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Healing with the Invictus Games

CHRISTINA BLIZZARD

Special to the Toronto Sun

Al McFarlane (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

Al McFarlane (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

In one of Al McFarlane’s ghastly recurring nightmares, a thirsty little girl is walking down a dirt road. She’s holding a plastic pop bottle cut in half and is using it as a glass to drink water from the stagnant puddles.

The reality was it wasn’t a young girl McFarlane saw, but an old man, when he was deployed with the in Bangui — in the Central African Republic — with the RCAF.

“Apparently the Bangui judicial — or lack of judicial — system works on the three strikes and you’re dead rule,” he recalls.

McFarlane, 53, saw the place where prisoners were held before being executed that night.

“I happened to see one of the individuals before he was executed and I still have nightmares of that, his eyes looked right through me,” he recalls.

It’s been a long road back for McFarlane.

He started his military career at the age of 17 with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery and later transferred to the air force. He worked as a crash investigator and a casualty case examiner for all the casualties from Afghanistan.

In that time, he examined scores of deaths. That entailed receiving the personal protective equipment from all the soldiers, sailors, airmen and women who became casualties of the Afghanistan conflict.

“Once we received the gear from the coroner, we would examine each piece of equipment thoroughly and try to come up with a better piece of kit or possible lessons learned to relay back to theatre and hopefully help out the troops,” he says. A harrowing process in which he became intimate with each death.

“You were provided a synopsis of what happened that caused the death — and go from there.”

With no counselling as he worked on these grisly assignments, the work took its toll.

McFarlane became isolated and started drinking too much.

“We were provided with no professionals to talk to about any of our cases,” he says. “Looking back, we should have been engaging with the mental health professionals.”

It wasn’t until after a suicide attempt in 2014 that he sought help. After a stint in rehab, and with mental health counselling, he’s sober and has his life back on an even keel.

Like many who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), McFarlane has found healing through sport. And the upcoming Invictus Games have been key for him in his recovery.

“Invictus has been a life saver,” he says. “It’s provided me with a means to communicate with like-minded individuals.”

With 90 athletes in the Canadian contingent, he has someone to share his experiences. Two training camps in Vancouver and Kingston taught him not to isolate himself and to be more sociable.

“Friendships have been formed and through social media, we have all been in touch on a regular basis.”

The brainchild of Prince Harry, who was inspired by his experiences when he was deployed with the British Army in Afghanistan, Invictus runs September 23-30 in Toronto. It will feature 550 competitors — all of them former military personnel suffering either physical or mental wounds — from 17 nations.

“Sport in general has helped me so much,” McFarlane said.

He’s competing in archery.

“Archery is mostly about concentration. Anyone with PTSD has issues with concentration,” he adds. “If I have a good shot, I know I’ve succeeded in gaining that level of concentration.

“Also Invictus is a great platform to showcase to the world what mental health is about with regards to soldiers.”

McFarlane’s PTSD is triggered in many ways.

“I know I’ll be tested at the games. Things such as crowds and loud noises set me off, both will be at the games,” he says. He’s been working out coping strategies and views the games as a personal challenge.

Armed forces veterans like McFarlane have given their health, their peace of mind, their all for this country. They’ve shown us what they’re made of. Now it’s time for us to show we care.

Let’s get out and wave the red-and-white flag for them as they compete in Invictus.

It’s the least we can do.