“Soldier On” Program
May 15, 2007

Sergeant Andrew McLean stands outside in frigid temperatures at the start line of the Yukon Arctic Ultra. He is planning to run 735 kilometers from Whitehorse to Dawson City. He sees the many steps he’ll have to take as one giant leap forward for Canada’s soldiers injured in Afghanistan, other missions, or on home soil. He is using the run to raise funds for the Canadian Paralympic Committee’s Soldier On initiative, a program that aims to use sports as a rehabilitative tool for soldiers with physical disabilities.

It is February 11, 2007. Along with the 41 other competitors, McLean walks back and forth at the start line to help keep warm. His small sled is ready to go – with his race number 403 attached, and containing all the equipment he’ll need to complete what has been dubbed “the world’s coldest and toughest Ultra.”

Bundled up on the sidelines is a woman holding a sign that says: “Andrew McLean: Good Luck. From CASARA, Yukon.” She knows that he is running to raise money, the Yukon Civil Air Search and Rescue Association had presented McLean with a $200 donation as he awaited the start of the race.

Race participants will follow the trail of the Yukon Quest International Dog Sled Race which began a day earlier. There are four different distances this year: marathon; 160 kilometers; 480 km; and new this year, 735 km.

McLean is the only Canadian, one of eight participants, attempting the longest distance. The search and rescue technician (SARTech) with 435 Squadron of Canadian Forces’ 17 Wing has trained in the chilly winds of his home base of Winnipeg, and feels ready.

A huge fan of both Rick Hanson and Terry Fox, McLean was inspired to dedicate his run to Soldier On after seeing a Paralympic Military program. Operated by U.S. Paralympics, the United States Olympic Committee, the U.S. Depart­ment of Veterans Affairs, Brooke Army Medical Center and other partners, the U.S. Paralympic Military program establishes ongoing Paralympic sport opportunities for severely injured service members. Under this program, the inaugural Sport Camp was held in September 2005, teaching 34 veterans six sports (cycling, fencing, shooting, sledge hockey, table tennis and sitting volleyball) by U.S. Paralympic national team coaches and athletes.

“I’ve followed the Paralympic Games and I have a friend, [Canadian Armed Forces Captain] Sharon Donnelly, who was on the Olympic team in 2000 and I wanted to help establish a program in Canada that mimics the American one," he explains.

“As an active member of the Cana­dian military, I recognize the value of such an initiative,” he adds. “The initiative encompasses everything from recovery to returning to the athletic field. I want to do my part to help injured soldiers get back into the game – running, biking, skiing or whatever it is they want to do.”

There is a symbiosis between McLean’s dream and plans already underway at the Canadian Paralympic Com­mittee. CPC Manager of Paralympic Development Greg Lagace had drafted an outline for Soldier On and had begun talks with the Department of National Defence.

After McLean read Lagace’s Soldier On outline, he went full-swing into fundraising mode. “I thought: ‘this is great; the CPC has a program underway and they’ve got the expertise.’ So I started to promote and raise awareness of it. One of the ways to do that was dedicating my Yukon Ultra race to the cause.”

Other fundraising efforts have sprung up across Canada, most at military bases. A rock concert and golf tournament is being organized in Halifax, and the CF Leadership and Recruiting School at St. Jean, Quebec, has recently presented the Canadian Paralympic Foundation with a check for over $10,000 for the Soldier On initiative. Money raised is donated to the foundation and then ­funneled through to the program.

The CPC envisions Soldier On as a program that will open doors to other life opportunities for injured soldiers, help speed their rehabilitative process, allow them to access a network of peers with physical disabilities, and increase their quality of life.

The program will include buying the equipment needed for soldiers with physical injuries to participate in sports. Also, with the backing of the Department of National Defence, the first Soldier On Paralympic Sport Summit was held in Ottawa this spring. Injured soldiers, their families, DND healthcare professionals and military doctors met Paralympians and learned about Paralympic sports and outreach programs, such as the CPC’s Changing Minds, Changing Lives.

Funded by the Ontario Trillium Fund, Changing Minds, Changing Lives is aimed at educating health care professionals about the benefits of using sport and physical activity as part of rehabilitation for people with a physical disability.

A key role for CPC is to leverage its stake in the Paralympic Games to support programs that enhance the quality of life for all Canadians with physical disabilities, including injured members of  the Canadian Forces.

“First of all, let me just say, from the Canadian Paralympic Committee and the Soldier On program, this is awesome,” General Rick Hillier told TSN, which featured Soldier On in its Bell Spirit of the Game amateur sports documentary series. “This means the world to men and women in uniform. Canadians are paying attention to their sons and daughters who wear a uniform, and [are] paying attention to what they are doing for our country and what it means for our country, and showing their appreciation.”

Retired Sgt Steve Daniel, who was paralyzed during parachute training, has already benefited from Soldier On. Through the program, he was able to fly from Sudbury, Ontario to Comox, British Columbia to learn to “sit ski,” with the help of the non-profit organization Vancouver Island Society for Adaptive Snowsports.

Daniel admits to initially being scared about tackling the slopes after being strapped into the sit ski, however, “there’s absolute freedom when I’m up there on the lift,” he says. “To get off my wheelchair and get into a monoski… and feel the fresh air on your face, is incredible.” Bell Spirit of the Game director, Brad Diamond, was amazed at how quickly Daniel was able to pick up the sport.

Daniel would one day like to represent his country on another playing field – the next time as a Paralympic athlete. Noting the difficulties in downhill training in Sudbury, he has yet to decide which sport he’ll choose.

The Spirit of the Game documentary featured two other soldiers: MCpl Paul Franklin, who lost his legs in Afghanistan and is determined to run again, and Cpl Ryan Elrick, also injured in Afghanistan, who is aiming to participate in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

“I don’t want to walk, I want to run. I don’t see walking as an improvement. It’s only a step,” Franklin says in the documentary. “The Soldier On program will enable a Paralympian to help me get to that next point so that I can learn to run as quickly as they can. And if it that works, maybe I can actually join [them].”

Soldier On isn’t just aimed at elite-level athletes – any injured soldier can benefit from sport. “The primary area of interest is to help injured Canadians, and injured soldiers, become involved in sport, as a proven way of rehabilitation,” states CPC president Carla Qualtrough. “We see it as an ideal way of promoting Paralympic sport in Canada. Our aim is to develop a sport system for people with disabilities, including soldiers, that encourages participation at all levels, from recreation to high performance.”

Lagace notes that Soldier On takes the CPC back to its roots: “The Paralym­pic Movement began after World War II, as a vehicle to re-integrate injured soldiers into their community and speed their rehabilitation through sport.” In 1944, the Stoke Mandeville hospital in Great Britain began using sports to help the recovery of soldiers injured in World War II. The Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Games, first held in 1947, eventually morphed into the Paralympic Games of today.

Back at the Yukon Ultra, McLean was was forced to drop out of the race near the 160-kilometer mark with 10 days still to go. Despite months of cold-training,  he sustained a fracture in his foot.

The unexpected withdrawal came as a ­surprise to race organizer Robert Pollhammer. “Andrew was very focused. He was well trained and used to cold temperatures,” he noted. “And it’s fantastic that he’s using the race to raise money [for Soldier On].”

For McLean, the race was more about Soldier On than finishing first. Prior to the race, he stated: “Ideally, I want to finish, but there’s no way to predict the weather conditions. You set your plan and you go as long as you can within your limitations.”

While injury prevented him from finishing the Yukon Ultra race, the steps he has taken have helped move Soldier On from an outline on a piece of paper last September to the Soldier On Summit in May 2007 – making it a building block for more measures aimed at helping injured soldiers use sports in their rehabilitation.

Making it to the start line of the race, McLean has helped start Soldier On. Norma Reveler, a freelance writer based in Ottawa, also works for the CPC.
© FrontLine Defence 2007