Other people took medals home, but Sgt. Dean Irvine celebrated a different kind of victory during the 2018 Invictus Games.
The retired member of the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry from Welland, Ont. spent nearly two weeks in Australia competing in wheelchair rugby, rowing, and powerlifting in the games.
The Invictus Games is an international sporting event for injured servicemen and women that was created by Prince Harry.
Irvine didn’t believe he could compete in a sporting event, let alone the Invictus Games.
The husband and father of two after suffered a brain injury 14 years ago, and a subsequent accident involving a tractor-trailer, which led him to have seven surgeries, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression.
But for Irvine, who was very active before he was injured, there was nothing quite like the feeling of bench pressing over 250 pounds or playing rugby while proudly wearing a helmet that was designed by Ron Gibbs during the Games.
The helmet that he wore is special for Irvine because it was emblazoned with the names of his fallen comrades, including his best friend, Sgt. Mark Salesse who died in 2015.
When training for the games, Irvine’s wife, Gailynne, saw a “huge change” in her husband, who has become an entirely “new man.”
Irvine literally transformed in front of his family’s eyes, training mostly at the Fort Erie YMCA where his wife works.
“Our son Matthew said he felt like he had a new dad, and our daughter Rebecca said she didn’t really know her father. She was born two months before Dean had his brain injury. Now, she says she has a chance to get to know her dad,” Gailynne said.
The games ignited a fire in Irvine that he lost after his injuries.
“I’m working on little dreams that I have for myself now, and if they don’t happen that’s cool, I’m just moving forward with my life,” he said.
It was while Irvine was pursuing a career in policing, another student suggested he considered military policing and the Reserves. That’s when he said he realized he liked it and his interest continued to grow.
He went on to serve in Bosnia in 2000 and was he was also stationed in Ukraine in 2003 for peace training.
But it was the moment in 2004 that changed Irvine’s life forever. He was playing a baseball game with his fellow soldiers when he took a line drive to the face.
“Right away, I knew something was different. Something was off. I was trying to walk off the diamond just trying to joke everything off,” he said.
Irvine doesn’t like to talk much about that moment on the diamond. His memories of it are hazy at best, but he does remember that he staggered, and he fell and hit the ground again. He said his senses felt heightened. He was in “fight or flight mode.”
Irvine could hear his friends yelling, guys were running from one diamond to another.
“I was hit so hard I could see myself falling on the ground which sounds creepy talking about it because I don’t believe in that stuff.”
Out of nowhere, a deep and terrifying voice that wasn’t Irvine’s told him to get up.
Afterward, Irvine lost many of his happiest memories. He doesn’t remember proposing to his wife, getting married or the birth of his children. Many of the memories he did retain were of his time spent overseas with the military.
He says looking at the photo of his wedding was painful, and he didn’t tell his wife he couldn’t remember their wedding until two years later.
“With my injury, I’ve studied my whole entire wedding, my resume, it’s pretty well verbatim. I had to learn a lot of stuff about myself again. While I was healing, I didn’t really talk about. I just knew I had to figure it out.”
But a lot has changed after Irvine watched the Invictus Games held last year in Toronto.
“When we watched the games last year, during the open ceremony I just decided I was going to be in the games,” he said.
It hasn’t been an easy road and Irvine has had to overcome a lot of physical and mental challenges to get to the Games but competing has filled him with pride.
He has brought home several mementos given to him by fellow competitors from around the world, but the most important mementos he brought home is a new set of memories, which include a renewing his vows with his wife.
Just before the closing ceremony, the couple was remarried in front of visitors from all over the world, and their children. His son Matthew filled in as his best man, and his daughter, Rebecca, was Gailynne’s maid of honour.
“It’s way too cool having my kids standing there, with us. We were married before my injuries, and for me to re-fall in love with my wife and she didn’t stop loving me, it was an amazing experience,” he said.
As Remembrance Day approaches, the importance of remembering fallen soldiers and honouring those veterans that are still able to tell their own stories is not lost on Irvine.
He said the men and women who serve their country, they are laying down everything they have to serve their country.
He hopes that by telling his story, he will raise awareness about the injuries that veterans face, including brain injuries, which is something that isn’t often talked about.
It’s an important conversation to have because it’s difficult to tell when someone has a brain injury because there aren’t always physical indicators.
“The biggest thing for me is that when you have a brain injury. Nobody sees you and I am standing right in front of you.”
Irvine said he doesn’t have any regrets about serving in the Armed Forces for more than 20 years because it’s shaped him into the man he is today. He has also joined Royal Canadian Legion Branch 71 in Fort Erie, where he said he has been welcomed and supported by the members there who make it a “family atmosphere.”
“I’ve had a fantastic career and I did the best I could,” he said.