It is fitting that former Royal Marine Jack Smith will officiate the Armed Forces Day between Bradford Bulls and Halifax RLFC this weekend, however it almost wasn’t to be.
Nine years ago, while coming to the end of a six-month tour of Afghanistan, Smith was caught in the middle of gunfire and subsequently shot in the back with the bullet exiting his upper chest.
After a few seconds of shock, Smith fell to the floor with blood pouring from his chest, a punctured lung preventing him catching his breath and, in this moment, he couldn’t help but think his injuries would be fatal.
“I remember lying down and thinking to myself that my time must be up,” Smith recalls.
“I looked down to see a massive hole in my chest and blood pouring out. The bullet had punctured my lung so I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t help but think that was me done.
“Weirdly, you don’t really feel the pain at first. My first reaction was ‘what has happened here?’ because a lad behind me had also been shot at a similar time but then I felt a sharp pain in my chest and then I realised that I was injured as well.
“You see a lot of things while you’re out there and, ultimately, you learn that the majority of people who get shot in the chest or the head don’t survive. This goes through your mind when you’re lying there but so many people get injured so you kind of think ‘it was your time – bad luck’ as well.
“But I wouldn’t have known any different because about ten minutes after I got shot, I fell asleep and as far as I was aware, I could have passed away.
“Fortunately, I woke up two weeks later in Birmingham.”
Smith survived with help of his comrades and eventually was taken home to Birmingham to recover from his injuries which included damage to his lower back, liver, gall bladder, spleen, diaphragm, right lung and broken ribs. However, his recovery would only begin after spending three weeks in a coma.
“It was confusing. You’ve got all your family around you and you’re on various different medications for your injuries and, to me, it was like the blink of an eye.
“I couldn’t get my head around how I’d ended up in a hospital in Birmingham because I literally closed my eyes for split second in Afghanistan and then when I open them it’s three weeks later and I’m back in England.”
Two years of intense rehabilitation followed for the then 21-year-old Smith who admitted the physical rehabilitation was gruelling while it also took its toll mentally.
“It was difficult in the immediate aftermath because your career you envisage yourself doing for the next 20-25 years is turned upside down.
“I was told I may never be able to run again, and I couldn’t play any contact sport because of the injuries to my lung and back.
“There were times I sat there and thought I’m 21 years old what am I going to do because I know my life at 21 and 22 years old isn’t going to be the same as my mates which is very difficult to get to grips with but you have to and I was helped by a very supportive family and finding a new passion in officiating.”
Smith played amateur Rugby League for over ten years with Warrington-based community club Crosfields and went on to represent various military sides including the Royal Marines, but his injuries meant he could no longer play contact sport.
“I wanted to stay involved in sport, but I was aware I couldn’t endure contact sport, so it was difficult. While I was down south in rehabilitation, I remember seeing a Rugby Union refereeing course and thought I’d give it a shot as I had played a little Rugby Union before joining the Armed Forces.
“After I’d completed that it seemed logical to me to give the Rugby League one a shot as that is what I’d played for the majority of my childhood. I started with some under 10s fixtures and small-sided games while I was still going through my recovery both physically and mentally and it helped massively.
“It gave me a reason to get up on a Sunday morning, go out and do something and was essentially a form of rehabilitation for me.
“Within a year I’d moved up to under 15 and under 16 fixtures and quite a high level of Rugby League within the North West. A few people started to take notice and I got myself on to the pathway to refereeing open age fixtures at a professional level.”
On Thursday evening, Smith was a touch judge in the Betfred Super League fixture between London Broncos and Hull Kingston Rovers and admits he can draw from experiences in the Armed Forces when officiating.
“There are a lot of similarities although the pressures are different,” Smith reveals.
“For example, there was a lot riding on Thursday night’s game because whoever lost was probably going to come out of the weekend at the foot of Super League.
“But, I like to think, that when the pressure is high and you have to be fully focused for 80 minutes that’s when you get the best out of yourself and that is very much like being on a tour in the Armed Forces because you need to be fully focussed at all times.
“I do think my experiences have helped me deal with the harder sides of officiating such as the abuse or the criticism because the incident, injuries and rehabilitation have all developed my mental strength and that makes things a lot easier when you’re in the spotlight.
“I sometimes think that maybe I get it a little easier from people who are aware of my background but that’s not to say I don’t get some of the stuff other match officials do because sometimes it’s pretty brutal.”
This weekend, Smith will move from the touchline to centre stage as referee for the Betfred Championship fixture between Bradford Bulls and Halifax with an Armed Forces Day celebration set to take place at Odsal.
“It’s really nice for me to be officiating this game because there are a lot of Armed Forces events that I try and get involved in away from professional Rugby League.
“The Sephton Tropy over at Crosfields – my amateur side – is massive. I played with Tom – who the trophy is named after – and he died on the same tour that I was on. Whenever I’m not involved in the professional game I try and get down and get involved as much as I can.
“The Armed Forces Day this weekend at Bradford will be huge. Andy Reid MBE is the Guest of Honour and he’s a good friend of mine and I’ll be sure to congratulate him on being awarded an MBE recently.
“I think Armed Forces Day such as the one Bradford are putting on are really important to keep the Armed Forces in people’s minds and also to celebrate the past and the people who have sacrificed for us in conflicts like World War One, World War Two, Vietnam, the Falklands and many more.
“It’s a proud part of our history as a nation and I’m looking forward to playing a small part in the celebrations this weekend at Bradford.”