By Kari M. Pries
Leaving behind the military institution after years of high-intensity training and extended contributions to Canada’s security commitments can become a devastating process for those who are not ready to start something new. Stories of bereavement, of shock, and of post-release isolation are common.
In an Invictus Games flag handover ceremony at Fisher House in Bethesda, Maryland, on July 12, Ken Fisher, Chairman and CEO of Fisher House Foundation and former Chairman of the 2016 Orlando Invictus Games, addressed this experience with frankness. “No one goes to war and comes back unchanged. For some people, these changes mean months, even years, of arduous rehabilitation,” said Fisher. It also means that the service member’s role within the military also can be irrevocably changed.
André Girard tried for years to come back from gunshot wounds obtained during an ambushed foot patrol in Afghanistan. Despite his best efforts to learn a new trade, his traumatic brain injury did not permit the words to come the way they needed to. He medically released after five years, feeling frustrated and isolated from his comrades and colleagues who had long been members of his family.
Caroline Cauvin and Helene Le Scelleur both describe their experiences of releasing from the military as a period of mourning with the accompanying five stages of grief. Their lives had become so entwined with the military that the prospect of leaving it behind resulted in a loss of motivation and, in Cauvin’s case, depression.
Le Scelleur found the leaving process so important that she has now commenced doctoral work studying what takes place during disengagement from military service. She questions how people are supported during the leaving process and whether training is necessary to turn a soldier into a civilian again.
“The military invests funds to train a civilian to be a soldier, but no money to train a soldier to be a civilian. I think this is an important point … especially in efforts to evade suicide … there can definitely be a clash when the individual is still too embedded in their military role,” she reflects.
Many competitors speak of their search for a goal or something that would reinject meaning to their life and allow them to continue to make a contribution to their country. To provide a space of healing from the process of release to begin a “new chapter” or “turn a corner,” as Cauvin terms it, has been the goal of Invictus Games Toronto 2017.
Many like Team Manager Greg Legacé, Team Head Coach Peter Lawless, and the competitors that spoke with Esprit de Corps, point out that the Invictus Games are a moment of celebration. They allow Canadians to see that individuals once devoted in service to Canada are “still going above and beyond to represent and serve their country” as Melanie, wife of IG competitor Joe Rustenburg, states before concluding with the admonishment: “So you better cheer for them!”
AN INCREDIBLE MOMENT OF CELEBRATION
HRH Prince Harry founded the Invictus Games after visiting the Warrior Games in the USA in 2013. The Prince has spoken frequently about how this experience was inspirational, answering his questions on how wounded, ill and injured soldiers and veterans could be recognized for their achievements and new accomplishments. Sport became a means to promote physical, psychological, and social recovery and the Games a showcase for “the very best of the human spirit.” His first Games were held in London in 2014 and the second followed two years later in Orlando, Florida.
Running the Invictus Games Toronto 2017 is CEO Michael Burns, co-founder of the True Patriot Love Foundation. Burns turned his attention to helping Canada’s military families after a friend’s son was killed in Afghanistan in 2007. He explained to Esprit de Corps last year that the “emotional and moving experience” engendered “deep realisations that my generation was not doing enough or anything for military families.”
He found a way to act on this realization after hearing about Prince Harry’s initiative. Inspired over what those Games could mean in a Canadian context started Burns on a path that has entailed working non-stop with government, non-government, and charity partners to bring the Games to his hometown of Toronto in time for the Canada 150 celebrations.
The Invictus Games Toronto 2017 will host 17 nations contributing a total 550 competitors participating in 12 adaptive sports. The Games are supported by $10-million in contributions each from the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario. The City of Toronto as well as a host of organisations and partners including Jaguar Land Rover are also sponsoring the Games.
During their first training camp in Victoria, Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan took time to join in the athlete’s training program. There he spoke with the athletes on their experiences, sharing as a peer himself, before putting his words into action around the race track.
Minister of Veterans Affairs Kent Hehr has also joined in for numerous events in the lead-up to the Games, including attending the ticket launch ceremony in Toronto. He further joined in an international stop on the Invictus Games flag tour in Landstuhl, Germany, at the U.S. military hospital where Canadian soldiers with significant injuries were evacuated from Afghanistan. Legacé observes that, from a leadership perspective, the support from the government could not have been better and that this support bodes well for the future of post-Games programs for Canada’s wounded, ill and injured serving and veteran members of the CAF.
Team Canada’s participation at the Games is under the responsibility of the Canadian Armed Forces’ Soldier On Program, which assembled the team and provided the training and support necessary to prepare the team for competition.
Canadian athletes feature in archery, indoor rowing, track and field athletics, cycling, swimming, sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball, rugby and tennis competitions. Golf has been added to the Games for the first time and this event will be held at Toronto’s renowned St. George’s Golf and Country Club, which has hosted five Canadian Opens and five LPGA tour stops to date.
Other events are spread across Toronto — from the archery tournament at Fort York National Historic Site to Toronto’s High Park for cycling. Parking areas in Toronto’s historic Distillery District, a Victorian-era neighbourhood once host to the largest distillery in the British Empire, will be transformed by Jaguar Land Rover with a challenging driving course.
Eleanor McMahon, Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport in Ontario, added her approbation in a press release: “What a great way to end an impressive summer of sport in Ontario, which included the North American Indigenous Games, in this milestone 150th anniversary year.”
Contributing to the celebratory spirit of the Games are the elaborate opening and closing ceremonies the IG17 organizing committee has planned.
A broad range of Canadian performers including Alessia Cara, Laura Wright, Sarah McLachlan, Bryan Adams, Bachman & Turner, La Bottine Souriante, and Coeur de Pirate will contribute artistic performances aimed at appealing to diverse crowds.
“I look forward to paying tribute to all the men and women gathered for the Games,” stated Sarah McLachlan in a press release announcing her musical contribution to the opening ceremonies.
Born into a family steeped in military tradition, Bryan Adams occasionally includes military commemorations in his art such as the 1987 song Remembrance Day. However, it is through his lesser-known work as a photographer that he became involved in support of wounded, ill and injured soldiers and veterans. In February 2015, his exhibition Wounded — The Legacy of War was displayed in Quebec City’s Musée National des Beaux Arts de Quebec (MNBAQ), presenting photos of British soldiers who had fought and sustained lasting injuries in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Reflecting on the travelling exhibit in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper in 2015, he stated, “There is too much suffering for families and children. The repercussions of these wars are going to be felt for decades.”
MAKING EACH STEP COUNT
Team Canada’s Head Coach Peter Lawless confirms that the impacts of conflict can persist over the long term. It is for this reason he has encouraged individual athletes to reach out to their local sports communities beyond the training and structures of the Invictus Games.
An experienced coach, Lawless notes that his training and coaching techniques have had to change for a team that is spread out across the country. Error detection and form correction could be improved with close-range coaching, but “that is not the point. The most important date is 1 October,” he says. “It is then that we will see what the Games have given to each competitor — the skills, friendships, and connections that will continue to improve lives beyond the Invictus Games.”
Team Canada Manager Greg Legacé concurs. “What happens in Toronto comes and goes. But what is left is getting involved in sports and getting something lasting.”
Lawless continues: “[We want to encourage] local support networks with local peers and local clubs. This promotes awareness of local resources [and reaching] peaks that can’t be reached alone in isolation. Sport is a vehicle for the journey forward from 1 October and every day thereafter. We want to create community through the common ground of sport and maintaining those connections is good for everyone — local civilian sports clubs and [IG] competitors alike. We want to see more of that.”
There are specific benefits to events like the Invictus Games, Legacé emphasizes. Participants are set specific goals to reach with their Invictus Games sports that motivate their continued physical activity and new skills. Their highly visible participation also can act as an inspiration for others to get out of their basements, end their isolation, and reach out to others. Several competitors on IG17 Team Canada cite the social media posts of competitors in previous years as the inspiration to step up, get active, and apply to compete themselves. “That is the power of sport. The inspiration through [the event] profile and [public] awareness leads to subsequent benefits,” Legacé concludes. “Look at the number of young women that began swimming competitively after Penny Oleksiak’s performance in Rio, for example.”
“Events are just events in the end,” adds Lawless. “It is the legacy that matters — that’s magic.”
The Invictus Games are a great catalytic opportunity to implement policies and programs that are real and lasting. This is why Lawless has been inspired to bring the Games to Victoria, B.C., in a few years’ time. His strategy for enticing the Games back to Canada will likely be similar to how he recruited other coaches to support Team Canada: “It is simply about picking up the phone with such a worthy cause. They just don’t know how much they want to do this yet. Once I tell them about it, they are on board to make a contribution.”
FOLLOW UP AND FOLLOW THROUGH
But for now, Team Canada is focused on bringing their personal bests to this year’s Games, celebrating with their families, friends, and themselves over how far they have come. Competitors emphasize that having the Invictus Games as a goal to reach has been largely a transformative experience where many goals have been realized long before the opening ceremonies actually take place.
Competitor Kelly Scanlan writes in an email, “The motivation the Invictus Games and Team Canada has given me has helped me to overcome so many obstacles and given me so many new opportunities that I never thought I would have in my life.”
Geoff De Melo echoes these sentiments. He has gained the confidence to rejoin large groups of people and go to places without the accompaniment of his service dog. “Invictus is already a success story for me,” says De Melo. “[We have learned that] injuries don’t limit or define us and we are an example of those who still work hard to serve our country. For me, this is also a moment to celebrate how far I have come. It [is a moment] that closes one chapter and opens opportunities for new challenges.”
At the same time, Legacé wants Canadians to know that, for the 90 competitors of Team Canada, “when the dust settles, when the light goes out on the cauldron, the competitors know where they can go to get support. [We need] the community to be inspired to keep this momentum going post-Invictus too.”
Although the Invictus Games take place in Toronto, they will be broadcast by Bell Media and on local CTV channels throughout Canada. To reach a larger number of Canadians, the Invictus Games flag, accompanied by a flame lit in Afghanistan, travelled across Canada visiting 22 military bases and 50 communities from Alert to Victoria to Charlottetown. Hundreds of Canadians applied to be flag-bearers. It is hoped many more will support these competitors and others in the aftermath of the Games as they move forward.
As Lawless says, “[These competitors] did something for Canada, responding to the government’s call. Regardless of politics, Canadians have a permanent obligation to show that service mattered, that we care, and continue to care.”