In 2009, Dan Hrechka stepped out of his Kingston, Ont. home to take part in a ritual that brings joy to millions of Canadians—attending a hockey game with friends.
Instead, the open space of the arena and its large, noisy crowd had the opposite effect on the veteran.
“I ran out and basically hid for most of the night,” he said. “I couldn’t cope.”
After serving two tours in the Middle East, Hrechka had come home to a different kind of battle—healing the mental wounds inflicted by the extreme stress he experienced overseas.
“Being a soldier and pushing on, I kind of hid it and didn’t let it show as much as I could for almost 15 years before it came to the surface where I couldn’t hold it back anymore,” the 51-year-old told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview from Kingston.
His battle with post-traumatic stress disorder made everyday activities such as attending a concert with friends, meeting new people or simply driving feel close to impossible.
“Large, public places were an absolute no-go,” said Hrechka, who served in Syria, Jordan, Israel and Egypt in the 1990s. “I would have major anxiety and panic and I couldn’t trust myself to contain it.”
His inability to socialize or control his emotions drove him into deep isolation, causing him to avoid social situations he had once enjoyed.
But the veteran found relief in an unlikely activity -- cycling, a passion he had given up before joining the military at the age of 19.
It turns out he’s far from alone.
The Haliburton, Ont. native is one of 150 Canadians who will pedal 600 kilometres through Europe this summer in a journey aimed at helping veterans suffering from PTSD, while honouring the country’s fallen soldiers.
The Battlefield Bike Ride is put on by Wounded Warriors. The organization's mission is to help injured veterans, first responders and their families.
From June 9 to 17, cyclists will retrace Canada’s military involvement in the First World War, from London, England to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France. The monument honours the 10,600 Canadians wounded or killed during a bloody four-day battle at Vimy Ridge in April of 1917.
“It’s a coming together of people from all across the country, from all backgrounds and all walks of life,” said Wounded Warriors executive director, Scott Maxwell.
The trip includes several stops in Belgium such as the Passchendaele Canadian Memorial, In Flanders Fields Museum in Belgium and the St. Julien Canadian Memorial.
Bicycles are seen in front of the Tyne Cot Cemetery in Zonnebeke, Belgium during the 2016 Battlefield Bike Ride. (Wounded Warriors Canada)
Hrechka, who has been on the ride every year in since it began in 2014, describes the trip as “life-changing.”
“You are with other, like-minded uniformed people and there’s a connection that happens there. There’s a respect and understanding that doesn’t have to be put in words,” he said. “It’s understood that you have each other’s backs.”
From a clinical point of view, the annual ride includes important components of PTSD recovery, said Tim Black, a psychology professor at the University of Victoria with more than 20 years experience working with veterans.
“The big thing around trauma that people struggle with is isolation. People are holed up in their basements, they don’t want to talk to anybody and they don’t want to go anywhere,” Black told CTVNews.ca.
For many veterans, signing up for the bike ride marks an important step in coming out of that isolation.
“I did a lot of investigation and talking to other riders…it got me intrigued to put my name forward for the very first ride,” Hrechka said. “That started my growth after military service and my belief that I could push through an awful lot of stuff.”
Canadian Forces veteran Dan Hrechka stands in front of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial during the 2014 Battlefield Bike Ride. (Wounded Warriors Canada)
According to a Statistics Canada study released in 2013, one in six full-time members of the Canadian Forces reported symptoms of depression, panic disorder, PTSD, generalized anxiety or alcohol abuse in the year prior to being surveyed. More than 11 per cent of soldiers reported symptoms of PTSD at some point in their lives, making it the second most common mental health injury affecting military personnel.
Despite these alarming figures, Black said, in his experience, many veterans suffering from PTSD feel misunderstood by the general public.
But both the psychologist and the veteran said the Battlefield Bike Ride goes a long way in spreading awareness and breaking down stigma by bringing former soldiers and the public together.
“Dealing with those everyday Canadians, that really built on my confidence level," Hrechka said. It reminded me just how far forward I had moved in my life and how I had come from the lowest of lowest.”
In March, Black joined Wounded Warriors on a pro-bono basis as a national clinical adviser, offering his expertise to help the organization develop new programming for veterans and assess the value of existing programs.
Helping those at home
Any Canadian can sign up for the Battlefield Bike Ride. Participants pledge to raise $4,000 in the seven months leading up to the event. Maxwell said 70 per cent of those funds go to Wounded Warriors’ other programs. These include service dogs, a veterans’ scholarship, career transition programs and a variety of therapy and support programs.
“If we didn’t have (the bike ride), we would not be at the level of investment that we are as a charity in Canada, period,” he said.
In the first three rides, Maxwell said participants raised a total of more than $1.5 million.
As a result, Wounded Warriors has grown from four to 15 programs.
As he prepares for his fourth ride in Europe, Hrechka now sees it as an opportunity to help others as well as continue his own healing.
“As my wife and son tell me, every time I come home, I’m that much closer to the husband they remember,” he said. “They went through some thing that no family should go through. But it happened and now I can shed light to others and say, ‘We have bad days, but we really have to cherish the positive and the fact that we’re still here.’ ”
Those interested in signing up, sponsoring a rider or donating can do so on the Wounded Warriors website.