Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Continuing to make a difference

We've written before about the Soldier On program, which helps disabled CF members and veterans participate in sports.

They now have a website up and running, and that's where I discovered that you can actually donate to the program if you wish. Apparently it's not a registered charity, but donations to the Crown are treated similarly for tax purposes, and you'll get a donation receipt.

For those who wonder how effective such a donation might be, consider these testimonials. Consider the experience of MCpl (ret'd) Jody Mitic, who lost both legs below the knee to a mine in Afghanistan in January of 2007:

Mitic said adjusting to his new life hasn't been easy. But Soldier On has helped him embrace his rehab, by putting him in touch with Paralympic athletes for advice when he tried out a new pair of prosthetic running legs.

"I can find someone that's done it before and say, 'Is this right, is this normal?'"

Mitic says he has considered entering some Paralympic competitions, but the question is whether he will have enough time to train to get to competition level.

"I thought about getting into the running, the sprinting, because I was always a fast sprinter. It's definitely a possibility because of the Soldier On program," he said.

And while promoting high-performance athletics isn't an aim of the program, a few of the many CF members and veterans helped by Soldier On use the program as a springboard to top-level amateur sporting endeavours. Sgt (ret'd) Steve Daniel is one of them:

Sudbury native Steve Daniel has every reason to be bitter, but today he's happier than ever.

Two years ago, Daniel was paralyzed from the waist down after a parachuting accident at CFB Trenton's Mountain View detachment.

Now he's a record-breaking athlete and is aiming for the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games as an adaptive rower.


He also reconnected with Sgt. Andrew McLean, with whom he'd served in the past. McLean was a co-founder of the Soldier On program, which helps military staff, retirees and relatives cope with injury or illness through sport.

Daniel became the first person helped by the program, receiving a wheelchair in which he could play on Sudbury's wheelchair basketball team.

"It was pretty much the highlight of my week, being able to socialize with people who are in the same predicament and play basketball with them," Daniel said. "I found it very therapeutic."

Soldier On later sent Daniel and Fraser to Mt. Washington, B.C., where he spent an "invigorating" week sit-skiing.

Also on Daniel's basketball team was Minna Mettinen-Kekalainen, who had been in a wheelchair for about the same length of time as him.

Last summer, she introduced him to adaptive rowing. He trained both in an actual boat and on a rowing machine called an ergometer.

There's no water in indoor rowing: instead, competitors row on their machines, with their progress on the one-kilometre "course" displayed on video screens.

For two months, Daniel trained on his basement ergometer; he was coached by Thomas Merritt.

Daniel trained for the Canadian Indoor Rowing Championships, held Feb. 3 in Toronto. Though it would be his first national competition, he was excited because his practice times showed he had a shot at medal status in the arms-only adaptive rowing category.

He was more than ready: his gold-medal time was four minutes, 29.6 seconds - a national record for arms-only rowers.

"I was pretty impressed with myself," Daniel said with a laugh.

"Based on my time, I'll be invited to the national men's selection camp this summer to compete for a spot on the Canadian national team."

Captain Kimberly Fawcett is another CF member who has discovered how to combine both the high-performance and rehabilitative opportunities of the program well. Not only are she and fellow Soldier On participant Sgt Karen McCoy training for elite competition in seated volleyball, but Capt Fawcett's insight on the importance of Soldier On is eloquent and convincing (scroll down past the Globemaster stuff):

Fawcett lost her leg—and her 91⁄2-month-old son Keiran—on a snowy day in February 2006 after she’d pulled over to the side of the road because an accident had blocked the highway ahead. They were hit by a passing vehicle as she was taking Keiran out of his car seat.

A veteran who served in Afghanistan in 2002, Fawcett is a squadron commander at Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont. Her rehabilitation goals were to regain her level of physical fitness and stay in the Forces. “As a highly operational soldier, you want more than general function,” she says. “You want to get back to being employable, deployable and fit.”

She quickly realized the ‘standard of function’ restored in routine rehabilitation wasn’t going to help her reach those goals. Athletic ability would. So she and her trainer researched and developed a special program designed to teach herself how to run, how to jump and how to climb.

“Losing a leg is a tremendous blow to your self-esteem,” she says. Rehabilitation should return a sense of ability and restore confidence. “When you lose a limb, you build up a fear in your mind and the only way to dispel it is to get out and do different tasks.”

Not only were everyday tasks more difficult, but it was daunting to figure out what she needed to return to active service, where to find equipment to help her function at the level needed in an active command, and which department or agency offered what support.

Although she says she had support from the chain of command, it took some time before the casualty support directorate provided her with a running leg so she could take her annual physical fitness test. Ideally, Soldier On could cut through that red tape, says Lagacé. And perhaps do more.

Maybe it can even persuade more disabled personnel to return to duty.

“About 75 to 80 per cent of injured soldiers intend to take their release” after rehabilitation, says Fawcett. “Only 20 per cent or so wish to be retained.”

The time to ask a soldier to make the decision about returning to active service is not at the beginning of the rehabilitation, she says, but when the soldier has returned to functionality. “Then and only then are they in a position to make an informed choice.”

I'm sure a fellow like Fred Franks would agree with Capt Fawcett.

Those who have died in service to their country rightly demand our respect, our memory, and our solemn determination to carry on. But those who have suffered debilitating injuries deserve all that, plus one other thing: our care and support. Soldier On provides just that.


Blogger David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 03/12/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

11:20 a.m., March 12, 2008  

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