“I drove for 20 seconds with my car on cruise control at 100 km/h with my eyes closed,” says retired Lieutenant Colonel Rob Martin. “I wanted to end my life. I felt like a failure.”
That’s how bad it got for Martin, who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a war-related injury from his time serving in Afghanistan with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).
“Mentally, I was a wreck. I was the deputy commander…and I couldn’t put two sentences together,” he says.
Suicidal ideation is a common symptom of PTSD and too often it leads to veterans taking their own lives. In 2012, more United States soldiers died at home from suicide than on the ground in Iraq.
Martin was lucky that day. “I didn’t hit the ditch. For some reason, I’m still here,” he says. “It’s been a healing journey ever since.”
This restorative path is what led Martin to Whistler.
He’s come for a 10-day Allied Winter Sports Camp, an annual event put on by Solider On, a CAF program.
Soldier On’s mission is simple: to provide opportunities and resources for ill and injured military members to rehab through sport and physical recreation.
What better place than Whistler?
Martin, from Kingston, Ontario, isn’t alone—at this sports camp or in his suffering.
33 other soldiers, both active and retired, from across Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, have also travelled to Whistler to be a part of this life-changing opportunity.
Julie Hopkins, a retired member of the UK’s Royal Logistics, struggles with PTSD, too. “As a result of that,” Hopkins says, “I’ve also developed rheumatoid arthritis that’s been attributed to service.”
For Scott Seccombe, an ex-serviceman from Australia, his battle is also twofold: mental and physical. “I’ve had trouble with depression and my knee has severe osteoarthritis,” he says.
“My injuries are pretty vast from over 20 years,” says Bully Ternes, who is freshly retired from CAF. “They pile up.”
Participants’ injuries and illnesses run the gamut—from mental health, to physical limitations like paraplegia, to chronic debilitating diseases.
At the end of the day, each person’s ailments don’t really matter, says CAF Major Jay Feyko, the Program Manager for Soldier On and an injured member himself. Feyko survived a suicide bombing in Afghanistan in 2004. “Nobody judges anyone for what they have.”
Sports Without Limitations
“We’ve had a really busy and ambitious program,” says CAF Officer Joe Kiraly, the logistics coordinator for Solider On. “Any winter sport you can think of, we’ve probably done it.”
These include: sledge hockey, Nordic and alpine skiing, snowboarding, dog sledding, snowshoeing, zip lining, bobsledding and skeleton.
“Whistler offers a world-renowned experience. It’s tough to beat,” says Kiraly, not only as it relates to the variety of winter sports, but also the caliber of the adaptive training facilities.
For the participants, so much about getting back to an active lifestyle is about empowerment, says Feyko. “The realization that life’s not over. You have a new normal to adjust to, but you can still do things like you could before,” he says.
Much of this is possible because of Whistler Adaptive Sports Program (WASP). WASP is a local multi-sport organization that provides 17 different sports programs to individuals with physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities.
“It makes our lives so much easier having a capable partner like the WASP,” says Kiraly, who notes that they help shape the winter camp, ensuring it’s inclusive and accessible to all participants.
Feyko gives an example: “We have a couple wheelchair users, and they can get them down zip lines. There are no barriers.”
The Highs: Sledding & Sliding
Of all the sporting activities, some have created quite a buzz with the military contingent.
“We had the opportunity to send most of our participants down two runs on the skeleton track and one on the bobsled track,” says Kiraly. “It was an adrenalin-filled day. It pushed people’s personal yard sticks much further.”
That might be an understatement. The smiles on the soldier’s flushed faces said it was nothing short of transformative.
“Going down the bobsled was just like being in a fighter jet,” says Hopkins. “The bobbing about, the pressure, fighting to get your head up. It was exactly the same. It was scary, but exhilarating.”
WASP did an exceptional job helping everyone get down the track, too.
“One of our wheelchair users was very nervous, but also very much looking forward to attempting the bobsled,” Kiraly says. “He got in there and said it was a life changing experience.”
For others, it was all about the dogs.
“Dogsledding was a highlight,” says Seccombe. “It was really special. “
Martin agrees that the morning spent with the canines was especially rewarding.
“It’s not just getting them behind their harnesses,” Martin says. “It’s actually about spending time petting the dogs, feeding them, being around them.”
Coping & Camaraderie
The Solider On program, which was founded in 2006 and adopted by CAF in 2007, has helped 1500 members adapt to a new normal.
Beyond getting their bodies active again, healing also takes place off the mountain. The camaraderie crosses all borders.
“Right away, the boundaries were down between nations,” says Kiraly, who is also an injured member. “Gals and guys were bonding.”
“As the week’s gone on, it’s just gotten better and better,” says Hopkins. “The typical squaddy humor is the same, be you Australian, or American, or British.”
This fellowship is salve. “Once you’re injured, you’re kind of taken away from the military environment and segregated. You’re often lonely and this program allows them to come back into to the camaraderie,” says Feyko. “It’s just like being back with your mates in your platoon.”
“The best memories are having a hard day playing sports…then getting together afterwards and being social,” says Ternes. “ A lot of people don’t want to talk around their friends back home or around their units,” he says.
This camp gives soldiers an opportunity to tell stories and learn from each other.
“We all have been through pain and suffering,” Martin says, “and we’re at different stages of our healing. It’s very spiritual.”
“One of the funniest things we did the other night was sit around and compare medications,” Seccombe says. “That may sound silly, but it was nice to feel a bit normal.”
Normal. That’s what so many of them want—to just feel normal. Getting back to an active lifestyle is an important step in that journey, one that is, no doubt, saving lives.
“They’ve all served their country proudly, they’ve all gone through a horrible event and their lives have changed,” Feyko says. Reconnecting to sport through this camp is a way to bring them all together to share those experiences of restoration. “It’s such a powerful thing.”