After 25 years in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), a serious physical injury had MWO Randy Dowden planning his premature exit from the service. Thanks to support he never thought he’d need, he is here today and healthy—in more ways than one.
MWO Dowden, Standards and Innovation Squadron Superintendent with the Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Technology & Engineering (CFSATE), earned the nickname Mr. Platinum after achieving the coveted highest status during his FORCE Evaluation, an annual fitness test that ensures active CAF members meet the minimum physical requirements for common military tasks.
With the gym impacted by closures, staying fit during the pandemic was an uphill battle. He did his best while working from home, but when the base gym reopened and it came time for the FORCE Evaluation in August 2021, he made a judgement call that turned out to be life changing. Expecting his body to perform as it always had, he went full tilt during the drag portion of the practice test, an exercise that simulates pulling a colleague on the ground with all their gear, plus their own body weight.
“In hindsight, I could have simulated everything else,” MWO Dowden said. “Up and down, run, squat—but there was no way to simulate that one exercise, that one thing. Two hundred and seventy pounds pulling backwards.”
After completing the exercise, the fitness instructor asked if he was okay, having noticed him wobble part-way through.
“Yeah, I’m good,” he remembers telling them, quick to brush them off. “I’m Mr. Platinum. Don’t you forget that.”
But by the next morning, he couldn’t even come down his stairs. Both knees were seriously injured, and within two days the swelling and pain was so bad he ended up in the hospital. He then began the long process of physiotherapy in Angus followed by rehabilitation at the sub-gym on base with a Fitness & Sport Instructor from Personnel Support Programs (PSP).
The invisible injury
Six months prior, MWO Dowden had lost his mother. It was a time when airports around the world were still shut down, making it impossible for him to travel to Trinidad and Tobago to be with her in the hospital, or attend the funeral in person.
“You had to suck it up and deal with it,” he said. “So what you do is you try to bear it. You know? And it’s there. It’s just there.”
Little did he know, the emotional toll this had taken on him was quietly working in the background of his mind. With his physical injury, it came roaring to the forefront.
“One day I’m at work and all the sudden everything just starts to look funny. And I started to sweat. And my hands started to shake.” He takes a deep breath as he remembers this, and tells me, “Just reliving it is scary.”
These symptoms happened often, before going into meetings, seminars, and ceremonies, so bad that sometimes he’d need to excuse himself. He’d never experienced anything like it. But because it wasn’t a physical injury, he told no one. He wasn’t sleeping, either, a fear in him that he couldn’t understand or explain that had him thinking if he fell asleep, he wouldn’t wake up again. Any time he drifted off, he would jerk awake with a racing heart.
“You’re Mr. Platinum,” he recalls telling himself. “You can’t tell people that. They’re gonna think you’re weak.”
So he pushed through. Assuming it was something like Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), he tried to treat the symptoms he now recognizes as stress, depression, and fatigue with light therapy lamps.
“I thought I had it all together. But I was burning the candle at both ends, going, going, going. And there came a time when my brain couldn’t keep up.”
Things reached their breaking point when he nearly blacked out going down his stairs. It was the first time he’d admitted to himself that in this situation, what he could do on his own wasn’t enough.
“My head just said, you’re not in control, kid. You gotta turn yourself in. Because they’re going to find you here, dead.”
Though it wasn’t easy, he visited a doctor at CFB Borden Health Services— a few months after he’d injured his knees.
“I was speaking with the doctor in one of the examination rooms, mentally drained and unable to speak or think clearly. With a calming voice, she looked at me and said ‘just talk to me.’ And I just broke down.”
The long hall to help
Along with some time away from work, MWO Dowden was referred to the mental health team at CFB Borden. But on the first visit, he almost turned around for fear of being recognized.
“I stopped and I’m thinking, you’re a Warrant Officer. In uniform. That don’t look too good. Maybe you should turn back.”
Embarrassment kept him from sharing his situation openly, even with his family and close friends. But over time, the more he opened up, the more he realized he was getting help for something that was out of his control. By then, at age 55, he’d already accepted that leaving the military was his only road forward, determined to leave his uniform while he was still standing. He was clearing out his office, had the date set for his release and the papers filled out, and had met with the Transition Centre about moving to a civilian role, bracing for his departure after 25 years in service.
“[D]eep inside I knew that’s not really what I wanted. I just wanted to keep my uniform and keep working,” he said. “My cognition and judgement were impaired, prudence was absent. I was making irrational decisions, and that’s what happens when you’re not well.”
With ongoing therapy to repair his physical injury, and medication to help his sleep and mental health, he began to have hope in his own full recovery, body and mind.
He continued training with the PSP staff at the gym, where being able to do one squat turned into two, then three. Eventually he could make it up the stairs.
“Every day that I felt even the slightest improvement was a better day.”
His goal shifted from being able to walk pain-free, to achieving the same platinum status he had one year prior.
Back to Mr. Platinum
In May 2022, he realized this wasn’t an impossible dream when he completed two practice FORCE tests. The PSP Fitness & Sports staff were well aware of his journey back to health, and had been helping and watching him train for months. His ability to pass, and to do it pain-free, was their goal. But for MWO Dowden, it was platinum or nothing.
“It’s something in us military people, we always want to be the best,” he said, chuckling as he explained that if there was something beyond platinum, then platinum wouldn’t be good enough for him either.
This time, he didn’t just prepare physically, he made sure that his nutrition and his mindset were just as much of a focus in training.
One by one, he completed the first three tasks, checking along the way to ensure he was within the requirements for platinum qualification. The final task of the test was the sandbag drag—the same one he’d injured himself on the year before.
To achieve platinum, he needed to drag 270 lbs for 20 metres in under 14 seconds. He did it in 11.6.
With PSP staff there to cheer him on and celebrate the win, the feeling for him was like standing in the Octagon ring with his hand raised, hearing the crowd go wild.
“To some people it means nothing,” he said of achieving platinum status, his smile wide. “To me, it did.”
A humbling experience
Today, MWO Dowden is happy, healthy, and back to work in the uniform he loves, grateful that he got the help he needed. And he’s making sure that he uses the experience to help others.
“It has opened my eyes to being a better person and a better leader.”
Not only does he make sure that he’s mindful and compassionate in a way he never was before of the invisible heath issues anyone, at any rank, could be facing, he shares his story with students at CFSATE as often as possible, and is often greeted in the halls with a friendly, ‘Hello, Mr. Platinum!”
“Up until today I still reflect on certain situations that were unbearable mentally, and inside my head I’m smiling and thinking wow, it’s good to be back,” he said.
“It was a very humbling experience. I thought I was in control of just about anything and everything, and this is just a reminder that I am not, none of us are. And when you need help, you just have to reach out and ask for it.”
Oh yeah, and he’s not done with platinum, already hoping to achieve it one more time while he holds the rank of MWO.
By: Emily Nakeff, Editor