Being accepted to compete in Australia helps student come to terms with the past
The road to recovery has taken Sgt. Rob Dolson from a battlefield in Afghanistan to a classroom at NAIT, and now, to Sydney, Australia. From Oct. 20 to 27, he will compete in the Invictus Games for injured military personnel and veterans.
Dolson studied at NAIT last semester and took this semester off to train full time in cycling, discus and shot put as a member of Team Canada.
The 46-year-old Edmonton man is one of 40 people chosen from among 700 applicants to represent the country at the games, which were created by Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, in 2014. Invictus is Latin for “unconquered” or “undefeated.”
At 5’9” and 210 pounds, Dolson doesn’t look like a man who’s easily defeated. The tattoo on his muscled forearm hints at the battle he’s waged for more than a decade – a stopwatch with only the numbers three, four and six on it. It’s a reminder of March 4, 2006, the day that shook his life so profoundly.
The hard legacy of three terrible hours
Dolson’s platoon was meeting with elders in the Afghan village of Shingai. A man armed with an axe attacked Dolson’s friend, Cpt. Trevor Greene, striking him in the head.
As the attacker wound up for a second swing, Dolson shot and killed him.
“After that happened, all hell broke loose,” he says “We got attacked from all sides and it was three hours of chaos. But we got Trevor out alive, we got him on a helicopter. He had his struggles but today he’s doing awesome.”
Dolson, too, had his struggles after that day. He suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, following the horrific events.
“When you’re in the military, you’re very confident in your abilities, and when something like that happens, it knocks you down,” he says. “I took it really hard; mentally, it was tough on me. I got back home and it ate me up for a long time.”
"I got back home and it ate me up for a long time.”
He returned to his wife and newborn daughter in Edmonton and eventually moved to CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick to teach. In 2015, he and his family returned to Edmonton, where Dolson first heard about NAIT’s program to help military veterans transition back to school.
NAIT’s Canadian Forces program gives credit for some military training and courses. Dolson, who plans to retire from the military next year, started with some business courses.
“It’s helped me put my toe back into the water, looking at education to enhance my skills and make them a little more relatable to the civilian world.”
Going back to school has helped him rebuild confidence, says Dolson, and he plans to return in January to pursue a design technology program. He’s built relationships with his fellow students, too – a few even texted him last week to wish him good luck at the games.
The true meaning of Invictus
Dolson was in his marketing class when he saw the email saying he’d been accepted to Team Canada. “I went out the door and did my happy dance and some fist pumps,” he says with a laugh. Since then, he’s been training with the team and a local coach, developing his strength and technique.
Both shot put and discus are performed seated at the Invictus Games to accommodate participants with physical injuries. Dolson can throw the discus up to 30 metres, and the shot put up to 11 metres.
“People think it’s just brute strength. But, especially with discus, if you try to muscle it you lose a bit of technique. You want to try to keep it aerodynamic, so it will go farther,” he explains.
Training for the games has also helped him rebuild his mental and emotional strength. “There’s a lot of stigma attached to mental health struggles in the military,” he says. “But since I’ve been involved with Invictus, a lot of people who didn’t know how to talk to me about it have contacted me and said how proud they are that I’m doing this. It’s brought a lot of people back to me, talking to me.”
“I think this is exactly what the games are for and why Prince Harry wanted to have them – to get those people who felt alone and not doing things out there doing things, even with their mental or physical injuries – to be still part of something.”
The games have helped him in his efforts to come to terms with the past. They even have him looking forward to Remembrance Day this year.
“Usually, for someone like me, it’s not a celebration,” he says. “When you actually fight in a war and you come back, Remembrance Day brings those memories back. But going to Invictus will put a different focus on it. I’ll be standing there a little bit prouder, a little bit taller, to know I’ve competed.”
He’s scheduled to speak at the Rotary Club about his Invictus experience on Nov. 5. What’s more, Dolson has agreed to talk to his 12-year-old daughter’s class about Remembrance Day as well. It’s the first time he’ll have done so; the first time he’s felt able to do it.
"You’ve got to remember the people who fought, who lost their lives, and who sacrificed."
“I want to tell them Remembrance Day is not about celebrating or glorifying war. If you think it’s cool that guys are out there fighting, it’s not. You’ve got to remember the people who fought, who lost their lives, and who sacrificed. That’s what I want to tell them.”