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Double amputee of Afghanistan war is true hero in 'Hacksaw Ridge'

Australian Damien Thomlinson, an Afghanistan war veteran, plays a soldier who lost both legs during the Battle of Okinawa in Mel Gibson's new movie, "Hacksaw Ridge."

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By BRYAN ALEXANDER | USA Today (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 10, 2016

Desmond Doss isn't the only real-life war hero in Hacksaw Ridge.

Damien Thomlinson makes his screen acting debut as Ralph Morgan, a soldier found with his legs blown off during the brutal Battle of Okinawa in the World War II drama.

Remarkably, no computer-generated assistance was needed for the dramatic scenes that feature medic Doss (Andrew Garfield) carrying the horrifically injured Morgan to safety.

War veteran Thomlinson, 35, had both legs destroyed by a Taliban bomb in 2009 while serving with Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan, a tale that inspired director Mel Gibson while shooting the movie in Sydney.

"When we found out Damien's story, it was like, 'Wow, we have to get this guy on-board,' and he was an example to all of us," says Gibson. "Even shooting the battle scenes was incredibly courageous for Damien, since he had to essentially re-enact what happened to him."

Thomlinson has no memory of what happened while he was on night patrol in southern Afghanistan with the 2nd Commando Regiment. His unit drove over an improvised Taliban bomb and he suffered horrendous injuries, miraculously surviving eight surgeries and the amputation of both legs.

The soldier threw himself into his rehabilitation, learning to walk again on prosthetics and even taking up snowboarding (with hopes of representing Australia at the Winter Paralympics in 2018). He began motivational public speaking and wrote an inspirational book, Without Warning.

With three years of acting classes under his belt, Thomlinson reached out to the Hacksaw crew to see if there might be a role.

"It was definitely a long shot, but if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that nothing is impossible, so why not give it a try?" Thomlinson tells USA TODAY. "Luckily, I was invited in to audition and it progressed from there."

Thomlinson appears with his fatigues covering his prosthetics in early Hacksaw scenes of barracks life and basic training. "He's just a guy there, you don't notice," says Gibson.

But in the grueling battle scenes, the prosthetics were removed to reflect Morgan's injuries as the soldier begs Doss not to leave him. The scenes were shot over two emotional days with a medical supervisor on the set to make sure Thomlinson was mentally OK during the emotional journey.

"There wasn't a dry eye in the house in the scenes where Garfield carries him off the field," says producer David Permut, describing Thomlinson's shoot. "It was amazing."

Thomlinson calls the filming process "cathartic" but adds that the biggest boost was seeing his acting training pay off. "When Mel comes out and high-fives you, you know you have done something to be proud of," he says.

The veteran says he was only concerned that the men who saved him that night in Afghanistan might have "fallout" from seeing him in the film. Thomlinson was pleased that Hacksaw's true story highlights Doss, a conscientious war objector who nonetheless saved 75 lives in the battle and was honored for his bravery.

"I’ve been through a lot," says Thomlinson. "But I was more than willing to go through an exhausting and very emotional process to play my part in telling this important story."

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©2016 USA Today
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