Text & photos by Kari M. Pries
Amid the flashing lights and the roar of the city at Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square, CEO Michael Burns announced Team Canada’s co-captains for the 2017 Invictus Games. MCpl. (ret’d) Natacha Dupuis and Capt. Simon Mailloux will be guiding next year’s team of active and retired service member athletes in their training, supporting competitors in reaching their individual goals.
Toronto will be hosting the third rendition of the Invictus Games, founded by Prince Harry in 2014, receiving 500 competitors in 12 sports from 17 nations, along with their coaches and their families, from September 23 to 30, 2017. The announcement was part of an all-night interactive art installation, which saw members of the public build a 30-foot by 30-foot Invictus Games Lego-like structure along the backdrop of a 12-hour live mural painting by artist David Arrigo. The mural, titled From Darkness to Light, features key moments along the journey to recovery for both team captains.
“This city will become the focal point for hundreds of men and women who use the pull of Invictus glory to motivate their recovery from physical and mental injuries,” stated Prince Harry during his visit to Toronto earlier this year. One hundred Canadian active and retired service members will number among the 500 individual competitors who have overcome explosions, bullets, and terror — “injuries f**d up enough to be real” according to one — challenging themselves and each other to move forward, to overcome, and to reach new heights through rehabilitation. The Games also emphasize the contributions of friends and families as support networks in recovery — a completely unique perspective.
Toronto’s role as host city for the 2017 Invictus Games (IG17) was announced in a ballroom filled with VIPs in May of this year. Speaking about courage, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looked directly to the small group of elderly citizens seated in the sixth row to his left. In wheelchairs or with canes and walkers propped within reach were these representatives of his grandfather’s generation — Second World War veterans who, Trudeau stated, had demonstrated a commitment to service and a dedication to serving for better: “a better world, better outcomes.”
IG17 CEO and Director Michael Burns tied today’s active service to the history of Canada’s commitment and sacrifice. In a Canadian tradition, as Burns highlighted, “We [Canadians] have a responsibility to care for [soldiers] when they get back.” The Games in Toronto will also fall during an auspicious time for Canada as it celebrates the 150th anniversary of Confederation and the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
In Orlando, where the 2016 Invictus Games took place in May, competitors were joined by 15,000 supporters and spectators, among them not only Prince Harry but U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, former U.S. President George W. Bush, and numerous artists from Morgan Freeman to singer and British Army veteran James Blunt. This was not your average military march. “[Soldiers] have shown us that in spite of the impossible, it [is] possible,” Jody Mitic, a veteran of Afghanistan, explained at the Toronto launch, choked with emotion. “[We] keep marching forward whether on two legs, one leg, or none at all and, as soldiers, we march together shoulder to shoulder.”
Aside from its fortunate royal founder, IG17 has a foundation in Canadian governmental and non-governmental charities. Running the games themselves is IG17 CEO Michael Burns, founder of national fundraising organisation True Patriot Love. Burns turned his sights from wealth management to veterans’ philanthropy after the Kingston funeral of a friend’s son who was killed in Afghanistan in 2007. He explained that the “emotional and moving experience” engendered “deep realisations that my generation was not doing enough or anything for military families.”
So Burns worked with former Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier on the Military Families Fund — an effort that was designed to bring immediate relief to ill and injured CAF members and their family, as well as raise awareness among Canadians of challenges that military families face. That effort for him evolved into True Patriot Love. When Burns heard that Prince Harry was hosting the inaugural Games in London, with its incredible experiences, support from the community to stage the Games, and broad public engagement, he had a moment of inspiration about what those Games could mean in a Canadian context.
Supporting the recovery of ill and injured serving members through sports was already something taken on by government programme Soldier On, founded in 2006 by Greg Lagacé. Then a Canadian Paralympic representative, he approached then Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor and Hillier with a plan for sport to facilitate long-term recovery among ill and injured service members. With Lagacé’s guidance and a team of devoted serving soldiers and public servants, chief among them Maj. Jay Feyko and PO1 Joe Kiraly, the organisation spread throughout the country to reach out to those who needed the boost even if they did not know it themselves.
For MCpl Mark Hoogendoorn, Soldier On introduced him to a lot of activities that he didn’t originally realise he could do after he lost his leg in an incident in Afghanistan in 2010. Ranging from snowboarding to glacial ice climbing, he tries to balance the temptation of new experiences with a return to his sapper career and his young family. Retired CPO2 Sean Wyatt noted that while he used to shoot regularly, his bows had hung on the wall for six years before a Soldier On contact tapped him on the shoulder. His participation started slowly after a PTSD diagnosis. First he picked up kayaking, which Wyatt explained was “an excellent experience that put me in contact with other people like me.” Joining Team Canada to compete in archery at the 2016 Invictus Games was a feat beyond anything he had attempted to date in his recovery, but one that was eminently rewarding.
Soldier On, with its established network of ill and injured participants, was thus a natural conduit to develop Team Canada for the Invictus Games, providing the trainers and sport professionals needed to build physical and mental capacity for competition in a large event. While emphasising that high-performance activities are only one component of their rehabilitation programme — a programme that has now expanded to include the 15,000 veterans covered under Veterans Affairs Canada — Lagacé argues that the Invictus Games gives programme participants a new goal, and an ultimate venue for recovering veterans.
The goal is not high performance so much as growing the capacity for perseverance. Several participants recalled that they were ready to give up after the first training camp in January 2016 but were able to push through with the support of their new teammates. Travel proved particularly stressful for two team members who got caught in a snowstorm at the Ottawa airport, severely testing their PTSD coping mechanisms, but also creating a bond between them. A spouse observed that it got easier for her husband once the team had connected and that they grew in confidence to share their stresses during the long months of individual training through a Facebook group linking participants from across the country.
Collaboration among team members is part of the healing process, according to IG16 team captain retired LS Bruneau Guévremont. Hoogendoorn concurs. “I could see how much it means to [my teammates],” he said. “It was good to get away [during training camps] to meet all the other injured guys. To get together with someone with a similar injury and compare notes.”
These exchanges can take place in smaller sporting activities and events like those Soldier On typically organises, and some have questioned whether a large-scale event like the Invictus Games are necessary, especially when they can prove a significant challenge or even a trigger to some with PTSD. Guévremont argued prior to the Games in Orlando that high-profile events are not only beneficial but essential. “We learn through challenges, experience and success. We need to learn to control our environment or [we will] let the injury control us.” But, most importantly for him, the Games give ill and injured the opportunity to “once again be part of a team” and to be “representing and serving again.”
Burns agrees. “Our engagement in Afghanistan has been ended for a decade but injury and mental health are lasting. The issues do not end with the war.” This is why, he argues, “The support and recognition [from regular Canadians] is as important now as it was during the height of the conflict.”
He has the research to back him up. According to polls commissioned before and after the Games in Orlando this year, 93 per cent of Canadians agree the country should support veterans who have been mentally or physically wounded in service while 75 per cent agree that initiatives like the Invictus Games have the power to transform how people think about mental illness.
In discussing plans for IG17, Lagacé notes that “IG will bring significant attention and awareness [among Canadians] to the requirements for comprehensive core programmes for ill and injured participants.” But he cautions that the media attention, the pressure, and the time, can be an additional challenge for individuals who go from struggling alone or with the support of family and friends to nation-wide attention. Visibility is not what most ill and injured are used to. “Most NCOs would not have previously interacted with VIPs, for example,” Lagacé notes. “But IG also allows them to see that Prince Harry is a human with a human story like theirs. That sharing their story can help others too.”
It can be really beneficial for some and have a ripple effect to reach others who haven’t yet made contact. “Paying it forward to a colleague,” Lagacé calls it. He points to the exponential increase in activity applications Soldier On has received since the IG17 launch as evidence that many were still unaware that there were programmes for them. Wyatt confirms this is the case and that IG made it natural “to go out and do things again, like a run to Canadian Tire” and, equally, to go check in on a neighbour who also needed support to change direction from a destructive path of unacknowledged PTSD. “It was a project I had in mind coming home from Invictus,” he confirmed. “I went to my neighbour [with PTSD] and I said, ‘You’re signing up!’”
Still, there are those who are not ready for the Games, its competition, its attention, and time commitment. For those, Soldier On is ready and waiting with more relaxed activities among a small group of comrades. Others cannot wait for the next Games to begin. And in between, a family member remarks: “We live an active normal life — [a] life that is our normal, not someone else’s normal.” Wyatt reflected on his experience competing in Orlando, concluding, “You know, if we freak out, others are going to be there. [They are] not going to judge you for it.” For Team Canada, at least, there is no façade between mates.