It began with a tragedy. Ten years ago, Captain Matthew Dawe was killed in Afghanstan, alongside five other Canadian soldiers and an Afghan interpreter. Michael Burns, co-founder of the True Patriot Love Foundation and CEO of Invictus Games, knew Dawe’s father. Burns was working in Calgary when he heard the news about Matthew’s death.
“I saw Peter, Matthew’s father, and his wife giving a statement on national news. That’s when I realized something had happened,” Burns recalled in a telephone conversation. When he learned of Captain Dawe’s death, he flew out to Kingston for the funeral, paying his respects to his friend’s son. “On the way back, I reflected on what my generation could and should be doing for military families.”
That was, in part, the inception of Burns’ organization, the True Patriot Love Foundation. Burns along with a few other friends decided to raise funds to help support a new fund called the military families fund, which has been established by then Chief of Defense, General Rick Hillier. Burns and his colleagues planned to raise a million dollars to support that fund and were surprised when, in one evening, they had raised more than $2 million.
“At that time, we learned two lessons: first, that this would be a lifetime commitment, and second, when given an opportunity to support soldiers Canadians show up again and again.”
Since 2009, the True Patriot Love Foundation had been raising awareness and funds for military families. After the inaugural Invictus Games in 2014, The Foundation decided to make a pitch to secure the Invictus games in 2017. For Burns, this was significant. “This was our 150th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of the Battle at Vimy Ridge. Honouring veterans would cap off this year, especially since soldiers have had a direct impact on the quality of all of our lives.”
Burns has no illusions about the military world, explaining that soldiers are trained to be “warriors” and that there are enormous risks that come with that. However, he has noted improvements in the way Canadian citizens view soldiers and how military personnel treat their own. “A lot of the serving members don’t self-diagnose themselves; it’s usually a family member or friend who raises questions about their mental health.”
“There is a fear that if you show weakness, your career will be short-lived or you won’t get a promotion, and the military has said that shouldn’t be the case. Asking for help is a sign of strength; it’s about having the confidence to come forward.”
As for the public? “Recently, we did some polling about Canadian attitudes towards service members. One of the questions we asked was: ‘Do you think PTSD is an issue?’ And 96 per cent of the survey participants said ‘Yes.’ People have taken unpopular subjects, like mental health, that people didn’t want to discuss or didn’t have the courage to talk about and said ‘No, we’re much better off talking about this and discussing treatment.’”
Burns made it clear, however, that the Invictus Games are not just about celebrating Canadian soldiers, but soldiers from around the world. In March, Burns had a chance to see Team Afghanistan’s preparations for the 2017 Invictus Games. It was at that moment, Burns says, that he realized the differences between our soldiers’ experiences, and that there is common ground between them.
“We are no longer in a combat role in Afghanistan,” said Burns, “but the war against the Taliban and ISIS never stopped. The government of Afghanistan experiences losses and injuries every day, not just with soldiers but also the general populace. Access to doctors, hospitals and other services is different there. Spending time with seven members of Team Afghanistan, I saw their courage. I saw men who went to Hell and back, and are now showcasing their strength.”
For Burns, Invictus is also about the 800 to 1,000 medical professionals who help service members recover or develop advancements in supporting those same people – through prosthetics or other means, for example. Burns sees Invictus as more than a sports event, but as a great advocacy campaign promoting recovery and healing through sport.
“We want this to inspire people to move forward with their recovery. The adversity that you’ve endured, no matter what was thrown at you, these men and women have emerged unconquered. The general population will also quickly learn that these men and women inspire us all to do more and to do better, and to think about others first before themselves.”