Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Paralympics recruits injured soldiers .... soldier on .... !

Sports plan targets wounded soldiers
Disabled Canadian veterans could be competing at 2010 Olympics

February 28, 2007 The Provincee

WHISTLER -- Wounded Canadian soldiers will be recruited to become elite Olympic athletes.

The Department of National Defence is working with the Canadian Paralympic Committee on a program called "Soldier On" to help members of the military who are wounded in action, on the job, or otherwise, to use sport to recover.

The hope is that some will go on to compete in the 2010 Paralympic Games. "I would think there is a good chance that we will probably produce some very good athletes," said Lt.-Col. Gerry Blais, director of casualty support for the Canadian Forces.

He pointed to the soldiers' high level of fitness, sense of duty and drive as strong assets for a Paralympian. Blais said the partnership is a way to help disabled soldiers deal with life-changing trauma.

"The ultimate aim is to promote healthy lifestyle and show [them] that their life isn't over because they have undergone an amputation or have a spinal-cord injury or something of that nature," said Blais from his Ottawa office.

Funding and other details for the program are still being worked out.

About 328 soldiers have been disabled since Canada arrived in Af-ghanistan in 2001. Annually, another 20 are disabled while serving.

Cpl. Jesse Melnyck lost his right eye last August when he was shot in the head while serving in Afghanistan. It was the third tour of duty for the 25-year-old signal operator, now based at CFB Petawawa, Ont. He plans to attend a summit on the program this May to find out more details.

"I really do believe in service to the nation, that is who I am," said Melnyck. "I think military members will see this as a challenge and they will want to be involved. They want people to see they are not broken."

Sgt. Karen McCoy, an aviation technician at CFB Gagetown, N.B., dreams of running in the Paralympics. "It is a dream for me to run," said the mother-of-two who lost her leg to cancer two years ago. "I don't give up. My kids would love to see that, and I would love to do it for other people in the service to show them that you don't give up."

It's a win-win situation, said Brain MacPherson, chief operating officer for the Paralympic committee, adding the Paralympics were started to help veterans.

The U.S. already runs a similar program and has a pool of about 20,000 soldiers to draw upon. "They are betting a full 10-per-cent of the U.S. Paralympic team going to Beijing for the [2008] Summer Games will be those soldiers who got injured in Iraq," MacPherson said.

Master Cpl. Brett Rickard lost his leg just above the knee while working on an army fuel truck in 1988.

He believes strength in spirit and the support Forces members give each other could help put military personnel on the podium. "It would be awesome," he said from his base at North Bay, Ont. "I would be very proud to see Canadian Forces members on the podium."

And sit-skier Josh Dueck, a non-soldier who is training to compete at the 2010 Games, is looking forward to the military competing.

"I believe the work ethic and morale that these individuals from the military can bring into sport is huge," he said. "I have had the opportunity to ski with some people injured at war and they are phenomenal athletes. Ski racing to them is not intimidating . . . these guys have been shot at, so they say, 'What, all I am going to get is a face full of snow.'"