Former soldier saw Invictus Games as opportunity 'to become a better person'
Jeff Lagerquist, CTVNews.ca Staff
Published Sunday, September 24, 2017 10:07PM EDT
Helene Le Scelleur remembers the moment she opened the letter saying she would represent Canada at the 2017 Invictus Games.
Her life after leaving war-torn Afghanistan had been marred by alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts -- all due to post-traumatic stress injury. The letter felt like a chance to regain some of what she loved about being a soldier for 26 years.
“When you are out of the military, you are isolated. You are no longer with your team. You are no longer with you friends. You’re alone in the world,” Le Scelleur told CTV News. “You feel like you left something very important behind . . . almost that you abandoned people, even if that’s not the case.”
Le Scelleur joined the Canadian Forces at 17, starting as a reservist in Montreal. Her parents though she wouldn’t be a fit for military life. She proved them wrong and became an officer.
By 2007, she was in Afghanistan taking charge of medical troops and co-ordinating evacuations from combat zones to a military hospital in Kandahar. She regularly witnessed the destructive power of improvised explosive devices, and came to see it first-hand.
A bomb struck her LAV III on a pitch-black moonless night.
“When I woke up, everything was white in the vehicle,” Le Scelleur said. “I was looking around and I started to hear screams saying, ‘Medic, medic.’”
She said the driver was “bleeding all over his face,” but alive. She helped him out of his seat and gathered the injured soldiers in the back of the vehicle. They stayed there for three or four hours debating if there would be a second assault as strange lights flickered in the distance.
“I saw horrific things. That stayed in my mind,” she said. “Because I was in charge, I felt responsible because I lost two of my subordinates in Afghanistan. Even if it wasn’t me that did that action or put these people in danger, I had the responsibility to decide who was going where.”
Those memories from Afghanistan followed her back to Canada, initially manifesting as nightmares, sweats, and hypervigilance.
Le Scelleur had recently started therapy to treat her post-traumatic stress injury when she landed a job interview for a position on then-Governor General Michaelle Jean’s security detail.
She said Jean knew her story, and asked if she was OK.
“I said, ‘Yes. I am ready to work. It’s a new challenge and that is what I need.’ But it didn’t go as planned.”
She used the change of scenery to escape into her new job, and other things.
“I was drinking a lot. It was a way of escaping my reality,” Le Scelleur said. “At some point I went in a down spiral. I was suicidal. I attempted once. And it was because my son, my older son, that I am here today. I though you cannot do the act because what are you going to leave behind for him.”
She was eventually discharged from the army in 2016, after 26 years of service.
A NEW BEGINNING
Le Scelleur will play wheelchair rugby at this year’s Invictus Games in Toronto. She admits it’s a strange fit -- especially given that she has full use of both legs, unlike many of her teammates.
She said at first it felt strange to arrive at practice pushing her chair from behind.
“I was ashamed of being able to walk. I thought I would be judged, or not accepted within the team,” she said. “I was not comfortable.”
Once the adrenaline kicked in and she got the hang of handling the ball while piloting the chair, all she could think about was how the bond between the members of the team reminded her of what she missed about military life.
“In the military, you always have somebody on your left and somebody on your right to take cover, to protect you. With the games and when I am playing rugby, it’s the same thing. You always have somebody to protect your back,” Le Scelleur said.
Rugby is of course a contact sport, and the wheelchair version is no different. The crashing of chairs can get aggressive, and Le Scelleur wasn’t initially sure how she would react given her injury.
“Hearing the metal to the metal, it does to a certain level remind me of the explosion, the sound,” she said.
As for the adrenaline, it’s just one more thing that takes her back to what she loved about serving in the Canadian Force for nearly three decades.
“It’s so adrenaline-driven. It reminds me a lot of when I was in the military,” she said. “I feel awesome. The team I am practicing with are just amazing people.”
She said she has put a lot of “positive energy” into her Invictus Games training because she “wanted to use that opportunity to become a better person.”
Le Scelleur points out that the word “invictus” is Latin for “unconquered.” She feels the name is an apt descriptor for what she has gained as a participant.
“Before practicing my sports I felt conquered by something. I don’t know, life. Now it is different. Now I can make a step forward for myself,” she said. “I feel like I am in control.”
With a report from CTV’s Kevin Gallagher