As Prince Harry brings his Invictus Games to Toronto, servicemen and women are given a new sense of purpose.
The returning soldier—physically wounded, emotionally stricken and unable to adjust from the theatre of war to the reality of life—is a theme explored by many of the best books and films on war. From the bleak alienation of Hemingway's Nick Adams to the heroic struggles of the characters in The Best Years of Our Lives to the haunted outcasts of The Deer Hunter, each dramatizes the eternal quandary: how can we help the men and women who've served in the military re-establish themselves back into everyday life?
While we cheer our troops as they go off to war, admire their bravery on the battlefield and salute their sacrifice when they're killed in action, far too often we simply ignore veterans who return home scarred from battle. Having served their purpose, the military jettisons them back into the foreign landscape of civilian life, leaving many struggling to cope with injury, depression and unemployment, which can lead to substance abuse and suicide. We avert our eyes from these uncomfortable reminders of the horrors of war, leaving them and their families to fight their personal battles on their own.
Although he would likely scoff at the suggestion, retired corporal Phil Badanai, a 44-year-old ex-soldier wounded in action who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), has experienced this familiar fate.
In 1992, Badanai joined the Royal Canadian Regiment right out of high school. Two years later, when most of his peers would be partying in college, the 21-year-old found himself serving in a peacekeeping mission in Croatia, then one of world's hottest battle zones.
"My partner and I were coming back from escorting some engineers from an observation post when we ran into about 25 Serb soldiers on the road," says Badanai. "They opened up fire on us. I got hit twice, my partner seven times. I managed to drive back to the medical station about 20 kilometres away," he recalls, in the matter-of-fact way military people often use when describing what to us would be the most harrowing of experiences.
Badanai served two more tours in Bosnia and later remustered with the Air Force, becoming a firefighter. But his dreams haunted him, and he could never escape the psychological effects of having been shot—in 2004, he was diagnosed with PTSD and, in 2008, he was released for medical reasons.
Still a young man, he was suddenly thrust back into civilian life, struggling with his condition and trying to adapt to life outside of the armed forces. "I grew up in the military—they're the ones who raised me. To leave that was hard. It was all I'd known."
Although he was lucky to land a good job—he now serves as a fire safety inspector at Bombardier Aerospace in Toronto—he still hasn't fully accepted the nine-to-five lifestyle. "It's just not the same," he says. "I miss being cold and miserable and everything sucking. All my best stories start with me being cold and miserable … and getting shot at. Call me weird, but that's what I miss."
Learning to live with the horrific memories of the shooting, not to mention the shrapnel still lodged in his back, has been an frustrating process. He's constantly aware something's missing: "The group, the camaraderie, the military attitude are all missing. I'm still trying to figure it all out."
It's the plight of countless vets like Badanai that prompted Michael Burns to do more to improve the lives of the men and women who had sacrificed so much to serve our country.
"About a decade ago, a friend of mine, Peter Dawe, lost his son Matthew [one of four Dawe boys serving in the military] to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. On the drive home from the funeral, I thought long and hard about what I wasn't doing to support our military families."
Armed with a background in marketing and financial technology start-ups, Burns co-founded the True Patriot Love Foundation (TPL), a national charity that would raise money for military families. Encouraged by the outpouring of support after its first fundraising event, using TPL as a driving force, Burns put in a bid for the 2017 Invictus Games, a competition created by Prince Harry that uses the power of sport to help ill or injured servicemen and women on their journey to recovery.
The prince launched the inaugural Invictus Games in London in 2014. Modelled on the U.S.-based Warrior Games, the Games pitted active duty and service members from allied countries in adaptive sporting contests.
The motivation behind these games came from Prince Harry's experience as an officer in the British forces. For years after the tragic death of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, Harry searched and finally found a mission that gave him purpose in life, serving as a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan, which included airlifting injured troops to hospital. "I convinced myself for 10 years that, while I was there, I was one of the lads. I was doing a job and I had a role."
In Afghanistan, he wasn't shielded from the ugly face of war. "I ferried horribly injured troops to hospital," Prince Harry told the British press. "How, I thought, do you ease their trauma and give new meaning to their shattered lives? Then it hit me—sport."
The Prince's recent admission of struggling with repressed emotions brought on by not dealing with grief—which led to anxiety and "total chaos"—gives him insight into the hurdles many ex-military face finding a purpose in life, which he found by serving his country. "Everybody who is in the military and then leaves needs to be connected to something," says Prince Harry.
And he hopes that the Invictus Games will act as a springboard to bring physical and mental healing. "These Games shine a spotlight on the unconquerable character of servicemen and women and their families," says the prince in a video message launching the Toronto Games. "You will see people who, by rights, should have died on the battlefield but are now on the track competing for gold."
After attending the 2016 Orlando Invictus Games, Burns grew more impressed. "We thought it would be pretty special if we could bring the Invictus Games to Canada in our sesquicentennial year, as well as the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy [one of the early defining moments of our nation]," he says.
When it was announced that Toronto had won its bid for the games, Burns was ecstatic. A natural choice for CEO, he immediately started gathering staff and volunteers, many of whom had already worked putting on major sporting events, such as the Vancouver Olympic Games in 2010 and the Pan Am & Parapan Am games in Toronto in 2015.
A true believer in the Prince's vision, Burns developed an "incredible" working relationship with Harry. And any thoughts that His Royal Highness would be an aloof figurehead disappeared quickly. "Not only has he been very accessible, but the level of detail he brings is very impressive. He's got strong opinions on the Games and how they should be presented."
Above all, Burns has been most inspired by the prince's humility. "As a veteran of the British armed forces, he's authentic and real. He knows his role is to draw attention to the Games, but he truly wants that attention directed to the competitors and their families. And the way he interacts with the competitors and families—he's just a great ambassador."
Badanai will be one of the 550 competitors from 17 different nations who will compete in Toronto's Invictus Games. "I really needed to challenge myself." After tryouts in Vancouver Island and Kingston, he landed a spot on the team in three events: indoor rowing, wheelchair rugby and wheelchair tennis. (Although Badanai isn't paralyzed, wheelchair sports are open to all competitors.)
The first training camp in B.C. did not go smoothly. He had trouble being in a military surrounding again. Shortly after camp, he suffered a stroke, from which he still has lingering issues, but that has never dampened his resolve to compete.
Training for Invictus has given Badanai a new lease on life. "It's been really positive. Invictus has given me focus and a goal. I'm doing this for myself and for my family [his wife and two sons]. I don't want to coast. Competing for Invictus is something I wanted and needed to do."
Reawakening a latent sense of mission in the servicemen and women is what the Invictus Games are all about, says Burns. "Yes, it's a sporting event. But what we're really delivering is therapy," he says. "These are people who, three months ago, were struggling to get out of bed in the morning. They're having challenges at home and at work, with their families and friends. It's an opportunity to once again put on a Canadian uniform with a flag on their sleeve."
And because these ex-military personnel are trained to win, the competition will be fierce. Badanai says his goal for rowing is to give it everything: "It's my military mindset: go hard or go home." Burns saw this spirit over and over again at the Orlando games.
Besides planning a national flag relay that will visit military bases across Canada, Burns is especially enthusiastic about the opening ceremony, a two-hour spectacle that will draw celebrities, dignitaries and big-name musical acts to Toronto. The opening bash will be streamed live on Facebook and the events will be broadcast to member countries over the BBC, ESPN and Italian, French and Australian television networks.
Burns, however, would like to see as many Canadians as possible buy tickets and watch the games live. "Spectators will see a lot of things at Invictus that they wouldn't see at other games," he promises. "These men and women are trained to win on the battlefield, and they bring that same intensity and that same winning attitude to the playing field. They take their sport seriously and they're very proud. They're not going to roll over."
NEXT: Invictus Games Scorecard
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