Rhonda Lee Crew tells Michał Zieliński about her personal battles won long before she decided to compete in the Invictus Games.
Why did you join the army?
When I was 27, I was going through a divorce. I was already a nurse, and I realized I had to find a way to look after myself in the future. A couple of years before, I had been in the Reserve Force and I enjoyed it, so I thought to do it full time. I joined the military, so that I could maintain my security and stability, have a pension and a future, and still develop my career. Joining the army meant freedom for me.
I realize it is not an easy subject, but I have to talk about it. The Invictus Games competitors are mainly soldiers who had been wounded in service. However, yours are not physical wounds, it is PTSD...
That is correct, yes, but it is not a sensitive topic for me anymore. I have in the last few years decided it was time to talk about it out loud, because if I, a woman at the top of a nursing occupation, can admit it, maybe some other people can, and I can be an example for them. Honestly, there were several things that initiated my mental health condition. First, in December1999, I was sexually assaulted by a Military Police Officer from another country. I dealt with it then only in a logistical way, I reported it to the Chain of Command and ensured that my attacker was held accountable for his actions. Other than that, I did not really deal with it. Then, in 2007, I did a tour in Afghanistan where I was working as a trauma nurse in the Role 3 Hospital at the Kandahar Airfield (KAF), and I was working as a Flight Nurse with DUSTOFF providing emergency patient evacuation of casualties from the combat zone. My roommate was a civilian nurse who suffered from night terrors; this meant that I was listening to the screams of wounded soldiers while working, and to the screams of my roommate during my off-time – basically, I was exposed to screaming and trauma both night and day 24/7. Then, on New Year’s Eve our helicopter was damaged by small arms fire and had to do a MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY emergency landing. The combination of all those events together had just been a little more than I was ready to deal with, so it led to a diagnosis of the post-traumatic stress disorder.
You did not withdraw from military service?
Honestly, I was a Lieutenant when I had my first trauma, I am a Lieutenant-Colonel now, meaning that I have been promoted three times since my initial injury. There are good reasons for this. First, I am really good at denying and hiding things. The other is that when I asked for the help I needed, I received it, and I was able to continue on in my career. Still, there were times when I had my fears, I had to take medicines to help with that, and I was put on what the military calls a “temporary category”. I temporarily needed help, I asked for this help and I received it – this meant that with all the supports available to me, I was ultimately able to continue my service.
When was the first time you heard about the Invictus Games?
I first heard about it in 2015 through Joe Kiraly, the team manager of the Invictus Games – he was working with Soldier On, and was a friend of mine and my husband. My husband actually is an injured soldier as well, and participated in 2016 Games in Orlando, Florida. Time in Orlando was wonderful. It was great to see all those injured soldiers being celebrated instead of looked at funny like you are generally in your hometown, because there's only one or two of you there. At the games, there's a crowd of you. I found it very inspiring, but I didn't plan to apply until last year. I met some people who didn't feel the Games were positive. I told them that the Games were absolutely positive for my husband and myself. To prove my words, I decided to participate. I put my application in, and four months later I received an email saying I was going to the Invictus Games. I was extremely excited, I was happy, I was literally hopping up and down.
So you will be the first-time competitor in the Invictus Games this year?
Yes, everybody in our team is the first-time competitor. Canada has decided that they are going to put the Invictus Games experience over the actual medals.
You have mentioned your husband, who is also a veteran. What’s his story?
My husband served in the search and rescue unit. He would parachute, climb mountains, climb ice-hills... so that's who he was. In December 2009, he was doing overturned vessel training – underwater boat training. He lost his respirator, and got stuck in a small space, unable to retrieve his respirator. He was three to five minutes without oxygen, and had a lack of oxygen brain injury.
Despite of this injury, your husband participated in the Invictus Games.
Sure, in 2016, he did running and sitting volleyball. Unfortunately, he has deteriorated and is no longer able to run, but he can still ride his bicycle, which he actually practices every day.
You train cycling. Do you do your trainings together?
No, we don't do any training together. He is so unstable on the bike that I can't train with him, I would have to be focusing on his security instead of on my training. After my husband's injury, I lost both my parents, which made me a little more depressed than usual. As a result, I wasn't doing any exercise and didn’t care for my health. Part of applying to the Invictus Games was a commitment to myself to do those things that I needed to do, so that I could be healthy and survive to be around to care for my husband in his future years.
Is this decision of yours made you meet someone who affected your life, for example your coach?
Actually, I have to say no. I do have online coaches, and we had two training camps that were very good for me, but I am a very internal person, and best like to do all my training alone. My coaches send directions on what to do each week and I do that, but I don't really train with others. I maybe should, but I'm training, I'm working full-time, I'm caring for my husband and I'm trying to maintain my nursing skills. I honestly don't have time to spend with anybody else.
In Poland, there are many veterans still seeking their internal strength and motivation to live their life. Is there anything you’d like to tell them?
Don't think that an injury is the end of your life. It is not the end of your life, it is likely not the end of your career. There are so many other options, whether in the military or outside. I don't know the rules in Poland, but in Canada we usually try to find another occupation that an individual can do within their environment. Sometimes we can, and sometimes we can't meet their limitations. But when we cannot, we release them, and we offer them education to help them do something else. We never leave them on their own. We are very focused on the Soldier On organization, which is providing assistance to veterans, and help them with things like home modifications, or adaptation in their new reality. We had our entire bathroom renovated so that my husband could sit while he showers. It was paid by the Veterans Affairs, so there is a lot of positive things available. It takes work to get it, don't get me wrong, it is not easy to navigate the system. However, if you have a true need, you will ultimately receive what you need.
To some extent, me and my husband had to handle our injuries on our own, but we are still both out there, training every day. You can get a lot of recovery through sports, like simply getting out there and just moving every day. I have this poster in my home which says: “Life is like riding a bicycle – to keep your balance you must keep moving!”. I believe this to be 100% true!
Lieutenant-Colonel Rhonda Crew was inspired to apply to Soldier On for a spot on Team Canada – Invictus Games Sydney 2018 by her own husband’s performance at Invictus Games 2016 in Orlando, Florida. “I am inspired by Duane’s participation and wish to be a role model for others with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Mental Health concerns.” Originally from Hillsborough, New Brunswick, Rhonda, a Senior Officer with the Chief of Staff Strategic Team of Military Personnel Command and the Honorary Nurse to the Queen, lives in Stittsville, Ontario and is training in cycling and athletics.
autor zdjęć: DND / CAF (Department of National Defence / Canadian Armed Forces)