Organizers from the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program (WASP) are preparing to host 40 injured or ill soldiers from four different countries for this year’s expanded Soldier On winter program, aimed at helping military personnel return to an active lifestyle through sport and recreation.
The Soldier On program was founded in 2007 as a joint initiative between the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC), which will help organize this year’s winter program in Whistler for the first time.
“This year’s camp is going to be slightly different than previous camps because the Canadian Paralympic Committee is also taking a lead, so we’ll see a much more comprehensive camp and package being offered to the soldiers,” said WASP’s executive director Chelsey Walker. Similar camps have been held in Whistler since 2010. “They’ll not only participate in traditional sports offered through Whistler Adaptive like alpine skiing and snowboarding, but also there’ll be an inclusion on the program of curling and sledge (hockey).”
This year will see 10 soldiers each from Canada, the U.K., U.S. and Australia participate in the expanded program, with Canadian military personnel and sport experts spearheading the camp. Warrant Officer Dan Connor, who’s helped administer the Solider On program for a year and a half, said the 2013 winter camp will have a certain “Canadian flair to it” for the other Allied soldiers.
“We’re going to include some other activities that are very uniquely Canadian, so we will take the soldiers Ski-Dooing, we will take them out dogsledding, we’ll have Canadian breakfast with pancakes, French toast, maple syrup, things like that,” he said. “It’s definitely nice to have a Canadian flair that soldiers from Australia or the U.K. and United States would not necessarily have the opportunity to see.”
The program is also a way for Allied soldiers to work together and share their respective expertise, which is why Canadian Forces personnel are spearheading the Whistler camp.
“We realize that Canada is very winter-oriented, so we will take the lead on that and share our expertise with other Allied nations,” said Connor from his office in Ottawa. “Each country is bringing representatives from their programs that look after their ill and injured (soldiers) from a capacity of sport and recreation. As well, they will bring some of their rehabilitative expertise, so it’s an opportunity for us to discuss amongst nations while we’re running the event and draw off the experiences from each country.”
Other Allied nations host similar camps throughout the year, like the one taking place in San Diego days ahead of Whistler’s winter camp, organized by the U.S. Marine Corps. Canadian Forces will be sending 15 ill or injured soldiers to compete in the Paralympic-style sport trials, beginning Feb. 24.
In Canada, military personnel are eligible for the Soldier On program if they have been diagnosed with some form of documented medical condition obtained while serving. The program is open to both current and former soldiers.
The camps offer a host of benefits to injured soldiers that are about more than just physical rehabilitation, said Connor.
“The benefit is not only physical and allowing them to regain what we call their ‘new normal,’” he said. “It also improves the soldier’s self-confidence, which aids in the rehabilitation and recovery process. It also has a spin-off; this is something that will carry well beyond his time in the military. He’s gone back to an active lifestyle so he’s doing things with his family more, so the family really benefits from this as well.”
Connor saw those less tangible benefits firsthand last year, when he was in Whistler with a group of soldiers who were learning to para-snowboard.
“For me personally, one of the greatest moments was taking an individual that’s injured and have him ski Whistler (Mountain),” he said. “To have him stand on top of Whistler and not realize that there was the nice luxury of a webcam, with his whole family seeing what we were about to do. That was great, and the feedback I got from the family when he returned was amazing.”
Connor said he hopes to expand the winter camp to include more eligible soldiers in the future, providing them with “the best product, which happens to be in Whistler at this time.”
For her part, Walker is happy Canadian Forces are looking to Whistler’s world-class adaptive facility to host their camps and she’s proud to offer help to those who have sacrificed so much.
“On a personal note, we’re so appreciative of everything (the military) does on a daily basis to keep us all safe, and if this is one way we can give back, it results in a win-win,” she said.
Canadian Forces currently provides assistance to more than 4,500 soldiers and their families who have been injured or deemed ill while in service, according to a military spokesperson,
The Soldier On winter camp runs from Feb. 27 to March 8.
For more information, or to contribute to the program, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.