Wounded Warriors Weekend visits Slave Lake for a second time

Next year in Newfoundland?

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

Slave Lake might seem an unlikely place to hold a Wounded Warriors Weekend, being relatively remote and relatively unconnected to military matters. But a combination of factors led to its choice in 2014 and participants had so much fun….

Four years later, a smaller version was held in Slave Lake, with about 50 participants. Chief of the local organizing committee (and Wounded Warriors Weekend board member) Larry Willis says the feedback was pretty much all positive.

“It went over well,” he says. “Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.”

There was quite a lot to enjoy, thanks to a range of activities laid on by local groups and individuals. The Legion was part of it; so was the Northern Gateway Motorcycle Association, which hosted a Saturday night pig roast at the Legion hall. The Legion hosted the Monday night wrap-up dinner, by which time, Willis says, the participants were carrying on like old pals.

The idea behind Wounded Warriors Weekend (WWW), for those unfamiliar, is to provide a fun, safe and comfortable outing for people who may be suffering from the emotional or psychological (or physical, in some cases) fallout from military or police or fire service. Blake Emmons, the founder of the WWW, told The Leader four years ago that post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) was leading some of these folks into pretty dark and lonely places and there had been a number of suicides of people he was acquainted with. As he told the Westlock News last week, “I can give you a list of names to call and they will tell you ‘We’re above ground because of Wounded Warriors Weekend.’”

Willis got on as a WWW board member after the 2014 Wounded Warriors Weekend in Slave Lake, and this time around he pushed to make it smaller and generally less extravagant.

“One thing we learned is these people don’t like putting on their uniforms and being displayed in public,” he says.

The other factor in making it smaller was the cost of the ‘really big show,’ (so to speak), which was what Emmons favoured and was good at organizing. So whereas the goal previously had been around 200 vets and caregivers, this time the total was 54, with 35 of them being wounded warriors and the rest caregivers. Not to mention the dogs!

Service dogs can play a vital role in the health and well-being of people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Every year, says Emmons, the foundation purchases one or two and presents them to vets in need. They are highly trained and can – among other things – detect heightened levels of anxiety in their human. According to dog trainer Willis Freeman, when a service dog senses that, it will intervene, urging the person to leave the situation.

“It can shift the focus onto the dog,” he said.

Freeman and his girlfriend (and co-trainer) had two service dogs in training at the Wounded Warriors Weekend – even bringing them into the banquet at the SL Inn.

“It’s part of the socialization process,” he said.

They weren’t the only dogs in the room. At least one of the veterans in attendance had his service dog with him, lying patiently at his feet while he dined. Earlier in the day he’d played a round of golf with Willis at Gilwood Golf Club – each with a dog as company.

Golf was one of the activities enjoyed by participants. Others were ATV rides in Smith, target practice at the Slave Lake Rod & Gun Club gun range and of course fishing. Lots of fishing.

“Fishing was the big thing on Sunday,” Willis says. “One guy (volunteering his boat) said it was “the best day I’ve had in six years.” He was out with one vet with two caregivers who came up a day early to get in extra fishing.

Also offered in Smith was some ‘equine therapy,’ offered by Danielle Geddes, lawn games, lunch and generally just hanging out and socializing.

All of the above were at least somewhat ‘public,’ or at least out where people could get a glimpse and interact with the participants. One of the favourite activities turned out to be the most private – hanging out in the Slave Lake Inn courtyard until the wee hours. Willis says this happened each night and was greatly appreciated. “That was our tailgate,” says Willis. “Everybody felt comfortable. A few tears were shed and lots of hugs. That’s where the majority of the healing takes place. They were comparing notes on the pills they take and whatever. A wide variety of conversations that go on.”

Most of the participants were Canadian – a group of about a dozen from Ontario and the rest from Manitoba west. Three were American, including burn victim and comedian Bobby Henline, who entertained at Sunday evening’s Warriors Thank You Dinner at the SL Inn.

An example of a Henline joke; He came back from the war badly burned by a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq and it was tough on his marriage.

“We tried to work things out,” he says. “But it’s hard. The nagging, the yelling, the questioning. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough third degree.”

Willis says he got lots of good feedback on all aspects of the program and beyond that on the general impressions of the communities.

“The guests were pleasantly surprised,” he says. “They said, ‘People are so nice!’”

Will there be more Wounded Warriors Weekends? Not necessarily in Slave Lake, but there will elsewhere. Emmons, in his remarks at the banquet, said there’s been a request to hold one in Newfoundland next year, which would be a first. Willis likes the idea of having more and smaller ones regionally. In fact a guy from Ontario has already organized and held one for about 20 participants from his region. Willis figures “if you could get 10 groups across the country, for 10 to 20 people,” it would be good. That way, the friendships that are forged could be more easily maintained.

Editor’s note: We realize in mentioning two or three of the volunteer groups we are leaving as many or more out. Apologies and we’re sure the organizing committee will do a comprehensive ‘thank you.’

Rolling in

The bus carrying many of the participants up from Edmonton arrives in Slave Lake escorted by a motorcycle cavalcade, on the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 3, to kick off the Wounded Warriors Weekend.

 

Bobby Henline, known as ‘The Burnt Comedian’ entertains the crowd at the Wounded Warriors Weekend banquet at the Slave Lake Inn on Aug. 4.

Service dogs in training Balou and Tela – along with their trainers Jasmyn McCauley and Willis Freeman – attended the Wounded Warriors Weekend banquet at the Slave Lake Inn on Aug. 4. They are a breed called ‘gladiator,’ says Freeman, which is a cross between a Great Dane and a mastiff.

 

 

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