We woke up. We were supposed to be going out at 7 in the morning but there was a weather hold,” says Mitch Kieffer of a morning that at first sounds like a typical one for rowers. Kieffer, however, was not preparing for a row. This was Iraq: this was war.
“The big MRAP [mine-resistant ambush protected] vehicles that can take mines were in the shop that day and our helos [helicopters] weren’t around to fly in—it was the perfect storm,” the retired U.S. Air Force captain told me as we talked several years later and half a world away at a Toronto hotel during last September’s Invictus Games.
For Kieffer, whose final mission in Iraq left him with life-altering injuries, and for so many other members of the armed services, moving forward after sustaining injury can be a daunting, seemingly impossible challenge.
Helping veterans rise to that challenge is exactly what the Invictus Games and events like it set out to do. The sense of support was inescapable as soon as I arrived in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Toronto.
I had been in and out of a few venues at the Toronto 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games a few years before, but this was something far smaller, more intimate, more profound. As I walked around this hotel-sized athletes’ village and spoke to athletes and organizers, it became clear to me that the significance of this event went far beyond who would win in the coming contests.
In only the third year since its founding, the Invictus Games has grown to include representatives from the armed services of 17 different nations. Inspired in part by America’s Warrior Games, Prince Harry, himself a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, created Invictus as a global vision to help not just his own comrades-in-arms, but servicewomen and men from around the world who suffer from injuries and mental illness sustained while serving their countries.
Whether or not one agrees with the politics of armed intervention, the simple message at the heart of Invictus is universal: I AM. These two short words are taken from the final lines of a poem many readers will associate with Nelson Mandela, as portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the 2009 movie “Invictus”:
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
I find myself contemplating these words as I sit quietly and listen to the water of the hotel’s atrium fountain falling gently beneath a striking I AM statue, in place for the Games.
Keiffer’s life changed in an instant that day in Iraq where he had volunteered for deployment with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to start the rebuilding process.
“We were about to call it for the day around 2 o’clock when the weather hold came off and we went out,” he told me. “We were in these lightly armored SUVs that could basically take a 7.62 millimeter round bullet and that is about it. On our way back from that site it was dusk and they set up a complex [an ambush] for us, and three out of the four vehicles were hit.”
“My vehicle had an explosive form-penetrating IED [improvised explosive device] blow through the left side, where I was seated, and travel through about two feet in front of my forehead across the vehicle and frag the inside. All the lights were dislodged, hanging by the wires. Dust in the air and everything. I was knocked unconscious.”
Rowing’s rise in popularity—especially indoor rowing—within the veteran community can be seen in new events such as the Invictus Games, where rowing was included in the second running of the multisport contest in Florida in 2016, and more established events like the Warrior Games, where rowing made its debut this year at the 9th annual running.
This comes also at a time when the nature of injuries to veterans has changed substantially due to advances in the nature of modern combat as well as society’s understanding of prevention, rehabilitation, and treatment.
According to a 2014 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 4 million of the United States’ 22 million veterans are living with a service-related disability. While the majority of veterans (a little over 40 percent) are now seniors, their ranks have swelled with veterans of more recent conflicts, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Along with and in many ways associated with mental health issues, one of the more significant and increasingly better understood issues of our time is traumatic brain injury. Including everything from concussions to penetrating wounds to the skull, the U.S. Department of Defense states that there were nearly 400,000 documented cases between 2000 and 2017.
Kieffer was out for 20 or 30 seconds but he only partly regained his senses at the time. “I woke up to a barrage of gunfire. I look outside and I see our second vehicle getting pounded.”
“I hear it on my left side. The Major that was next to me was screaming commands and obscenities and I was just in lala land.” Despite this, Kieffer’s training took over and he acted quickly. “The only thing I could think of at the time was just push the Major down—he was our VIP—and just cover him as this was going on.”
“We were able to drive out of the kill zone, about a quarter mile up the road to another checkpoint where we started changing our flat tires and setting up a perimeter—waiting for them, waiting for them to come.”
Partly funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, USRowing’s Freedom Rows initiative has been opening up rowing to veteran populations across America since 2014.
“We currently have 33 Freedom Rows programs across the U.S.,” says Debbie Arenberg, USRowing’s adaptive program development specialist. “The purpose is to supply funding to participating organizations so that we are not putting an undue burden on clubs and coaches.”
There are a few veteran sweep programs within the Freedom Rows network, but sculling is usually the easiest way for a club to introduce the sport to injured veterans, she explains, and points to the growing number of regattas integrating race opportunities for injured veterans—from the San Diego Crew Classic to the Head of the Charles and the Head of the Oklahoma, as well as indoor events like the regionally-based Valor Games or federal Department of Defense Warrior Games.
While one may be unsure how to take the initial step of reaching out to include injured veterans within a club, Arenberg stresses the importance of taking it one step at a time and start by asking questions. “We take it very slowly with Freedom Rows,” she says. “Just one adaptation at a time: one person at a time.”
“This is this person’s reality,” she continues. “They have been living with it for a long time. Just ask.” The words and the dialogue will follow, she says. “You think you are there to help them, but what is happening is the athlete is there to help you do your job. They are the expert; it is an interesting reversal of roles.”
When I ask if this actually makes a difference in the lives of individual veterans, Arenberg’s response, while not surprising, is a sobering reminder of the real struggles so many people face on a daily basis.
“Someone had a gun out and was in the process of committing suicide,” she says of a participant in the Freedom Rows program. “Just before they took the next step they remembered that people were expecting them to go to rowing practice. So they put the gun down and went to rowing practice and that was their turning point.”
“A lot of these vets have post-traumatic stress and are on huge amounts of prescription drugs. In a lot of cases the participants in Freedom Rows have been able to reduce the amount of medication they are on just because of their participation in rowing.”
The anticipated attack never came and Kieffer’s team was able to limp back to base and take stock of the damage. “Luckily everybody actually made it out,” he tells me. “We had a two-and-a-half-hour drive back to base in three out of four busted vehicles and we met our quick reaction force at the gate as we got there.”
“It left me with a traumatic brain injury and seven broken vertebrae from the blast wave itself and then a plethora of other issues because of the brain.”
Kieffer calls it “divine intervention” that he and all of his team survived at all, but the real miracle is what has happened since as he has rebuilt his life in large part thanks to sport—first triathlon and then rowing.
“I’ve had 50-plus operations, pain management with trigger point injections, Botox injections, epidural steroids, nerve blocks, nerve ablation, all sorts of things,” he says. “Really it has been strengthening muscles surrounding the injuries that has helped the most.”
Finding it difficult upon returning to triathlon, a sport he had excelled at, Kieffer decided to give rowing a try and has leaned into the pain of erging to put his own pain into perspective.
“That is the thing about working out for me,” he says. “It allows me to give myself the pain versus just take the pain. You have this sense of self again because you are able to push through certain barriers and actually set and achieve certain goals. You’re going to see that time per 500 meters and you are going to want to hit that 1:30 mark for the four minutes or something like that. It refocuses all of those energies away from the negativity to a more positive nature.”
“It is just like, if you are always thinking about yourself, you are always going to be sad, or depressed, or angry about something, but once you start thinking about others and being selfless, a lot of those fears and anxieties and angers go away.”
Building a Team
This attitude is certainly one embraced by Canada’s Soldier On program, which organizes the Canadian Forces team for the Invictus Games and undertakes a number of other rehabilitation initiatives across that country.
“Our goal at the end of the day is to help inspire folks to start their journey to an active lifestyle,” says Petty Officer 1st Class Joe Kiraly, who is charged with oversight and management of Soldier On’s programing. “We have helped thousands and there are thousands more we need to help.”
On top of his duties with Soldier On, Kiraly was Team Canada’s assistant manager for the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto and will be assuming the manager role for the upcoming 2018 Invictus Games in Sydney, Australia, this October. Kiraly tells me about one strategy that has allowed for as many people as possible to benefit from the Invictus experience.
“It all starts with establishing a principled approach and asking what we are trying to accomplish as an organization,” he explains. “Very early on we thought regardless of how other countries are approaching the Invictus Games, we want to provide an inspirational experience to those who need it most.” Soldier On decided that veterans would only be allowed to participate once at an Invictus Games, which helped, but with almost 700 applicants and 40 spots to fill for the 2018 Games, this was still not an easy task.
“I think we are one of the few countries that has zero past participants on the Invictus team this year,” says Kiraly. For the small team size, however, rowing takes up a lot of space.
“Rowing is huge,” he says. “It is my biggest sport by participant, just because it is so accessible in the variety of classifications.” Invictus has six ability classifications, three more than standard Para-rowing. “It is also accessible to everyone in their communities. Indoor rowing doesn’t always lead to outdoor rowers, but it has in a few cases I can think of from last year’s squad.”
“We start off every Invictus journey from year to year with the expectation that it comes to a close at the Invictus Games, but the journey never stops. When the crowds fade after the games, they can find something to continue on with.”
“A lot of the athletes are now competing locally, some aiming for the national team, others moving forward positively in their lives and with their families. Some have struggled. Our goal is to inspire them until they simply stop calling us.”
The Real Healing
I think the biggest thing is, if the enemy isn’t going to kill you with temptation, they are going to get you with isolation,” Kieffer reflects as our conversation nears its end that day before his rowing race at Invictus 2017. “That is definitely the case for me. I have got to be around other folks and I have to force myself to get around those folks too.”
“It is really swallowing the ego, swallowing the pride and getting out there, getting around people, getting uncomfortable. It is really easy to get in a rut when you don’t challenge yourself, when you don’t have social interaction with those who are going to push you.”
“When you just get isolated by yourself,” he cautions, “you are eventually going to wither and die. Don’t think about it, just get out there and do it.”
With that we parted ways and I walked slowly to the area that would hold the next day’s races, contemplating all that we’d discussed.
Months later, as I type out this story, my mind returns to the stillness of that darkened arena in Toronto the night before those Invictus warriors would bring the rows of dormant ergs to life to fight, not in opposition to each other, but side by side supporting one another in reviving—discovering— something deep within themselves.
This seems to be the great power of events like the Invictus Games. Perhaps it is only in the act of giving of themselves for their comrades once again on a field of friendship rather than war that the real healing can begin.