For most of Al McFarlane’s 35 years with the Canadian Forces, he served as an aviation technician in the Air Force. But near the end of his military career, he worked at Defence Research and Development Canada as a crash and casualty investigator, studying the protective equipment worn by members of the Forces who died in Afghanistan. “We’d have to go to the morgue and pick up all the personal protective equipment that was on the bodies, take it back to our lab, and try and see how we can make that gear more efficient, safer for the troops in theatre,” he says.
McFarlane remembers exactly how many casualties he saw: 89. He had to analyze everything from their socks to their flack vests. At a certain point, he started responding personally to the victims. “I learned their names and I learned their faces,” he says.
He remembers one young man in particular. “As I’m cutting his gear open, he had a little stone. And the stone was supposed to be for safety. He was Aboriginal. This little stone was supposed to save his life.
“I lost it. I just broke right down. To this day if I think about him, and I can picture his face as clear as day, I’ll usually break down.”
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Although his time at the DRDC was emotionally taxing, McFarlane views it as the pinnacle of his career. “It wasn’t all macabre stuff … Let’s say a squadron wanted brand-new flight suits or brand-new helmets or brand-new flotation gear. It would come to us, and we would go out to industry and try and find something new, or we would actually build from scratch in our labs.”
But his experiences there — and the things he saw while serving tours in Africa and Cyprus — did take a significant toll, and McFarlane was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. “I ended up crawling into a bottle,” he says. “I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been dry now since March 18, 2014. I tried to commit suicide that day.”
He’s been committed to recovery since then, but it hasn’t been an easy road. After his suicide attempt, he spent eight weeks at Homewood Health Centre, a mental health institute in Guelph. He’s had challenges finding the right medications. And for a long time, he’d hide in his basement on his bad days.
Recently, though, he’s found a new and consuming focus: the Invictus Games. The Games, founded by Prince Harry of Wales in 2014, showcase the athletic abilities of injured or sick military service members. This year, they’re being held in Toronto from Sept. 23 to 30, and McFarlane will be there, competing in archery — a sport he hadn’t even tried until last spring.
“I still am fairly brutal,” he acknowledges, “but at least every time I’m on target now. So I know I’m not going to be podium. They give you a coin for attending the ceremonies … Hopefully, it’s Prince Harry who’s going to give it to us. It’s really exciting. That’s my goal, to receive that coin, to say that I’ve competed and completed Invictus. ”Since the first training camp, held this past May in Victoria, the experience has been “phenomenal,” he says. “I’ve been out of the basement pretty much most of the time, just getting out and about. I’ll come here [Minet’s Point in Barrie] and walk the paths now. Before, there was no way. It was impossible.”
It’s not just the camps and training that have made a difference for McFarlane: the Canadian team’s online presence has also been a source of support. Through its private Facebook page, he’s been able to share his stories with teammates who have had similar experiences. “So one night, if I had a bad nightmare, I’d get up and bring out the computer and just start going, just start typing like crazy. ‘How’s your night going?’
“I didn’t think that there’d be somebody else up at 2 o’clock in the morning. So as soon as I hit send on the text, poof! All of a sudden, I get three or four answers back. People are doing the same thing: they’re having a hard time sleeping, whether it’s nightmares or they just can’t get to sleep. And you’ll shoot the breeze for an hour or two.
“Like-minded people make everything so much easier.”
McFarlane knows participation in the Games will pose its own set of challenges: he finds it difficult to be in crowded spaces, for example, and he’s nervous about the possibility of a terrorist attack. “Lately, I’ve attempted to get out and circulate just because of the Games. So my wife took me to a ball game. We were at the third baseline right on the field … and I was terrified … I was having problems breathing. I felt like my lungs were going to explode. Just the group atmosphere terrifies the heck out of me.
“So at the Games, I’m going to be looking at the crowd and basically for the opening and closing ceremonies, I’m going to be terrified.”
But he’s trying to focus on his goals. He plans to speak to members of the team from Afghanistan — doing so would be a milestone for him, he says, because of his memories of the war. “I’m at a point now where I feel confident enough to hit things head on. So I’m really looking forward to seeing how they’re going to react to me, or Canadians in general, and how I’m going to react with them.”
And he wants to give others a sense of hope, to prove that there is life after a military career, and after a diagnosis. “We don’t all have to be hiding in our basements. We don’t all have to lie to ourselves. Let’s get out there, get that help.”
For McFarlane, the Games have been as much about the preparation and the support along the way as they’ve been about the competition. Next year, they’ll be held Sydney, Australia, and McFarlane is already making plans. He wants to help others experience what he has: “I want to apply to be a mentor for archery. By that point, I’ll have a year under my belt. And the mentor’s job is not just to show you how to shoot a bow and arrow — it’s to actually help you with the whole journey.”