Canadian soldiers won't let amputations slow them down
My alarm went off at 5:30 a.m., Newfoundland Time. I add that it was Newfoundland time because I live in Toronto and that means my internal clock was telling me (irritatedly), that it was just 4 a.m. and I had only gotten about four hours of sleep after a 15-hour long day.
There was no way I was going to complain about this though, because of the two people who I was actually following in Newfoundland: Andrew Knisley and Jody Mitic. They too were up at 5:30 a.m., having already shaved and dressed. And they too were groggy after a 15-hour day.
The difference between them and me was that they had driven a car 350 kilometres the day before, at an average speed of about 150 km/h, through downtown streets, beside cliffs and through the rain. They were competing in the Targa Newfoundland -- a huge road rally -- against experienced race drivers. They themselves had only been racing a car for about three months. And they weren't complaining.
Oh, and one more thing: Jody is missing both legs below the knee and Andrew is missing his entire right leg and part use of his right arm.
It's amazing that they're here. It's actually remarkable that they're anywhere.
* * *
January 11, 2007 was the day that Master Corporal Jody's life changed forever. Jody was a master sniper in the Canadian Forces and was on patrol in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley. It was 4 a.m. and Jody wasn't in a great mood. He was carrying a 30-pound radio on his back. His boss had decided to come along, so his unit decided to forgo a scheduled break and keep walking in the pitch dark. To see where they were walking, they needed night vision goggles. And to add to his irritation, his rifle's silencer kept noisily coming loose.
The group entered a farmer's field in an area with which they were pretty familiar. The field was surrounded by a wall and one by one, the five-man team walked through the doorway. Jody was the last to step through. And that's when a landmine, that had been planted by the Taliban, exploded.
Jody flipped end over end through the air and landed on his back, facing the opposite direction of where he'd been a second earlier. He felt hot, searing pain through both of his legs. A moment later, he got a good idea of how bad his injuries were.
"The guys didn't pull any punches at the scene," says Jody. "They were like, ‘Well, your one foot's pretty much gone." So we tourniqueted the leg and bandaged it up and, but once the medic arrived, he was like, ‘Well, your other leg, it's pretty beat up.'"
Jody was rushed to a hospital. When he woke up, he was hit with a second bomb: both of his legs had been amputated below the knee. The man who'd been a competitive runner since he was a little kid was now missing his shins, ankles and feet.
Jody was six-foot-four before the explosion. Without artificial legs, he's about 24 inches shorter than that now. In the beginning, he'd get out of bed and forget his feet were gone and stumble. It took him nearly two years to fully appreciate they were gone. In fact, for months, he thought that once he gets used to his new artificial legs, he'll be ready to go back into combat. Until reality set in.
"I was coming up the stairs with a basket of laundry," Jody remembers, "and I tripped and I fell against the wall and I righted myself and I fell against the hand rail - trying to save this basket of laundry from falling on the ground. And I stopped and I put the laundry down on the top step, and I went ‘Man, I can't walk up the stairs with a basket full of laundry and I want them to let me go back to Afghanistan in a combat role?'"
He got depressed for a while, and for the first time in his life, he actually gained weight from inactivity. But slowly, the man who loved to run, started to make a comeback. Two months after the explosion, he got artificial legs and spent seven months learning to walk. Then he started to run. A lot. It started with a charity 5K race just over a year after the explosion. In September 2009, he actually ran his first half-marathon. Now he's run two of those. Then he became the front-man for a group that helps injured soldiers get into sports, training and exercise. It's called the Soldier On Fund. At the time, he didn't realize just how important the Soldier On Fund was going to be in his life.
* * *
Andrew Knisley owns some pretty cool, fast toys. He has a fast motorboat. And he has a fast car -- a Porsche Cayman S. And when people ask him how much they cost, he says, "an arm and a leg."
He's not kidding.
January 19, 2009. Corporal Andrew Knisley was part of a team that was mentoring Afghan police. He was walking in a regular patrol -- just meeting locals in a small village, asking them if there was anything they could do for them or whether they'd seen anything suspicious. Andrew was eighth in his group, following the same route. As he passed through a doorway, a remotely-controlled IED was detonated.
"I actually flew in the air about 15 or 20 feet up and over this little creek that we were walking beside and onto another path on the other side of the creek," says Andrew. "And I hit the ground face down and I'm kind of shaky. I said, ‘Holy shit, that was close,' and I rolled over and I'm trying to get my hands on my gun because after an IED there's likelihood you're going to come under attack."
But Andrew couldn't get his hand to work properly. And a second later he noticed his leg was bleeding. Badly. His femoral artery had been cut. Without help, he had a few minutes to live.
His buddies were at his side in seconds. All Canadian soldiers carry tourniquets with them. They tied off his leg and arm. And then they waited. For almost an hour.
"I'll never forget the one look my friend gave me. He looked at me like he was looking at a dead person and it scared the hell out of me," recalls Andrew. "And I said, ‘Jason, stop looking at me like that!'"
After 50 minutes, a chopper finally arrived. Andrew was happy that he'd managed to keep it together in front of his friends.
"I didn't want them to be freaked out at all. As soon as I got on the chopper, I relaxed. If I don't make it, I don't make it. I did my job. "
Andrew was flown to a surgery in Kandahar. Doctors couldn't save his leg. It was amputated at the hip. His right arm's ulnar nerve was seriously damaged too. As a result, he has permanent partial paralysis in his hand and fingers.
When he got back to Canada, the Soldier On Fund showed Andrew that having one leg and partial use of an arm wasn't a death sentence. Within months, the fund flew him to Texas to show him how to compete in a modified triathlon. He saw amputee soldiers swimming, running and riding modified bikes. What Soldier On offered him was simultaneously expensive and invaluable.
"Anything I can give back to Soldier On Fund is my way to say ‘thanks.' I don't want to feel like a charity case," says Andrew.
And then he got a crazy idea.
Andrew was always a bit of a speed freak. His mom showed me photos of him as a kid. In his toy race car. With toy race cars. Driving motorized go karts. He loved things that were fast. So, his idea was to apply that love of speed as a way to raise money for the Soldier On Fund by competing in the Targa Newfoundland.
The Targa is a rally competition. That means it takes place over real roads. Downtown streets. Highways. Every year, about a hundred drivers compete against the clock, covering 2,200-kilometres over five days. It's a challenge for anyone -- even experienced drivers. But Andrew has faced death and has the war scars to prove it. He's not afraid of a little competition.
So he got in touch with Jody -- who, you'll remember was doing some PR for Soldier On. He told him what he wanted to do and Jody said, "You know, I might know a guy who can help."
That guy was retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie. One of Canada's best-known top soldiers. MacKenzie commanded Canadian UN peacekeeping troops during civil war in the former Yugoslavia. And he's a race car driver to boot. He actually competed in the Targa Newfoundland in 2004 and won in his class.
Jody called "Lew," and the next thing you know, the General not only agreed to be team leader, but he arranged for Honda Canada to donate a new Acura for the race, hotels to donate accommodations and a race car school in Calabogie to make a donation to Soldier On – coincidentally -- for the same amount that they charge to train two men to race.
Flash ahead three months to September. The Targa is part competition, part car show. Hundreds come out to a St. John's community centre to see the souped-up cars that'll take over the province's streets for the next week. Jody and Andrew aren't the only high-profile competitors. JP Tremblay and Robb Wells -- better known as Julian and Ricky from the TV series, The Trailer Park Boys -- are also competing for charity.
"I can't believe you guys passed the breathalyzer. Nice work," Wells (AKA Ricky) says jokingly to the soldiers. The four guys have become friends, good-naturedly making fun of each other at every turn.
The Trailer Park Boys draw hundreds of fans at each of the 38 stops across the province. But the soldiers are also signing autographs and -- even better -- being presented with autographed cheques. From Legions, hardware stores and just regular folks. By mid-week, they have $70,000 in their pockets.
Our job as the W5 crew was a bit challenging at times. We showed up at the arenas every day around 6:30 a.m. to shoot the drivers taking their mandatory breathalyzer tests. Then we followed them to a designated start area where they lined up. I'm not sure if you've ever tried to stay ahead of cars racing through seven or eight stages a day over closed highways and roads in the rain, but it ain't easy. We cut through woods, over dirt roads and under fences to look for that one shot of the competitors driving by at each of the stages. The drivers stop for lunch around midday, but we found that if we did that too, we'd miss the next stage of the race because they'd close the road before we got there. So, we ate a lot of jerky and peanuts to stay ahead.
Cameraman Jerry Vienneau did the driving and as front-seat passenger, my job was to keep conversation rolling. I made the mistake of falling asleep one day and almost got downgraded to the backseat permanently. At one stage, we had to wait almost an hour for the cars to drive past. An hour on the side of a closed rural road can be a little boring. So, our sound guy, Brian Mellersh, invented a game. He called it Tossee. It wasn't a really complex game. The goal was to knock a piece of wood off a little goal-post we made out of twigs, while yelling out "Tossee!" As I write this, I actually see just how ridiculous it sounds. But it passed the time. And if he patents it and makes a fortune like the Trivial Pursuit guys, Jerry and I want a cut.
There was no time for games for Andrew and Jody. The Soldier On boys, who I remind you, are missing three legs and part of an arm, are novice speed-drivers and whose car has NOT been modified to account for their amputations, quietly climb the ranks. After the first day, they were in 12th out of 24 competitors. By Wednesday, they had climbed to seventh and more surprisingly, they got to second place in their class -- the "large engine" class.
There was just one car they couldn't seem to catch. It was a red KIA. It's all they could talk about. They wrote "Kick KIA ASS" atop their maps. Andrew told Jody, "It's funny KIA is spelled K-I-A, because that's what going to happen to them." (KIA is a military term that stands for Killed In Action -- I'm sure the soldiers meant it in the kindest of ways).
Then the Turning Point. Jody and Andrew were speeding along a highway when they suddenly saw the rival KIA, stopped at the side of the road. Smoke was pouring out from under the hood. They slowed down to make sure the drivers are okay. They saw an "OK" sign in the dash and then flew by.
When they got to the finish line, they noticed their car seemed to be steering roughly. Their tech team checked out the tires and lo and behold, found a piece of metal imbedded in their front tire.
It was a piece of the KIA's piston, which apparently, had blown up.
Amazingly, although the shrapnel had pierced the tire, it also kept it from deflating. As soon as a tech pulled it out with pliers, the tire went flat. More amazingly, these amputee amateurs were now in first place in their category.
They stayed there until the end of the competition.
As the cars paraded to the harbour front in St. John's, there were teary eyes and lots of hugs. Even Major-General MacKenzie -- who's used to being saluted -- figured these guys deserved hugs.
"You don't become a hero by going to Afghanistan and getting your legs blown off," says the General. "These guys are heroes for what they did after they left Afghanistan."
The Targa was fun and the results were dramatic, but the bottom line is these soldiers aimed to raise cash for Soldier On. And at the finish line, they had almost $100,000 in donations. How's that for erasing a week of demanding, long days?
I wouldn't dare complain about anything as trivial as being tired around these guys.
The fund provides grants to injured or ill Canadian Forces personnel or former personnel to buy modified sports equipment and assistive devices (like custom mountain bikes, basketball wheelchairs); subsidize costs of fitness and sports activities and high performance training for those who aspire to compete nationally or internationally. It is supported by donations collected by National Defence.