Dan Crawford: The Power of Hope in Active Duty
By Nick Allen 2/07/2019 11:30 am

Dan Crawford is likely the first person in the NZ Navy to have been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and return to active, operational duty at sea. He believes this is a “big win” for others who have been diagnosed with the neurological disease and serve in the NZ Defense Force. Through his return to operational service, Dan wants to show others that they can improve their condition by not giving up and by adopting good diet and lifestyle practices. "There should always be hope," Dan says. "You should never resign yourself to fate." 


Dan Crawford at Invictus Games

Diagnosis and the Unknown

Dan was on track to become a Navy Diver when he started experiencing numbness in his left hand and leg. At first, Dan wasn't too concerned, but then the numbness began to spread across his entire left side. He saw a doctor who booked him in to see a neurologist. A few weeks and an MRI scan later, Dan sat in his GP’s office and received the diagnosis of MS. He was aged 23 at the time. 

The diagnosis ruled out any future career as a Navy Diver. The role of a Navy Diver is physically and mentally demanding, not least when you add the pressure of working deep beneath the surface. Not only did the diagnosis potential compromise Dan's ability to operate in these conditions, it also called into question his active role as a Warfare Officer. Having grown up on the water, this meant a significant readjustment of his goals.

Eighteen months later, in 2016, he suffered a second relapse. Dan lost strength in his legs and experienced high levels of fatigue. Walking even a few hundred metres proved tiring. He also lost dexterity in his hands, and simple tasks like writing or using a knife and fork required deliberate focus and concentration. 

With these symptoms, Dan was informed that he could no longer serve at sea. With his career path stripped away, he felt frustrated. "I had spent a long time training,” Dan said. 

“The hardest part about this whole process was the uncertainty. I had joined the Navy with a very clear career progression and with the diagnosis, I had lost that clarity. I wasn’t really sure which path I’d want to follow […], and I wasn't even sure which options would still be open to me — if any.”

The Navy gave Dan a shore-based role, but he was determined to prove that he could return to operational duty. His doctors told him that if, after three successive MRI scans, he could show that the disease had not progressed, then they would reassess his ability to serve. 

Dan took on the challenge. He made significant dietary and lifestyle changes. Cutting out dairy and reducing his intake of red meats and eggs, Dan focused on increasing his consumption of vegetables, oily fish, and healthy fats. Dan also concentrated on regular exercise and stress management in a regime recommended by the MS Society of New Zealand. Before long, Dan was once again enjoying a high level of fitness and activity.  


Dan Crawford at Invictus GamesInvictus Games 

Dan initially dismissed the invitation to participate in the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto. The Games were the initiative of Prince Harry, designed to support and bring hope to wounded, injured or ill service-men and -women. Similar to the Paralympics, competitors are graded in a way that allows people with similar physical limitations to compete against each other. 

“The events are about inspiring the recovery of one’s spirit through the power of sport, competition, and camaraderie,” Dan explains. “It’s all about recovery through the power of being competitive again, re-establishing your sense of identity.

However, Dan was convinced that he wouldn’t qualify for the event. “I didn’t think I deserved to compete at an event alongside people who had been wounded serving their countries,” Dan said. Without a physically visible disability, he felt as if it would be dishonest to participate. The organisers got in touch with Dan and explained that other people with MS were competing in the event, causing Dan to reconsider.

It wasn’t an easy decision to make. At this point, only Dan's close friends and family knew about his diagnosis. Representing New Zealand at the Invictus Games would result in a public acknowledgement of the disease. “I was at the point where I was no longer committed to hiding [the diagnosis],” Dan said. He agreed to attend an initial selection camp at Burnham Army Camp, Christchurch.

Dan’s dietary and lifestyle changes gave him a competitive edge, and he performed well. Strong, healthy and determined, he tried several sports, to see which he enjoyed and to identify those for which he had a natural ability. The organisers were impressed and, after a second selection camp, they offered him a place on the team. Dan was to compete in athletics (400m, 1500m and discus), swimming (50m and 100m freestyle), and indoor rowing (1- and 4-minute challenges).

“I was actually quite nervous that I’d now be going to Canada to compete,” Dan commented. He felt the weight of responsibility to represent himself, his Service and his country well. “It kept me motivated in my training.”

With approximately 550 competitors representing 17 countries, the competition was stiff. Nevertheless, Dan achieved a remarkable result, with podium finishes for running and rowing: four in total. 

Dan Crawford after Willie Apiata's Haka at Invictus GamesDan won New Zealand's first medal for the Games. Willie Apiata, a Victoria Cross recipient for his services in the New Zealand SAS, responded to Dan’s success with an emotional haka. “It was a hugely humbling experience,” Dan commented.

Reflecting on the Games, Dan has been most affected by the strength of hope: “People were going to the Games to prove […] that they were the same person. They may have lost something physically or mentally, but they still had their fighting spirit. It gives people hope that regardless of their situation, they could get better and be better."  


Returning to Active Duty

In June 2018, Dan received his third clear MRI scan. This scan was a significant result and proved Dan's fitness for operational duty. The doctors reassessed his situation and cleared him, allowing him to step foot on a ship for the first time since 2015. “I felt a sense of relief,” Dan explained, “but also some excitement and a little bit of trepidation. […] Stepping onto the ship at the start of [February], it all came flooding back.” 

Dan is now training to become a Navigation Officer. "I am back into doing the job I signed up for,” Dan said proudly. That’s why his return to operational duty is a big win. Filled with hope and supported by excellent dietary and lifestyle practices, Dan has proved that people can indeed get better and be better.

“The most resonating message behind my journey with MS is that there should always be hope – there should always be something you are looking forward to. You should never resign yourself to fate, even with any kind of illness or injury. There is always something you can do. Get out there and prove to yourself that there is still so much you can do." 

Words by Nick Allen. Photos used by permission, copyright Royal New Zealand Navy.


Dan's favourite meal is the Wellbeing Mixed Berry Breakfast . The Radix Nutrition Emergency Services and Defence Force Support Program assists defence personnel with convenient meals that are designed to support a quality diet