By Kari M. Pries
Zack held his daddy’s hand the whole plane ride home to Ottawa from the 2016 Invictus Games (IG16) in Orlando, Florida. All week he had seen injured soldiers at Disney World — people with legs missing, with glass eyes imprinted with patriotic symbols, with burn scars accompanied by dramatic tattoos on the swimming bodies of mothers and fathers alongside their shrieking, happy children at the hotel pool — and he had asked lots of questions. Who were they? What had happened? Where were they from?
The morning after his plane ride home with his dad, Zack took his mum aside and asked one more question: “Why do people like daddy have service dogs?” Zack’s mum, Marie-Andrée Malette, was used to answering questions as a registered nurse and advisory committee member for Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) on the health care approaches needed in response to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She adapted the complex terminology of illness and injury to words her son might understand. “[Dogs] help them to be less scared. We don’t know why their bodies react like that, but we know it is because he has been at war.” Zack paused for a moment. “So, on the plane,” he said thoughtfully, “I was like a service human.”
Five Canadian Armed Forces members and 23 veterans made up Canada’s IG16 team in Orlando, Florida. Almost all were accompanied by family members or close friends who were hosted at Disney World and attended the events as honoured guests. They provided the ever-present cheering squad for Team Canada who represented their nation in sporting events from track and field to swimming and archery. A Canadian service dog even had a go in a special swim event.
Many people wonder why the Invictus Games, as an international sporting event for serving members and veterans, puts so much emphasis on competitors’ network of families and friends. Zack’s innocent observation explains the reason in a way that reaches to the heart. He was one of hundreds of children who attended IG16 in support of a loved adult — a mother, a father, an aunt, or an uncle — and learned along the way that there are many other children and many other families just like them who act as “service humans.”
As is so often observed by military family networks and resource centres, when a service member enlists, their families are thrown into a life they may not have chosen or of which they have little understanding. Effectively, they have been enlisted as well. And while the impacts of military service are studied and discussed widely — from physical and mental injury to lasting illnesses — there is much less focus on the friends and family networks that support those members, who make the sacrifices alongside them, and who live with the sometimes poorly understood impacts of a life of military service. Injury expands exponentially, leaving a community with the memories, reactions, and fallout as well as the struggle to offer the right support mechanisms to their loved ones.
Many may not realize for months or years what it is that they are dealing with. Jennifer Wyatt, the wife of one IG16 competitor, describes the feeling as “a frog in water that is coming to boiling point.” She continues, describing a decade of undiagnosed PTSD: “I always thought it was me. For him to start seeing someone, to put a label on ‘it’, really helped.”
For many families, attending IG16 was their first opportunity to witness loved ones challenge themselves in a new arena. The experience was as tantalizing as it was torturing. Sign-up was last minute, the training camps short. Competitors had personal hurdles to overcome and negative reactions and stressors to manage. But the message to competitors throughout training camps that “you are not alone” was generously extended to families who made personal connections with other families from around the world. There was also the support from Canadians across the country, poured out in what one family called “a genuinely humbling experience.”
IG17 brings the Games to Toronto, Canada, as the country celebrates its 150th anniversary of Confederation and the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The Games provide another opportunity for remembrance, not only of battles past but community brought together and dreams of the kind of community to which Canadians aspire for our future.
The Hoogendoorn Family
Mark lost his leg in a 2010 incident in Afghanistan after three years of service. During his recovery, he met his wife Leisa in a pub. It was near Christmas and an early date was spent at the mall, shopping for Christmas presents. Standing in the Toys R Us checkout line, Mark tentatively mentioned that he had lost a leg in Afghanistan. “He seemed really nervous about it,” remarks Leisa, “but I was like, okay.” And that was that.
Soldier On has been great for Mark, allowing him to engage in new activities from snowboarding to mountain climbing to golf. “He’s able to get out and do stuff as a good break from work,” states Leisa. However, she had not been able to really see what that part of his life was like until the opportunity to participate in IG16 arose. “I think it’s a bigger deal for me,” she laughs. “Mark’s all nonchalant about it but for me, it’s awesome.” Not only did Leisa get to meet Mark’s Soldier On friends, about whom she had heard a lot, but she saw first-hand the importance of the Games themselves. “They bring more light to the issue [of ill and injured] and increase visibility for the adaptive lifestyle” that has been so important for Mark.
Their year-old son Atticus will be too young to remember the year his daddy competed at Disney World, but his father got to walk away proud of what he did, with his boy smiling away in the grandstands. “It is something for the future,” Leisa concluded.
The Wyatt Family
At the appointed time for the interview, Rachael, Jennifer and Sean Wyatt crowd into the camera field against a backdrop of colourful walls and cheerful sunshine. They exude familiar comfort if perhaps a slight bewilderment that they are so easily sharing their experiences of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) via Skype. Missing is Rhiannon, the younger of the two girls. “She wanted to be here, but work calls,” noted mum Jennifer.
Family time has always been a series of wishes and gaps for the Wyatts since Sean, 29 years in the Navy, was often away on deployment and missed large chunks of his daughters’ lives. Jennifer explained she used all kinds of tricks to keep his presence with them, despite the frequent distance. Nonetheless, sailing took its toll with the result that it is often hard to share personal feelings and experiences as a family. Throughout Sean’s time in the Navy, Jennifer observed that “soldiers were so well protected but families were not, if that, protected at all.”
With the distance, families become used to glossing over the difficult bits. Communication becomes a challenge, even as work ends with retirement and the distances narrow. Sean acknowledged that he was good at hiding PTSD and later, at hiding his tattoo — the symbol of a semi-colon — and all it implies. “An invisible disability is tough,” explained daughter Rachael. She calls him frequently, usually when walking home, as they find it easier to talk on the phone.
IG16 came out of the blue for the family. Although it was a significant event for them to take a “real together” holiday, it was not something that Jennifer or the girls could let themselves anticipate with pleasure. Rhiannon did not even look at the possibility of where families would stay at Disney World because she didn’t want to get too excited.
But Sean managed to work through his fears. He returned to archery as a sport he had once loved but had abandoned for six yearsduring the depth of his PTSD. And so the family was ultimately able to make their way to Disney World to support him. Jennifer underlined what that meant to her: “It started in Orlando Airport and having people cheer at our arrival. The experience was so surreal and I cried. The first of several times.”
Jennifer and Rachael are enthusiastic about the potential for the Invictus Games in 2017 and what they can bring to Canada. “We are closer together because of the Games and we benefited from seeing other families [in Orlando] and sharing with them.” Jennifer is happy to promote the Games at school, where she works, and Sean came home from the Games with new projects in mind. He has challenged a neighbour who is also struggling with PTSD: “I went over to visit him and I said, ‘You are signing up [for IG17.]’”
The Wyatt family is usually quite private but the Games have allowed them space to try something new. Father Sean pushes forward to medalling in a sport he learned to love again while Jennifer, Rachael, and Rhiannon are happy to share their experiences with other families and the rest of Canadians. “If we can make people here feel as proud as we experienced when we were in the States …” Jennifer trails off. It will be a job well done.
The Guindon-Malette Family
Joel left the CAF in 2008 after several years serving in the military — police and close protection — and found the transition hard. He had been renowned for his skills but found that they did not translate well in the civilian world. His wife, Marie-Andrée, a registered nurse, saw the warning signs of PTSD but found that few programmes were available at the time to help manage a life with mental illness. “You shouldn’t need a medical degree to navigate the system,” she argued.
She found that occupational therapy for mental injuries was badly understood by VAC and it took all of her expertise as a health professional to navigate the system. Marie-Andrée was pro-active and pushed for further services through work on a VAC advisory committee to help them explore and fill the gaps in mental health services.
Thus, she knew what to expect when Joel received a call from IG16 team captain Bruno Guévremont asking him to sign up for archery on Team Canada. Joel had been a marksman and had previously won trophies in competition, but archery was something new: a challenge. Marie-Andrée described Joel’s experience with the first round of training as very hard, but it became easier as he got to know the team and they bonded over the capricious nature of PTSD.
“With every day, he became better at managing stress,” Marie-Andrée explains. “IG was a huge step in his therapy, in his progress.” Their two boys, too, were ecstatic to see their dad compete, to join him on the podium, and to see their father engaged in something that inspired him. Marie-Andrée reflects how it was so important, the personal and recovery progress. “And I was crying like a baby when he got his medal.”
IG has helped Joel push his limits, and his family along with him. These days, they focus on the positive things but there is still a long way to go. “Anxiety can still dictate our lives, but there is also a new way of looking at things.” Just as Joel received the message over and over that “you are not alone, not the only one struggling with sleep,” the message was equally for the families. Marie-Andrée reflects, “At some point, the tasks I have to do every day, I will be able to hand some of them over.”
The takeaway from IG for Marie-Andrée was overwhelmingly positive. “We can think of vets with positive thinking rather than seeing them [as portrayed in the media] as angry old vets concerned only with their pensions.” There is still a lot of veterans’ anger portrayed in the media, but the Invictus Games allows Canadians to see ill and injured soldiers in a new light. “And that,” she concludes, “is definitely a win.”
Invictus Games 2017
IG17 promises to elevate the visibility of wounded, ill and injured soldiers across Canada. Its inclusion of family, friends, and community as essential components to recovery will push Canadians to reconsider what it means to offer support. Invictus’ collaboration with the WE Movement, founded to motivate exceptional youth to make the world a better place, expands the reach of the Invictus message to Canada’s younger generation. Over the next year, this partnership will challenge our ambitious young people to do “more together than any one of us could do alone.” Especially as Canada celebrates its 150th birthday, these activities will dare our country to imagine big the community we strive to build. Hopefully, sparking meaningful conversations about what Canadians ask of our military families and the inspirational role they can play in Canada’s future.