Ben Mead was what you would call a career soldier. The British serviceman has completed tours in some of the world's most dangerous warzones: Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq. But it was a stint in southern Afghanistan that would drastically alter the course of Mead's life.
In 2012, he was riding in a Royal Air Force helicopter when it was hit with a Taliban rocket during takeoff. Mead sustained a long list of injuries: a herniated cervical disk, severe nerve damage to his spine, and a cracked vertebra. Doctors told him he would probably end up in a wheelchair someday.
But the crash also left Mead with a less visible malady, one that he struggles with on a daily basis.
"I was diagnosed with severe PTSD," he said. "PTSD kind of creeps up on you and gets you when you least expect it."
The effects of Mead's trauma reverberated through every facet of his personal life. He quit his job. His long-term relationship fell apart. He began drinking heavily to numb the pain. He still hasn't seen his stepson in over a year.
Even something as simple as watching TV could become an ordeal.
"I was minding my own business, and I looked to the screen and I could feel the heat of the engines off the helicopter (on the TV) on my face," said Mead.
That was when Mead realized it was time to get help. He enlisted in an eight-week treatment program for veterans. "It turned my life around," said Mead, who went on to study mental health, completing several university courses with a focus on veterans' trauma.
He wants others like him to know they're not alone, a lesson that was reinforced for him this past winter when he took part in Soldier On, a program that supports those who have served but also brings together injured veterans from Canada, the U.K., Australia and the United States to take part in a sports camp offered through the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program (WASP).
"You get individuals from four different nations stepping off the bus on their first day looking at each other nervously, thinking, 'What the heck am I getting myself into?'" said Chelsey Walker, executive director of WASP. "Soon they realize they're not alone in their journey."
Since 2010, WASP has played host to 14 adaptive sports camps for veterans. Soldiers learn how to sit-ski, snowboard, cross-country ski and paddleboard, hand-bike and sail in the summer months, and take part in the many activities on offer in Whistler.
"The whole two weeks we were here I got a taste of pretty much every winter sport there is," said Mead.
"You name it, we did it. But it's more the comradeship you get. I made lifetime friends."
Now Mead is working with Whistler Adaptive to launch the Veterans Outreach Program, a year-round initiative for injured veterans and first responders to meet up once a month to play adaptive sports.
It's also a way to shine a light on everything WASP can offer to veterans and their families visiting Whistler.
"It only makes sense to make people aware that we can provide this type of service every single day, all year round in all the sports we offer," explained Walker. "Also we just want people to be aware if you're visiting us from San Diego and you're coming off the marine base there that you can book a program and an entire visit with your family and be supported while you're here."
That means Walker and her team can tailor a vacation to the specific needs of a veteran's family, like one Marine who came to Whistler earlier this year with his son, who has cerebral palsy.
"When he got here, he said, 'I can come to Whistler, bring my son who has CP, who is a wheelchair user, and do all this stuff and I'm supported, he's supported, and we can do it all as a family?' It just kind of blew his mind," said Walker.
Another essential part of the program will be connecting veterans with the resources they need back home, where they can often feel isolated without the right support systems in place.
"It gives us the chance on a long-term basis to make sure these individuals stay connected to support," Walker noted. "That's definitely something that's a bit unique."
Whistler Adaptive staff is currently undergoing additional specialized training to work with injured veterans, which can be a major shift from their typical work.
"A lot of it is cultural," Walker said. "We're dealing with a population that has their own culture and each one is slightly culturally different between nations."
For Mead, he hopes the program helps give back to veterans the same things he lost after that fateful day four years ago.
"You get back the banter, the sense of humour comes back. Being outdoors through Whistler Adaptive with the other guys, they all get on with each other," he said. "It's a bit like a funny little niche you get into, but at the same time it's family."
The Veterans Outreach Program is slated to begin this winter. Check back with www.whistleradaptive.com for updates.
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