Newfoundlander battles back from Afghanistan amputation, carries Olympic torch

Newfoundlander Cassidy Little, horribly injured by an explosion in Afghanistan last year, tells CBC's Nahlah Ayed he credits a mix of salty humour and physiotherapy for getting him to where he could carry the Olympic torch.
Cassidy Little, who lost a leg to an explosion while serving in Afghanistan in 2011, carried the Olympic torch as the relay passed through Peterborough, UK, on July 4. (Nahlah Ayed)

Cassidy Little is the kind of guy who can make a joke out of anything. Go ahead, try him —ask what the Newfoundland native said as he lay there, bloody and horribly injured after an IED attack in Afghanistan last year.

"I woke up and asked if the leg was still there. And the guy said, ‘no, sorry it’s gone, taken clean off.’ And so I said, ‘there goes my dancing days.'"

And so it has been since: A mixture of salty humour and physiotherapy has pulled Little through some dark, humourless days. He’s learned how to walk again, with a prosthetic. And today he carried the Olympic torch for a few emotional minutes before an enthusiastic crowd in Peterborough, UK.

Little doesn’t mind the attention. He says he’s always had a "lust" for the stage. In fact, he wanted so badly to make it as stand-up comedian, he left St. John’s Newfoundland in 2004 to give it a go in the UK.

Surprisingly — given his easy wit — he says he was booed off the stage more than once.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, he traded in his bid for comedic fame for a uniform. In 2005 he joined the Royal Marine Commandos, where stages are scarce. He was following a long family tradition of military service, but it was a decision that would lead to the most traumatic experience of his life.

Turning point: Afghanistan

The explosion claimed one leg, shattered the other, detached one of his retinas and fractured his pelvis. He was in a medically induced coma for two weeks, undergoing extensive surgery.

Yet in a roundabout twist of fate, it was that decision that led him back to the stage he loves.

Cassidy Little was nominated by a friend to be one of the 8,000 people carrying the Olympic Torch across the UK. (Nahlah Ayed)

While he was recovering, Little was approached about playing a character in a play based loosely on his own story. He readily agreed to join Bravo 22 Company, which is putting on The Two Worlds of Charlie F, in the lead role.

The play is being performed by 30 real-life, injured or sick soldiers, each with their own harrowing version of the story. Not only would the opportunity give Little something to do (and get him back on stage), but it would be a kind of therapy in itself.

"When you’re injured, a lot is taken from you ... so you strive to get back to normality," he said between rehearsals in an interview with CBC News. "This shows me how to be proud of myself again."

The company plans to take the play around the UK, in an exercise aimed partly as an expose of little-known horrors of soldiers’ experiences after war.

Torch relay

Meanwhile, a friend nominated Little to be one of the 8,000 people carrying the Olympic Torch across the UK, leading up to the opening ceremonies later this month. 

"The Olympics is a universal symbol for stopping conflict and starting competition," Little offered. "We’re in a strange world these days when there is a lot of conflict everywhere. If we can focus on competing with each other, and the spirit of competition, then actually sometimes you watch the conflict melt to the sidelines."

When he was chosen, Little was thrilled. Yet while it was an opportunity to be on a stage of sorts, it wasn’t going to be easy. It was only a few weeks ago that Little stopped using crutches, and learned to walk on his own.

Today, as he approached his counterpart in the distance to whom he would pass on the torch, he pushed himself into a short run — the first time he’s done so since sustaining his injuries.

It was enough for friends and family to tear up. The crowd erupted into applause. His fiancé Laura Gottelier was thrilled to see it.

"I was really impressed and I was so proud of him for doing the run," she said afterwards. "I think what he’s been through and how he deals with it actually just puts a lot of things into perspective for people."

In other words, he’s inspired many. But Little doesn’t see it that way.

"I am humbled and honoured to have been in this position, but at the end of the day I’m a soldier," he said after the run. "I’m going to keep pushing forward anyway, aren’t I? That’s what they train us for, anyway."

The quick humour, and the laughter, of course, have also been there all along for him.

"Laughing burns more calories than crying. So it’s just healthier. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of moments when I sat in front of the mirror looking at my scars and my injuries and had a nice little soft cry to myself," he admits. "You adapt.

"Laughter is always the best way to adapt to new circumstances. So yeah, it definitely came in handy."