Troops Soldier On at lake

Kayak club gives injured soldiers fun in sun

Wednesday, Aug 11, 2010 06:00 am By Kevin Ma, St. Albert Gazette

Kurtis Gaucher is all smiles as he charges his fellow soldiers in a kayak.

“Ramming speed!” cries one of them as he broadsides one of his buddies with his yellow boat.

It’s the combat engineer’s first time in a kayak and he’s taken to it like a fish to water, rounding buoys and plowing waves like a powerboat. He and four other injured soldiers were at Kirk Lake this Monday to get kayak lessons as part of the Soldier On program.

Gaucher, who lives in St. Albert, has come a long way since he was wounded by an improvised explosive device while on foot patrol in Afghanistan last November. The explosion tore up his right leg and cost him his left leg below the knee. He was lucky, he adds — that bomb was linked to two others that failed to go off. “I shouldn’t be here.”

Despite a weeklong coma and months of physiotherapy, Gaucher, 27, says he’s feeling pretty good. “I started walking last week and I should be able to take my [artificial] leg home this week.”

Soldiering on

Gaucher, a corporal with the 1 Combat Engineer Regiment at the Edmonton Garrison, was taking part in the Soldier On program, a national effort to help injured soldiers stay fit.

Soldiers are very fit people with high expectations of themselves, says Maj. Dave Blackburn, a member of the Joint Personnel Support Unit who injured his spine during a rollover in 1997. “When you have an injury and you can’t do the things you have been doing, especially when your peers can, it’s very hard on your mental wellbeing,” he says. The mental and physical traumas soldiers sustain on the job can send many into depression.

The Soldier On program works with local groups to give troops opportunities they don’t have on base, says spokesperson Capt. Derrick Forsythe, and to help them meet other injured soldiers. “This is a chance to go out and have some fun and still get that kind of workout in.”

Past events have taken soldiers out for sledge hockey and wheelchair basketball.

In charge of the day’s lessons were members of the St. Albert Canoe and Kayak Club. The club moved to Kirk Lake near Anthony Henday Drive and Yellowhead Trail about eight years ago after the closure of the old Riel Pond site.

The club has long run a disabled kayak course, says club representative Rick Hill, and was eager to help when approached by the garrison. This was the club’s first time in the Soldier On program. “We’re quite happy to have them come out whenever they want.”

Kayaking is great exercise for injured people, Hill says — it’s not as intense as other sports since you’re sitting down, but it strengthens the core body muscles many people need. You also need just one functional limb to do it.

The club has lowered its dock and bought extra-stable kayaks to help injured rowers get into the water, Hill says. The kayaks have seats to support injured backs and can be outfitted with paddle-holders for one-armed rowers. These soldiers already have great upper-body strength, he notes, which makes rowing much easier.

Events like this are great for a soldier’s self-esteem, Blackburn says. “If you’re doing things that are physical for your career, like being a combat soldier, you miss the challenge. This is good to be continued to be challenged and to do the things that are important to you.”

Gaucher says he’s looking forward to a triathlon clinic next week in Texas. He also hopes to serve again in Afghanistan once his health recovers. “I joined the army four-and-a-half years ago to go to Afghanistan, I worked hard and I was only there 26 days.”

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