Jack Smith doesn’t embellish, exaggerate or dramatise when he’s telling his story. You get the facts without hyperbole. And to be honest, his story doesn’t need to be drenched in superlatives or laden with theatrical flourishes. It’s jaw-dropping enough, in plain and simple vocabulary.
“The bullet went into the bottom of my back just above my bum,” he says, his delivery machine-gun fast. “It went straight through and put a couple of holes in my diaphragm. As I am lay on an angle, the sniper has shot through the gap in my body armour and it has gone straight through and come out, through my liver, which I lost a lot of. I broke pretty much all the ribs on my right hand side, some from the gun shot, some from the fall, slipped two discs in my back and then it went in the bottom lobe of my right lung and out the top two, then it came out just below my collar bone, just here.”
He gestures to an area just below his neck. What he has just described is the path of a Taliban sniper bullet as it passed through his torso. It happened while he was on duty in Afghanistan, on ‘overwatch’ of a unit from the roof of a building in Sangin. He was coming to the end of his first tour of duty with Charlie Company, 40 Commando Royal Marines.
“We were just lay on the roof, and it was going on behind us. We weren’t really that bothered, just letting it go on, just chatting on the roof and then… I felt a sharp pain in the bottom of my back, and then [fellow Marine] Joe [Leborgne] shouted that there was a casualty.
“I thought he was shouting for me, but actually Joe had been shot through his arm. It had gone through his arm and into the bottom of my back and came out of the top of my chest but I didn’t really realise.
“I pulled my body armour forward and I just had a big hole in the top of my chest, and it was just really bloody. So then I shouted ‘casualty’ but because my lung had gone, I had no voice. So I just shot a few rounds through my gun and then kind of crawled to the edge of the roof, because even though I’d been shot and didn’t know what was happening, I knew I had to get off that roof. I knew that if a sniper had shot me, they were trained on that roof, so if I lie there and somebody goes up [to help] they’ll then shoot them.
“So I climbed up to the edge of the roof and then fell off that roof, which is where I broke all my ribs and I have a bad back from that now.”
Watching him now, running the touch line in Super League, or refereeing in the Championship, you’d never guess that this man was once on the very edge of death. That bullet missed his ‘vital’ organs by centimetres. He matter-of-factly explains that if you want a bullet to hit anything, then it’s best it is the ‘little internal things’, like the lung, or the liver or the spleen or the gall bladder. “It all repairs,” he says.
“The lads on the ground, the first thing they see is me falling on the ground with a hole in my chest, so then they go to work on me. The lads are so well trained medically, even though they are just normal lads like what I am. Their trauma knowledge is exceptional.
“They patched me up and then straight away they are calling in a helicopter. But the helicopter couldn’t come to us because we were in such a big fire fight so they had to go to the main base. The lads had to carry me on a stretcher, through all the fire fight, running with me on a stretcher, risking themselves just like a human shield really, to get back to base.”
It’s not quite what he expected when he decided to join the Royal Marines as a teenager, but it’s not far off. He chose the most demanding of the military units because he wanted to test himself to the limits; no-one joins the Royal Marine Commandos to ‘travel the world and meet people’. The 32-weeks of training are infamously tough.
“You know how hard it’s gonna be, but at 18 nothing fazes you. You can do anything at that age. The physical side of it is tough, but a lot of it is mentally challenging, being wet and cold a lot of the time, lack of food, lack of sleep… they are the tougher things. When you are six days into an exercise, you have had a couple of hours sleep all week, you’ve been cold and wet because you have been doing it in January and February, that’s when you really start asking yourself if you really want to do it.”
He really did. As a kid, he played rugby league at Crosfields in Warrington, then moved to a club closer to home in Ashton. Later, he switched to rugby union, making it as far as the Orrell first team. But the Armed Forces calling was strong, so he joined and he ‘absolutely loved it. I never saw myself quitting’.
From training in the Brecon Beacons, where it was ‘so cold, you woke up with your head frozen to the ground’, to front-line duty in Afghanistan, working in temperatures of up to 55 celsius, in ‘body armour, full long sleeves, helmet, sweltering all day, every day’…it was a shock to the system. But he joined the Marines at a time when active service was a certainty, and that was what he wanted.
“That’s the reality of being in the Marines, there is gonna be a fight. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I didn’t want to sit still. It was a job that needed to be done.”
Then came that day. He remembers being shot, then hitting the ground, and then his comrades trying to stem the blood flow from his chest. I ask if he thought at that point that he might not make it.
“I was holding onto one of my friends’ hand and he was talking to me saying, ‘just keep your eyes open, keep talking to me. Can you still feel this?’, and giving me little pinches on the hand, and at that point I thought, ‘that’s it, I’m done here’, because I knew I had a big hole in my chest, and I knew that after being there for six months if somebody gets a shot straight through their chest, they are probably not going to survive it.
“Then as I calmed down and just laid there, I just thought well, that’s it. Mentally your body is telling you to shut down. I know that I should keep my eyes open but you try to close your eyes, because your body is telling you that’s it. But credit to people like Danny Green, and a lot of people who were there, all saying ‘Jack, keep your eyes open, you are gonna be all right’.”
He was in an induced coma for about three weeks, and when he came round it was like ‘the blink of an eye’ from when he had lost consciousness on the battle field.
“As a 20, 21 year old, lay in bed with tubes coming out of everywhere, not being able to get up, you’re parents constantly being upset… it’s tough, but you just keep having to tell yourself to get up and get on with it.
“It’s a miraculous thing, you see the military lads, what they can get up from… people who’ve lost three limbs, who just get up and get on with their daily life. They don’t moan, they just get on with it because that’s how you have got to be. My injuries compared to most people’s … I see them as a scratch.
“I could have died so easily in 2010 but now everyday is a blessing really, I get up and I have got a life and a family. I don’t worry about anything, there’s nothing to worry about. I don’t get caught up in a moment.
“I would have never gone into refereeing if I hadn’t got injured and now I am doing something that I love, so that’s a bit of a blessing and the reason I think it’s happened to me is so I can do something with my life.”
Returning to active military service was not possible for Jack, as his scars and wounds meant he couldn’t wear body armour. “As soon as I knew I couldn’t deploy to Afghanistan or a war zone again, I just wanted to leave. It was black and white, there was no middle ground. I just said ‘I am leaving, I am not doing any other [military] job. It’s tough because all your friends…you live in six-man flats for years and years and you become very close, they are like family to you.”
Instead, he returned to civvy street and retrained, but soon found a niche in property. He settled down with his wife Stacey, and had his first son, Jak three years ago. Jos, son number two, arrived in June. He still felt the urge though to do something that tested his fitness.
“I took a refereeing course in about 2012, just to give something back to the game that I loved that had given me so much.”
Jack went through the refereeing ranks, all the way from junior levels at community clubs, to the Championship, and in June he made his Super League refereeing debut, to much praise. Does he, I ask, approach it with military precision, channelling his inner sergeant Major?
“I don’t like being too strict, which can be a downside to refereeing. If you are always trying to be nice to people though, you can’t get your point across so it’s getting the balance. I don’t want to come across as all give and no take from the players. I kind of like being a bit 50-50 in terms of they give me a bit, and I give them a bit and we can go from there.”
He’s one of a new fresh wave of referees at the top level, but there’s still a dearth at the lower levels of the sport, and that might end up with a shortage at Super League levels eventually, says Jack. I ask how he’d try to persuade budding whistle blowers to persevere.
“Get through that initial year. Most new referees will try it, but after 7, 8 months say ‘no it’s not for me’, but you get through that year and you realise that regardless of your performance, you are gonna get criticised. I received a lot more criticism at amateur rugby than I do at professional rugby, so I think get through those first 12, 24 months, get to professional rugby and you really reap the rewards from it.
“I nearly stopped refereeing because it was so bad. You are are walking to your car and people are shouting stuff and you just think it’s not worth this. I think a lot more responsibility should be put on the amateur clubs to control what goes on on the sidelines.”
Focus and ambition earned him his dream job, and when that was taken away, he turned that drive to rugby league and is enjoying it so much he hopes to one day make it his full-time profession. I suggest his personal journey is a inspiration to many young people.
“I haven’t really thought of it as being an inspiration.” he says. “But I think if you take a step back and look at it, I think people can take inspiration from what you’ve done. I was really happy after the [first televised refereeing] game, on social media, where people were tagging other people in and saying, ‘look, such-a-body, this is what you could do after your injury’, and I think if anybody does look at it and it gets them up off the couch, or out of the wheelchair to do something with their life, then I will be absolutely made up.”
To be a referee, one needs a thick skin and self belief – plus, say some, a good dose of courage. Jack Smith has been to the real front line and he knows all about hostile territory. Floored by a bullet, he got back up, faced his fears and found a way to rise to new challenges. Now that’s bravery.
Words by Angela Powers
Angela is a journalist who trained in newspapers before moving into broadcasting with BBC TV in Manchester. She’s been Sky Sports’ rugby league reporter for the last 18 years, and also contributes to Forty-20 Magazine as a feature writer. The founder member of Her Rugby League Association, set up to promote, support and celebrate the role of women in the sport. Angela also won a Mind Media Award for her report on mental health and wellbeing in rugby league.