Invictus Games: A soldier's path from golf course to an Afghan battlefield and back again
For William Werth, golf and military life were tests of 'mental fortitude' – but overcoming the injuries of war was the biggest feat of endurance. Blind in one eye and left with a traumatic brain injury, he is one of many wounded warriors competing at the Invictus Games. Eric Andrew-Gee tells his story
Not many nine-year-old boys enjoy watching golf on TV. William Werth was different.
"Some might consider it boring," he says. Not him.
Soon he began to play, buying his first clubs at a yard sale, a "cheap little $5 set," in which "the woods were really made of wood."
Mr. Werth grew up in Waterloo, Ont., and was hardly the country-club type – his mother ran a home daycare, his father was a millwright – but he took to the sport eagerly. He liked the challenge of it: the extreme difficulty of plunking a little ball into a little hole hundreds of yards away.
His other obsessions were more commonplace for little boys: hockey and the military. But if few of the world's countless young GI Joes actually enlist, Mr. Werth was different again.
At 16, he joined the Army Reserve, and two years later became a full-time soldier.
As with golf, the army seemed like a challenge – one that tests your "mental fortitude," Mr. Werth, 27, says. Especially his chosen unit, 2 Combat Engineer Regiment. And especially in 2006, with Canada at war in Afghanistan.
Typically, engineers are the "Swiss Army knife of the military," Mr. Werth says – able to fight but also trained in more technical fields.
In Afghanistan, where he was soon deployed, that often meant one thing: finding and neutralizing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the makeshift mines and roadside bombs that killed or wounded scores of Canadian soldiers in the conflict.
Mr. Werth arrived in Afghanistan in May, 2010, at the start of the summer fighting season. He was deployed in Panjwayi District, Kandahar, "out in the thick of it."
He had been told by returning soldiers to brace himself. He had trained with inert ammunition for years. But he could scarcely have been prepared for the real thing.
The real thing did not take long to make an appearance. On Mr. Werth's first foot patrol, he came across a weapons cache, the entrance to which was protected by two IEDs.
"I remember this like it was yesterday," he says.
To take out an IED, combat engineers use a mine detector to locate the device, then approach it on their stomachs and begin prodding into the ground with a bayonet or something like it, even using paint brushes to skim away loose dirt, "like an archaeologist."
With radio permission to go ahead, one common technique is to lay a block of C4 plastic explosive next to the IED and detonate it from a safe distance. This is what Mr. Werth did. Which is about when the ambush started.
Taliban fighters had come to protect their weapons. The firefight blazed for five or 10 minutes before U.S. helicopters ended it. The day's geyser of adrenalin was a hint of things to come. "It was a good reminder of where you are and what you're there to do," Mr. Werth says.
Over the next several weeks, on morning and afternoon patrols through the area's grape rows and mud compounds, "we were getting into firefights almost daily; we were finding IEDs almost daily," Mr. Werth says. "The area we were in just happened to be very active and very hot."
Canadian casualties were heavy. A mentor of his, Sergeant James MacNeil, was killed by an IED in June. On Mr. Werth's first patrol after seeing Sgt. MacNeil's body off from Kandahar Airfield, his infantry section commander stepped on an IED and was thrown over a wall. Mr. Werth took shrapnel to the left side of his body and face.
His memories from that point on are hazy, but he recalls a few things: walking onto the medivac under his own strength, thinking he would fall out of the helicopter as it banked in defence manoeuvres, scissors coming towards his body at Kandahar Airfield, and finally waking up at a hospital in Germany.
Still on a breathing tube and badly disoriented, he felt panic. Mr. Werth at the time had no memory of what had happened. In the German hospital bed, he could only regain his bearings by looking at his limbs and realizing he had them all.
One aspect of his confusion was the soreness in his face. A nurse brought him a mirror. She said it was fine, that they could fix it. But his face looked so swollen that Mr. Werth instantly thought, "You can't fix it."
He was in Germany for a couple of weeks, then spent another week or two at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, then was transferred to his parents' house in Waterloo, where a nurse would come twice a day to change the dressings.
His face healed up well in the end, but Mr. Werth was left blind in his left eye, with a traumatic brain injury that affected his memory, chronic back pain, and tinnitus.
He coped with the help of family – he and his fiancée were married about a year after the blast; they now have two children – and an uncannily upbeat attitude. "It's one of those things that kind of makes up who I am," he says. "There's no point in getting yourself down, because you've got a long life to live, and now's the time to buck up and make the best of a not-so-good situation."
Sports helped him do that. He started playing hockey with a group called Soldier On that helps veterans transition into civilian life. And after a long hiatus while he served, Mr. Werth took up golf again. It was hard at first, with only one good eye. But he adjusted. "It's not as difficult as you might think," he insisted.
Now he is so used to the trick of monocular golf that he challenges his friends to play with an eye covered and "absolutely destroys" them, he says with a laugh. His golf handicap is about 10 or 12, better than the average amateur player (although it has shaded up to 15 lately).
This will be his first time competing in the Invictus Games for Team Canada. Places on the team are assigned not just according to ability, but through a written application that asks questions about what the athletes hope to take from the experience. Fielding the best possible team is not "what the Games are about," Mr. Werth says. "It's more about the journey."
He says he encourages other ill and injured veterans to seek out opportunities to recover through sports like he has. "Sport is very good for recovery because it's challenging both physically and mentally," he says. "It gets you out of your comfort zone and tests your limits."
His journey out of military life has been smoother than some. After getting a college degree in software engineering, he landed a job at a medical cannabis farm in Kitchener, Ont., not far from his home in Plattsville. He does not use the stuff himself, but has seen it loosen the grip of opioids on the lives of fellow wounded veterans. The misery of so many who have returned from war has helped him maintain perspective about civilian life.
Having been in the military is not his be all and end all, Mr. Werth says. "I think it's important to understand it's not the end."
Invictus Games by numbers
This is the third instalment of the Games, a kind of Olympics for wounded, ill and injured military personnel and veterans from around the world created by Prince Harry after attending a similar event in the United States in 2013. The first Games took place in London in 2014. The second were last year in Orlando, Fla. This year, Toronto is the host city from Sept. 23 to 30.
Nations participating in this year's event. They range widely from France to New Zealand – many have in common their participation in the coalition effort in Afghanistan, whether in a military or peacekeeping capacity. That includes Afghanistan itself, whose military is taking part for the first time.
Sports included in the Games. Sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball, and wheelchair rugby are among the adaptive sports that will be played, along with more familiar competitions like golf, archery and swimming.
Athletes competing in the Games. Team Canada features 90 athletes.
The Globe's man at the games
Michael Clarke, who works in The Globe and Mail's IT department, was chosen to be part of Team Canada and will be competing at the Invictus Games.
How did you get involved with the Games?
I was aware of the Games, but it wasn't until I saw they were coming to Toronto that I began to pay attention. To join Team Canada you need to be a current or former member of the Canadian Armed Forces who was medically released or has a disability. I was in the Forces since high school, where I was in the reserves and then joined the regular force in CFB Petawawa in the Armoured Corps. I drove Canada's version of a tank until I was injured in a motorcycle accident.
The application asked why you wanted to participate and in what sports. I sent it off and couldn't believe when I was accepted.
What will you compete in?
I'm in several events: 200m and 1500m track and field and then cycling for individual and team races. I discovered wheelchair racing in 1989. After I left the army, I was working in an office and wanted to get back into shape. I've done the Boston Marathon six times and about 50 marathons, so I know what I'm doing in a racing chair. It gives me a good base of experience for the Games, which is not just physical. There's a large tactical component.
What's your training regime like?
I've built on the training I used to prepare for marathons and each athlete also has a personal sport coach. After work and on the weekends, I go for rides that can go up to 50 kilometres. In the winter, I set up my hand-cycle in a stationary trainer. It takes about 2 1/2 hours to go 50 kilometres.
How often do you get to be with the rest of the team?
The Canadian team is scattered all across the country so we've been together twice: a training camp in Victoria in April and one in Kingston in June. There are about a half-dozen of us in the GTA though, so we've had social and training get-togethers.
There's an echo of the team-building and cohesiveness that is very present in the military working through this team. We're all ex or current Forces and there is a commonality in world view and personality types, so we get along quite well.
Are there different levels of ability for the competitors?
Absolutely. There are people who are just starting their journey and have never done this before. The idea is to change people's lives more than it is to put together a team of athletic gods and win all the medals. That's fun for the spectators, but not useful for people who are trying to use this as a tool to get healthier as they put their lives back together.
You may get out of the house more, or become more physically active, become more settled in your life. For many, improving mental and physical health is more important than winning.
How do you feel before a race?
There's a certain level of tension. You're just concentrating on your equipment and hoping it's put together properly. For instance, on a hand-cycle, you're going 35 km/h, several inches from the ground and wearing only spandex. You're also doing an instant evaluation of the others, trying to determine their speed and style.
Absolutely, I'm looking to win. If I don't, I'm okay with my performance if I can say I did my best, prepared well and on the day went out and gave everything I could.
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