
For more on Melissa, including the Department of Defence's interview with her, visit: http://www.defence.gov.au/events/invictusgames/team/MelissaRoberts.asp