Wounded soldiers use sport to overcome injuries
Cpl. Chris Klodt sits in a race chair. Klodt was shot in the neck July 7, 2006 during a Taliban ambush outside Kanadhar. The bullet was lodged in his spinal cord.
Published Tuesday, July 5, 2011 7:10AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 5:12AM EDT
Cpl. Chris Klodt doesn't remember much about the moment he became paralyzed.
In July, 2006, he and his fellow Princess Pats riflemen were engaged in an "advance to contact," meaning they were hunting down an advancing enemy to take them out before they got taken out first.
As the soldiers moved through fields and farmhouses, they suddenly came under attack from Taliban rebels. Amid an exchange of gunfire, one of the bullets hit Klodt, piercing his throat and shattering two vertebrae in his spine.
Eight days later when he awoke, Klodt was in Toronto. He remembers nothing of the surgery at the Kandahar Air Field hospital, little of the military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, of being airlifted home to Canada. It was only after he came out of heavy sedation that he learned he was paralyzed from the chest down and would likely never walk again.
When asked about how he reacted to that news, the soft-spoken Klodt, now 29, insists he didn't have much time to spend mourning, because he had other pressing matters: his wife was just weeks away from giving birth.
"I wasn't thinking about me. I was more focused on Deena being pregnant," he told CTV.ca from his home in the Hamilton, Ont. area.
His son arrived healthy and happy about eight weeks later and Klodt quickly embraced fatherhood. But these days, he also has a new role: he's become a top-ranked wheelchair rugby player. And it's in large part due to Soldier On/ Sans Limites, a joint program of the Canadian Forces and the Canadian Paralympic Committee that helps injured and ill soldiers adjust to their injuries by returning to sport.
Klodt says if there's one thing military life taught him, it's to persevere.
"It you've joined the military, it's because you like a challenge and you like to see how far you can push yourself," he explains.
After his injury, Klodt was focused only on mastering such simple tasks as dressing himself with the little function left in his hands and arms. Then he worked on manoeuvring a wheelchair. But not much longer after that, he decided he wanted to get back into sports.
When Klodt watched "Murderball," a documentary about the aggressive, full-contact game of wheelchair rugby, he was intrigued and wanted to give it a try. But figuring out how wasn't as easy as he thought.
"I spent a good year and a half looking for a rugby team and wasn't successful," he says.
In 2009, Klodt heard about Soldier On. He attended one of their events to try out wheelchair racing. While racing wasn't for him, he asked the organizers if they could help him find out more about wheelchair rugby.
"Within a week of connecting with Soldier On, I had found a team," he says.
Klodt now plays for the provincial wheelchair rugby team – the only soldier on his team – and hopes to make the national team. He uses a specialized wheelchair paid for by the Soldier On Fund and travels the continent for tournaments with the fund's help as well.
Program covers a range of items
Greg Lagace, the program's manager, says when Soldier On was created in 2007, it was meant for serving and injured CF members. Today, the program includes the Soldier On Fund, which helps not only currently serving CF personnel, but former personnel and their families.
It's not just soldiers injured in combat who benefit from the program; it's also for those grappling with permanent injuries from civilian life, or even for those with a chronic illness, such as cancer.
Not only does the fund help pay for equipment for budding paralympic athletes, it will help those who just want to set up a home gym, or take fitness classes, or go on fly-fishing trips.
"Our mission is to improve the quality of life of ill and injured. We just use sport and recreation as a way to help," Lagace explains.
So far, the Soldier On Fund has disbursed more than $250,000 in grants to about 257 individuals, as well as sponsored dozens of sporting events. And Lagace says the demand continues to grow.
Part of the reason for that, of course, is the mission in Afghanistan. Not since the Korean War have so many injured Canadian soldiers returned home from war. The Department of National Defence's last update counted more than 1,800 injured and wounded in Afghanistan in more than nine years of war.
When these soldiers return, they can access rehab and programs that pay for wheelchairs or prosthetics. But until Soldier On, there was no fund to dip into if a soldier wanted to get the special prosthetics needed for sprinting, for example. And as Klodt will tell you, such specialized sporting equipment is not cheap.
Peer interaction seen as invaluable
Soldier On fills a funding gap. But more than that, it ensures that wounded soldiers can return to physical fitness and reap both the physical and mental benefits of exercise. And, at the same time, it allows injured soldiers the chance to interact with others with similar injuries and illnesses – something that can be invaluable, says Klodt.
"When you're first out of rehab, I met guys without family and who didn't have reason," he says. "But you introduce them into sports again, it gives them reason, that drive, the motivation they need to get through the hard times."
That peer interaction can also help soldiers to adjust to their new reality, says Lagace.
"Our job is to empower these people to realize that in a situation that seems disabling they are able to do anything they set their mind to," he says.
"We're using physical, recreational and sporting activities as a vehicle to empower the ill and injured to realize that life goes on, and that they can do anything."
Lagace says the drive and determination he sees in soldiers such as Cpl. Klodt is what makes him proud of Soldier On and the work it does.
"I put Chris up there as one of those people who inspires me," he says. "He's got such a strong will to be able to say, ‘Hey, this is my new norm. I can sit there and cry about it or I can accept it and move on.' And he's moved on plus."
"He doesn't think of himself as having a disability, it's just who he is."