"It was my worst nightmare" - minister recalls son in bomb blast
Published on 28 May 2021
A minister has recalled his "worst nightmare" when his son JJ Chalmers was blown up in Afghanistan 10 years ago.
Very Rev Dr John Chalmers said he was plunged into the "darkest place" imaginable after the former Royal Marine turned broadcaster was seriously injured in an improvised explosive device (IED) blast in Helmand Province.
The minister recalled that he was on a personal high after successfully completing his first General Assembly in Edinburgh as the Kirk's Principal Clerk on Friday the 27th of May 2011 when his world spun on its axis and turned upside down.
He said he was told two men from the Royal Marines were waiting for him at his house in Dunfermline, Fife and he immediately knew they were the bearers of bad news.
Dr Chalmers said: "I found out they wanted to speak to me and my wife Liz at around 4.30pm and it was one of those moments that all your worst fears surface and I went from feeling euphoric and descended into the most frantic, anxious time that you could ever experience.
"I was numb and everything just started to spin and my personal assistant Alison Murray drove me home."
JJ (John James) joined the Royal Marines Reserve in 2005 while at the University of Edinburgh and transferred to regular service in 2010.
He was 24 and serving as a Lance Corporal with 42 Commando when his life was irrevocably changed forever during a morning patrol
JJ was airlifted to Camp Bastion – a former British Army airbase in Afghanistan - then flown to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and placed in an induced coma.
He lost two fingers, suffered facial and leg injuries and his right elbow was badly damaged.
Dr Chalmers, convener of the Assembly Trustees of the Church of Scotland, said: "After we got the news we immediately just wanted to be in Afghanistan by JJ's bedside but that was not possible.
"There was radio silence for the next eight hours while we waited for an update and he was airlifted to hospital in Birmingham on the Sunday and the family were there when the plane landed.
"By that time we knew that two of his friends had been killed in the huge explosion and every year, on the anniversary, we think about all those who did not come back home and give thanks that JJ came back."
Presence of God
Dr Chalmers, who served as Moderator of the General Assembly in 2014-15, said the horrific experience changed his perspective on his Christian faith and life.
"There is an expectation that one should sense a presence of God that would comfort, calm you and hold you but for us it was just silence.
"Friends and colleagues from the Church came to the front door and they did not know what to say but they knew how to drink a cup of tea and sit with us.
"When I look back, I think that was the presence of God with us in flesh and blood - people who were courageous enough to come and see us when there are no easy words.
"We were really in the darkest place where you could be, it was the worst nightmare I have ever lived through and a mother's worst nightmare as well.
"Liz was actually much stronger than I was, she was the rock that held the family together.
"For me, it was wreckage especially in the first few weeks."
Looking back, Dr Chalmers said he thought he would have been a far better minister if he had an experience like that earlier in his life and lived through it.
"Having come through that I think I gained a greater understanding of what it is like to go through agony and a greater empathy for people," he added.
Dr Chalmers said he and his wife are proud of all three of their children and marvel how successfully JJ has rebuilt his life after three to four years of painful operations and ongoing procedures and rehabilitation
"We were worried about whether he would have the inner strength to overcome the mental and emotional strain, particularly after the deaths of his mates," he added.
"It was very early on in his journey of recovery that he decided, deep within himself, that he was not going to whinge.
"He was going to pick himself up and make the most of life because he had got a second chance and his mates hadn't."
The TV presenter, who lives near his parents in Dunfermline, was part of Team UK at the inaugural Invictus Games in London in 2014 - a sporting event for injured veterans – and won medals in cycling and on the track.
He has supported the event, founded by Prince Harry, ever since and is a patron of the military charity,Help for Heroes.
Now 34, JJ starred in the BBC television programme, Strictly Come Dancing, last year and made it to the quarter finals with his dance partner Amy Dowden.
Dr Chalmers joked that it is his and his wife's job to keep JJ, who is married to Kornelia with whom he has two children, Haley, 4, and James, 2, humble.
"He has had some incredible experiences in recent years – competing in the Invictus Games, becoming friends with Prince Harry and attending his wedding, appearing on Strictly Come Dancing and enjoying a successful broadcasting career," he added.
"But he has kept his feet on the ground, he does not get above himself and he has remained the same decent guy that he was.
"There is no question that the Invictus Games turned his life around, it was a pivotal moment and he is committed to supporting it for as long as he can.
"Prince Harry has definitely had a positive impact on him, they are good friends and when he appeared on Strictly, JJ told him ‘without you mate, I would not be where I am today'".