Soldier On Invictus Games
Active Rehabilitation
© 2017 FrontLine Defence (Vol 14, No 3)

When it comes to Soldier On and the 90 athletes the program is currently supporting as they prepare for the Invictus Games in Toronto this September, it’s a case of two different timelines. By the end of the Team Canada Invictus Games 2017’s first training camp at CFB Esquimalt this April, most of the athletes were well on their way through their journey of rehabilitation through sport with Soldier On. The joyful smiles, sore muscles and new friendships all told this story.

In contrast, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) Soldier On program that reintroduces ill and injured military members and veterans to active lifestyles through sport, will keep on doing just that as long as there is a need. Now in its 10th anniversary year, Soldier On is just getting started.

Members of the Team Canada – Invictus 2017 wheelchair basketball squad at practice during the first training camp in April which was based of CFB Esquimalt. (Photo: Lyndon Goveas, CFMWS)

Team Canada athletes will participate in two week-long training camps and the Invictus Games from September 23 to 30 as part of their Soldier On experience. The athletes, who come from across Canada, will also receive coaching support between each of the three events. The first training camp introduced athletes to their team mates and coaches, and provided high-level training opportunities in the dozen sports represented at this year’s Games.

“How many of you were inspired by our Canadian athletes from last year’s Invictus Games?” co-captain Natacha Dupuis asked the team’s travel-weary athletes on the night before the training week. “Well, now you are one of them.”

Suzanne Barrette of Team Canada – Invictus 2017 practices archery during the first training camp in April which was based out of CFB Esquimalt. (Photo: Lyndon Goveas, CFMWS)

The retired Master Corporal’s statement brought contemplative silence to the room. She was reminding her team mates of the two immense tasks they will all complete before the final day of the Games. By representing Canada through their very best performances after months of training these athletes will be also be inspiring other ill and injured members and veterans to take that first step towards Soldier On as part of their rehabilitation.

Dupuis is one of many Soldier On recipients who credit the CAF program for accelerating the transition from illness and injury to inspiration and independence. Once overwhelmed with depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after her deployment to Afghanistan, Dupuis has made the transition to a healthy and happy life outside of the military. “While I still suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I know that many of my comrades and colleagues suffer silently. If my story can help soldiers seek help and guidance, then I believe I have made a difference.”

Katherine Heath (red swimming cap) among her swimming team mates during practice at the first training camp which was in April and was based out of at CFB Esquimalt. (Photo: Lyndon Goveas, CFMWS) 

Though there are 90 compelling and human stories behind Team Canada’s athletes, the common understanding of what the experience will bring to their lives is evident. “For me the Invictus Games aren’t about medals, explains retired Corporal Katherine Heath (red cap in swim team photo). “They are about getting my life back. Doing something that will make me get over fears. I may not be a typical athlete but I strive to give myself challenges. I may finish last but I gave it all I’ve got. It’s about trying to get through everyday challenges in a positive way.” The Rusagonis, New Brunswick native turned to Soldier On for help as she recovers from a knee injuries, persistent depressive disorder, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Heath is a former Water Fuel Environment technician with the Canadian Army and is currently training in swimming and cycling.

Corporal (Retired) Bruce Matthews, says a large range of sports helps him to remain focused despite 13 major surgeries in the last 12 years and PTSD from his deployment to Croatia in 1995. Powerlifting, rowing and athletics are the Innisfil, Ontario native’s chosen training sports. “The Invictus Games and Soldier On have given me a purpose to my day. My daily routine now encompasses more training, healthier eating and a more focused and positive mindset. I have already connected with many peers who I can relate to and who can understand my daily struggles,” the former Combat Engineer and an Infantryman with the Royal 22e Régiment.

Team Canada – Invictus 2017 powerlifting coach Eileen Du Plooy assists Bruce Matthews at the Pacific Institute of Sports Excellence. The first training camp was in April and was based out of at CFB Esquimalt. (Photo: Matthew Charlton, CFMWS)

The Invictus Games in Toronto follow two previous Games held in London (2014) and Orlando (2016). They were created by His Royal Highness Prince Harry of Wales after a 2013 visit to the US-based Warrior Games – a sporting competition for wounded, ill and injured Service members – where he witnessed the important role sports played in improving the lives of service members and their families.

Harnessing the transformative effect of sport to speed the rehabilitation of ill and injured veterans and military members is the magic behind Soldier On’s success. Since its inception in 2007, the program has helped more than 3,200 ill and injured members to obtain sporting or recreational equipment and to gain access to high-level training from world-class instructors.

Team Canada – Invictus 2017 wheelchair tennis coach Kai Schrameyer (centre) with athletes during the first training camp which was in April and was based out of at CFB Esquimalt. (Photo: Lyndon Goveas, CFMWS)

“Soldier On provides a wide range of structured activities from alpine skiing to fishing to adventure expeditions. There have also been the three Soldier On-managed Team Canada’s that have participated at the Invictus Games,” explains Soldier On Founder and Team Canada – Invictus Games 2017 Manager, Greg Lagacé.

A re-introduction to an active lifestyle, says Lagacé, gives members the opportunity to develop new skills, build confidence in their abilities and, most importantly, meet peers with similar challenges.

Kevin Nanson of Team Canada – Invictus 2017 takes a corner at track practice at the Pacific Institute of Sports Excellence during the first training camp in April which was based out of CFB Esquimalt. (Photo: Lyndon Goveas, CFMWS)

Although Soldier On events are primarily focused on sport or other physically challenging activities, promoting an active lifestyle is only part of the mission. “By supporting their return to sports and active lifestyles, Soldier On provides members with a safe environment to challenge themselves to get inspired in ways that they may not have thought possible. Sport can be a key enabler enroute to adapt, overcome and Soldier On,” he says.

With over 40 Soldier On well-attended events held across Canada in 2016 alone, military members and veterans clearly understand the power of sport and movements like Invictus Games. It’s the reason why Soldier On will continue to be recognized as a leader for improving the quality of life of the ill and injured.

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Photos: Lyndon Goveas, CFMWS