Edmonton soldier says Invictus Games helped him cope with PTSD
'Don't shy away and don't think you don't deserve it, alright? You totally deserve it'
Soldiers returning from combat often face long roads of recovery when they return to Canada. Many of them come back with physical injuries. Others carry wounds that aren't as visible.
Edmonton's Sgt. Rob Dolson is in the second group.
Twelve years ago, he was involved in a violent ambush in a village in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. In an event that was highly publicized at the time, his platoon-mate, Capt. Trevor Greene, who was sitting beside him, took a hatchet to the head. Greene's brain was almost split in half.
"I stood up because he was gonna hit Trevor again. I turned, I shot him twice," Dolson told CBC's Radio Active.
"He dropped the axe, and by that time, other people in our group of Canadians started shooting the guy who attacked Trevor.... By then, basically the whole village opened up on us. It was like a massive ambush — gunfire and everything. Chaos, just chaos."
Dolson said parts of the attack were in slow motion. He'll never forget it.
"It was a pretty crazy day. As a soldier, we always train to be ready for that. But how can you ever be ready for something like that?"
Greene survived, miraculously, but has relied on a wheelchair since.
For years after the attack, Dolson suffered from PTSD.
"It knocked me down a few steps, which I wasn't prepared for," he said.
Dolson's daughter had been born just days before the attack occurred. She was his first child. He started to doubt himself.
"I was thinking, if I can't protect a grown man, how am I going to protect this child? It just really tore me down."
Dolson said that after he got home he was hyper-vigilant and wasn't acting like himself.
"It got pretty low, I was kind of isolating myself," he said.
"There were some times I was drinking every day. I had some physical injuries as well — just from being in the infantry a really long time. Taking prescription medication, trying to numb things. I got pretty low for a while there. I asked for a posting out to the East Coast because I just needed to get away."
The struggle almost lost him his family, Dolson said.
In 2015, he returned to Edmonton. A couple of years later, he was introduced to the Invictus Games.
The Invictus Games is an international sporting event, created by Prince Harry. Sick or injured veterans from around the world compete in an array of events such as wheelchair rugby, track and field and cycling. Athletes are classified based on their injury or illness — much like the Paralympic Games has different classifications.
Greene took part in the opening ceremony when the games were held in Toronto in 2017.
Afterward, he told Dolson to go for it. Dolson hadn't considered the games, since he doesn't have an obvious physical injury.
"I just thought, as someone with mental illness, I didn't deserve to be there, in a sense," said Dolson.
He decided to apply.
He found out he was accepted in the middle of a class at NAIT, where he's studying as he prepares for life outside the military.
The email said "you made team Canada," and Dolson stepped outside the classroom.
"I walked out and I started doing the happy dance. Fist pumps and all that. It was almost for Trevor, too… This was for both of us."
There were training camps where Dolson met his fellow team Canada athletes. The games themselves were held in Sydney this past October.
"You have to experience it to believe it. It was just amazing interacting with athletes and soldiers from other countries who have gone through mental health issues."
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Dolson competed in cycling, sitting volleyball, the 100-metre and 200-metre sprints, shot put and discus.
It was a huge help in his healing process, he said
"Just being around athletes and other soldiers — sailors and airmen that have gone through it... you're with them and you're just socializing with them You're doing sports, which is a great way to get soldiers together and help them out."
As Dolson continues his healing journey, he as a message for soldiers suffering with mental health issues:
"Don't run away... The great thing about Invictus is you're going to be a part of a team and being part of that team really helps you. Don't hide away in your basement, don't shy away and don't think you don't deserve it, alright? You totally deserve it."