At the Invictus Games, not all veterans are winners -

At the Invictus Games, not all veterans are winners

Opinion: A veteran on how celebrating the sporting achievements of a few allows Canadians to forget about the plight of thousands of other former servicepeople

Britain's Prince Harry, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Toronto Mayor John Tory cheer on sledge hockey atheletes during the Invictus Games media launch in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, May 2, 2016. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Britain’s Prince Harry, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Toronto Mayor John Tory cheer on sledge hockey atheletes during the Invictus Games media launch in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, May 2, 2016. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Sean Bruyea is a veteran of the first Gulf War. He has been writing and advocating on behalf of disabled veterans and their families for nearly two decades. The federal government’s violation of his privacy made national headlines in 2010.

I am a veteran with disabilities, and I have a tough time with the Invictus Games.

The participants’ determination and perseverance as they perform their feats of strength and speed are admirable and inspiring for many—just not for me. Mine are far more humble aspirations. Every morning is a psychological melee, as I try to clear my head of the previous night’s sweating, jaw-clenching, anxiety-ridden, sleeplessness-inducing assault by nightmares far more lucid than most of my waking minutes. I limp from bed, struggling to dress myself as I suppress the pain from fibromyalgia, a chronic inflammation of muscle and tissues that I’ve suffered for 25 years.

The next round of the Invictus Games starts in Toronto next week, and will involve 550 participants from 17 nations competing in 12 parasport categories. Their goals are easily laudable: developing a sense of belonging and increased self-esteem, finding an outlet for excess energy, fostering a sense of camaraderie among wounded service members, and experiencing an improved quality of life.

WATCH: Prince Harry and Justin Trudeau launch the Invictus Games

But the daily reality of many of the thousands of Canadian veterans with life-disabling military injuries is far removed from that of the 90 injured soldiers who will represent Canada at the games. Some 5,000 are so disabled as to be unemployable, while 14,000 suffer from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. These veterans have concerns far more immediate than competing in athletic events.

Most mornings, I muster the concentration to drive my bright-eyed five-year-old son to daycare and my preoccupied wife to the bus station. Then I move on to another day of specialists and therapists trying to diagnose or treat the injuries and infections that are the result of my system operating on overdrive for a quarter of a century. Moving between their offices, I often feel lost, afraid, and alone. I’m not the only one—research shows, a large proportion of injured veterans have a tough time developing a sense of belonging.

It’s likely that at no point in the last 70 years have proportionally so few Canadian families had someone who is serving or has served in the military. Whereas most families in the wake of the Second World War understood military service personally, many Canadians today have little grasp of the extreme demands it places on those who serve.

WATCH: What Canadians really think about national security

Based on the popularity of events like the Invictus Games, there would seem to be no shortage of compassion and support for individual Canadian soldiers and veterans. True Patriot Love, another charity, has hosted $500-a-plate breakfasts and obtained corporate sponsorships of up to $30,000, money raised for military families and veterans’ transition back to civilian life. The organization has sent injured personnel and “influential Canadian business leaders,” including its executive chairperson who also sits on the board of Invictus Games, on keystone trips to exotic destinations including the North Pole.

There is no doubting the good intentions of those involved in organizing and funding these initiatives, and the big money they raise can help veterans and their families. But their success may have the effect of creating in the eyes of the public an upper class of veterans deemed worthy of understanding and accolades because they are able to accomplish more than most. Or Canadians may choose to wash their hands of “the veteran problem,” because it appears that some charity is doing the work for them. Meanwhile, the government lauds or funds these foundations, giving Ottawa more excuses as it continues to fail to help veterans.

Surely injured veterans who compete at high levels in sporting arenas or complete arduous, once-in-a-lifetime expeditions are heroes. But where does that leave those who cannot accomplish such feats, who live without such inspiration or hope? The feeling that they must achieve something inspiring or noteworthy to have their conditions and experiences recognized just exacerbates their sense of hopelessness and despair. I wage war with my body and mind on an hourly basis, defending my sanity from a barrage of horrific images of self-destruction and inadequacy. Overcoming those challenges is inglorious and hard to celebrate in a newspaper headline, let alone in a sports stadium.

Putting veterans, especially the injured ones, on pedestals absolves you of having to know us as fellow Canadians. It exonerates you from acknowledging our humanity—heroes are not allowed to be vulnerable or open up.  The label can prevent those veterans to whom it is attached from having much-needed communion with themselves and their profoundly painful experiences.

Like most disabled veterans I know, I just want to belong, to feel valued. We need Canadians to spend the time to get to know us, to understand what we lived through and sacrificed on their behalf. We don’t want applause, just mutual understanding and compassion. That way, veterans in turn will be able to understand and engage with those who are showing how eager they are to lend us a helping hand.



At the Invictus Games, not all veterans are winners

  1. I really commend those vets for their determination and guts through those Invictus Games. I truly do. But can this event even positively impact any majority of veterans? Somewhere beyond the political public relations optics of it all ?

    A positive majority would be a pretty good starting point.
    Because when I thought of the Invictus Games the other day,
    all I could do was pick up my tiddly-winks from the floor.

    From a disabled vet

  2. I continue to wonder what the WW1 andWW2 vets did that must have been different from the new vets, they did not have all the things that are available now.
    I knew an awful lot of war vets when I was in the Airforce and have talked with some of the WW1 vets and no one seemed to have the trouble that are evident now. There may have been something that no longer is available now.

    • Not too many thought of themselves as ‘victims’. Or, if they did, they kept that, along with the rest of ‘their kit’, to themselves and jiust ‘soldiered on’.

      • Robertvan, your question is highly relevant and thankfully cuts to the core problem: recognition for service and sacrifice. WWI veterans were actually treated extremely poorly and ended up protesting in greater numbers than current veterans on a national scale. An example of their dissatisfaction was their participation in the Winnipeg General Strike. These veterans were not communists. Public protest, the right in any democracy, was their only option given the intransigent and privileged reaction of government of the day.

        WWII veterans were treated in a polar opposite manner specifically and directly because of the poor treatment of WWI veterans. All veterans, regardless of disability, were given wide-ranging assistance to re-establish as civilians including university, college, high school, apprenticeships, priority placement in the public service, retention of previous jobs and seniority, low-interest, guaranteed mortgages, land, homes, housebuilding classes, personalized guidance and instruction for spouses to assist veterans, fishing equipment, farming equipment, farmland, forestry management along with forest land, barns, and business start-up loans. WWII veterans were still accessing these programs into the 1990’s. Once again, this was made available to all veterans. And if injured, they were entitled to all of the above, plus dedicated veterans’ hospitals, rehabilitation units, dental care, and lifelong pensions for themselves and their spouses.
        Except for the lifelong pensions and extended health coverage, none of these programs were awarded to Canadian Forces veterans, even though they have faced injury levels higher than service in WWII. In 2006, the lifelong pension was stripped away unilaterally by the bureaucracy manipulating parliament in the middle of the Afghan War. It was replaced by a one-time lump sum with no extra compensation for children or spouses.

        Victims Kevin Quinn? This is a derogatory term to justify accountability in those who must repay Canada’s debt but choose to blame the veteran rather than understand his or her plight. What is the debt owed our veterans? A comprehensive re-establishment program. If there were such a program over the past seventy years, then CF veterans would not have to use their democratic right to protest like those veterans before them after WWI.
        Thank you Robertvan for your question.

  3. Sprting competition is about ‘winning’ – and sadly, ‘losing’ too. But let’s make sure all the winners at Invictus are veterans – like the rest of our vets..

  4. Sean Bruyea’s comment “But their success may have the effect of creating in the eyes of the public an upper class of veterans deemed worthy of understanding and accolades because they are able to accomplish more than most.” made me think of the millions which goes to a bunch of athletic, Olympic failures, while a very small amount is donated to far more successful Paralympic athletes. In no way am I opposed to the Invictus Games but to the organizers I say please don’t overspend on the talented (and more able bodied) and forget those without the talent and possibly with the more serious injuries.