STILL in pain only six weeks after his legs were blown off by a bomb in Afghanistan, Private Damien Thomlinson stood on his new and alien legs as the men who saved his life returned home from war.
"I was the first thing they saw when they got off the plane... it was the proudest moment of my life," Damien, 35, said.
The men who saved him thought he was dead after an improvised bomb planted by the Taliban exploded when his vehicle travelled over it during a night patrol near Tarin Kowt in April 2009. The commando, then aged 28, was sitting right above the bomb. Another soldier in the back was blown out of the back window while another was pushed out of the side door.
The bomb ripped through Damien. One leg was blown off instantly. The other leg was torn off below the knee, his right elbow bone was popping out of his arm and his left arm was coming off at a right angle. The explosion almost tore off his nose and his lip was severely damaged.
Men ran towards the carnage from the vehicles in front of him and, while working on the other two soldiers, heard the gurgling sounds of Damien choking on the blood dripping from his lip into his mouth.
"They had to cut my gear off to work on me. They cremated (the gear) the next day because they didn't think I was going to pull through," Damien said.
"Every doctor I have spoken to is baffled I am still alive and that is because of (the soldiers). For the rest of my life it is my responsibility to perform at my best to make them proud for the effort they did that night."
Damien has been driven by that. He snowboarded at the North American Ex Wounded Warrior competition, and swam for Australia at the 2011 US Marine Corps Paralympic Exercise Wounded Warrior Competition. He is also an author, public speaker, actor and now husband.
But his first thoughts after the event weren't as lofty as his ambitions are these days.
"I was in a lot of nerve pain and heavily sedated from strong painkillers," he said.
"My first memory was asking if I still had my manhood. The doctors gave me the nod, and continued to save me."
Damien knows all too well the fragility of life. His best mate, Scott Palmer, died when the chopper he was in went down in Afghanistan in June 2010 - about a year following the bombing that injured Damien.
"The gravity really hit me when I was at a barbecue and (Scott's father) Ray was telling me about Scott. He was really hurting at the time," Damien said.
"I remember thinking that (Ray) would always have to look at an empty seat at Christmas time where his son should be sitting."
Damien knew Scott had planned on walking the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea with Ray. After Scott died, Damien waited for Ray to ask him if he would do it with him.
"Ray becomes my responsibility now," he said.
"Scott jumped out of a moving car, two cars before me, and was one of the first to lay hands on me. My primary goal after that was his family."
Scott will be at the forefront of Damien's mind on Remembrance Day next Friday.
"The soldiers deserve the recognition for what they have done for this country, for me and the amazing part the defence system plays," Damien said.
"It's not a sad day for me. It's a time to reflect, support and be proud of what has been done by the troops and the people who support them. I feel safe every time I walk out the door and they are as big a part of that as the troops are."
After the explosion, Damien went through some self-image issues after "relying on a smile" for years. Having no legs was a humbling experience that he said brought him back down to earth.
"It was the best thing that has ever happened to me. There have been dark times that I have had to fight through but I am a 100% better person now and it has taught me to keep improving," he said.
"You never know what you're going to be like until you're in the situation."
Damien can also add actor to his recent list of achievements. He is in the recently released war film Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson.
"Gibson is a creative genius," Damien said.
"I was lucky enough to spend 10 weeks' worth with him alongside a lot of Australian talent. He was a pleasure to be around and absolutely believes in the cause. A group of soldiers came to the shooting and he walked them through the set.
"He was also really accommodating with me and made sure I wasn't going to have flashbacks when we were shooting."
But it wasn't a fluke that Damien found himself in front of the camera. He has been taking classes at Actor's Pulse in Redfern.
"Studying, we would do two days a week in front of a camera," he said.
"Maybe day one I was a bit intimidated but I am aiming to be a professional actor. When you're acting with Vince Vaughn and Luke Bracey you don't think about what they are doing. You just be your character."
As a young man growing up on the New South Wales central coast, he always wanted to be an actor. But after not focusing on his studies in the last few years of high school he did not find many career opportunities.
"I was more focused on going out with the boys and chasing women," he said.
"Life was going in a direction I wasn't happy with, and a way of focusing and changing that was joining the Special Forces."
Damien also married in September. He met his wife, Madison, on a golf course about a year ago.
"Now my wife is more important than going out with the boys. And I spend a lot of time with veterans' support networks, awareness groups and motivational talks. I am one of the fortunate ones, I have a voice people would like to listen to. A lot of people carry some unseen scars. One in five Australians are dealing with depression," he said.
"I have visible injuries so people are willing to listen to a voice like mine."
One of the main charities Damien advocates for is Poppy Appeal.
"The Poppy Appeal isn't just about servicemen, it's about the families and people around them that go through difficult times and the fallout they go through because we make the choice to serve," he said.
"They deserve recognition equal to the soldiers that are deployed and I sincerely thank them."
To support the Poppy Appeal visit poppyshop.org.au.