Monday September 25, 2017

Former Canadian soldier given a new chance to shine at Invictus Games

Hélène Le Scelleur, left, on the track in Toronto.

Hélène Le Scelleur, left, on the track in Toronto. (Hélène Le Scelleur)

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This week in Toronto, the Invictus Games are playing host to current and former military members who are "wounded, ill or injured" from around the world.

But for Hélène Le Scelleur, those injuries are invisible scars. The now-retired Canadian Army Captain suffered a post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI) after a convoy she was riding in was hit by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2007.

Check out her Invictus profile and event results here.

The invitation to compete in the Invictus Games represented a second chance to be an active member of a team, and to raise awareness of the psychological effects of war that can affect soldiers just as much as a physical injury.

Hélène Le Scelleur

Hélène Le Scelleur, second from the left, participating in the Invictus Games on Sept 25. (Sharon Peabody)

Today, she's a force to be reckoned with, competing in multiple events such as wheelchair rugby, rowing, and four different sprinting events on the track.

"Eight months ago, I wouldn't have imagined where I am today," Le Scelleur told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"It was an amazing journey, and looking backwards and at my life before, the progress that I made, I'm just so happy for me. It's like I've already won the game, in my mind."

Hélène Le Scelleur

Captain (retired) Hélène Le Scelleur is competing in multiple events at this year's Invictus Games. (Canadian Armed Forces/Facebook)

Le Scelleur recalled the fateful night in Afghanistan in 2007, when the transport vehicle she was aboard was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED). She describes a white noise and confusion about what happened to her fellow soldiers.

She and her team waited for four hours for assistance in the wrecked vehicle, not knowing when help would arrive, or if they would come under attack again.

At the time, Le Scelleur says her training and instincts took over to survey the situation. But she didn't confront just how scared she was at that moment until years later.

"I didn't realize until afterward that I was really scared ... I was afraid to die that night," she says.

Luckily, no one was killed in the attack. But the mental scars lingered for years. She struggled with alcoholism, recurring nightmares and suicidal thoughts.

After returning from Afghanistan, Le Scelleur became part of then-governor general Michaëlle Jean's security detail. But before long the PTSI became too much to handle, and she resigned, and was effectively placed "on the shelf" by her superiors.

"Having people come to me say 'you were the star of  our branch and now you're a black sheep,' and being put on the shelf didn't help at all," she told Off.

"We have great resources to take care of our wounded veterans or soldiers, but there's still a stigma within the ranks, within the units, and also a stigma that you're still weak if you seek help. And that's going to be a huge shift that needs to happen sometime."

She was discharged in 2016, after serving for 26 years.

Renewed purpose

Training for and competing in the Invictus Games has given Le Scelleur a renewed sense of purpose. 

"Because of the PTSI, I wasn't doing any training any more. It was a big deal just coming out of my house," she says. "So it did help in a lot of ways to just become active again, and also to meet new people, and new environments, and expose myself to some of the triggers I was experiencing and to be able to overcome them."

Rio Paralympics

Australia's Ryley Batt fights for the ball with United States' Chuck Aoki during a mixed wheelchair rugby final match at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on Sept. 18, 2016. (Leo Correa/Associated Press)

Competing in the wheelchair rugby event was a particularly enriching experience for Le Scelleur. Unlike most other competitors she still has full use of her legs, so she was initially unsure of whether the rest of her team would accept her.

"But they were like, 'No Hélène, we know why we're here, and we're supporting you.' And after the games they invited me to practice with them. so I'm so happy.

The physical sport, nicknamed "murderball," often involved players' wheelchairs clanging into each other. Le Scelleur says the noise initially brought back memories of the crashes and other noises of the IED incident in Afghanistan.

"It did remind me of the sound of that night when our vehicle was involved in the IED strike," she said. But being exposed, and exposing yourself (to it) makes you develop some mechanism to cope with the triggers. Now, because I am enjoying the sport so much, I don't necessarily hear that any more."