Wounded warriors find new strength on Big Bike Ride

For eight Canadian veterans, the Paris-to-London Big Battlefield Bike Ride was a life-changing experience.

'I just feel like I can tackle the world right now,' Afghanistan veteran says

John Lowe, left, and Reserve Warrant Officer James Lamothe, cycled 600 kilometres in six days through northern France and southern England on the Big Battlefield Bike Ride. (Tracy Seeley/CBC)

For eight Canadians, the Paris-to-London Big Battlefield Bike Ride was a life-changing experience.

They cycled 600 kilometres in six days through northern France and southern England, visited First and Second World War battlefields and watched a Spitfire flypast.

But what really stood out was the sense of healing.

Before this trip, 26-year-old John Lowe from Cloverdale, B.C. found it tough to talk about the psychological problems he experienced after returning from military duty in Afghanistan. When he learned a Canadian charity called Wounded Warriors was sending a team to Paris for the ride, he asked family and friends to help him raise the required $4,000.

John Lowe couldn't talk openly about his post-traumatic stress before embarking on the Big Battlefield Bike Ride. (Tracy Seeley/CBC)

He had to tell them why he wanted to make the trip. For the first time, he spoke openly about being diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He talked about how frightening it was driving on Afghan roads knowing there were explosive devices everywhere, how when he got home he was depressed, anxious and couldn’t sleep. He says he was "amazed" by all the support he got.

It allowed him to participate in a new journey.

The Paris-to-London bike ride is an annual event run by Help for Heroes, a British Military charity. There were 300 participants this year, including 50-year-old Andrew Godin from Napanee, Ont. He retired from the Canadian army in 2006. He served twice in Bosnia with what was later diagnosed with PTSD. He says he felt useless and discarded.

"It’s a battle every day," he said as he prepared his bike for to ride for the final push to London.  "If I had my way, I’d stay in my house without coming out."

Godin had an anxiety attack leaving Toronto for Paris, but once he joined the group, things changed. He said it was good to be with people who understood what he was going through and didn’t regard having a mental disorder as a bad thing.

Wayne Johnston started Wounded Warriors in 2006. An ebullient leader with a large handlebar moustache, Johnston spent 39 years in the army. His work as a repatriation officer at Canadian Forces Base Trenton, helping families of those killed or severely wounded in action, left him severely traumatized. He realized a lot more could be done for military men and women suffering from operational stress. On this trip he followed the cyclists by car, offering mechanical and moral support.

 "They’ve been in dark spots," he said. "Now they can see there’s life outside feeling sorry for yourself."

Canadian 'Wounded Warrior' riders during a stop at the Battle of Britain National Memorial to the Few in Capel-Le-Ferne, England. (Tracy Seeley/CBC)

The man who put the Canadian team together is James Lamothe. He’s a Reserve Warrant Officer from Whitby, Ont. who believes physical fitness is key to combating PTSD. He enjoyed setting tough training goals and watching men like Lowe and Godin knock them down.

 "It gave them something to focus on and let them leave some other things behind."

Most of the participants in the Big Bike ride were British. There were Americans too. Some lost limbs in combat and made the trip on specially modified bikes. Watching the amputees struggle to keep up had a profound effect on John Lowe.

"They’re just so grateful for their lives, so happy for what they have," he said.

He knows post-traumatic stress is a debilitating and long-lasting condition, but he said he’s going home to Cloverdale feeling much more thankful for what he has. In his words: "I just feel like I can tackle the world right now."