From world peace guardian to veteran with an important fight

In 1994 Jesper started his compulsory military service. He was a house carpenter but dreamed of becoming a professional soldier. However, a stationing in Croatia changed his life. 

Jesper is working by himself on the construction site of the Niels Bohr Building (NBB) in Copenhagen. He is 49 years old and has an education as a building carpenter from 1992. Today he works as a carpenter on NBB. When he is working on his own he feels calm. He has peace of mind. He is not disturbed by too many sounds, and he doesn’t always have to be alert. He can breathe quietly.

Jesper has PTSD. He has lived with that ever since 1995 when he was stationed as an UN-soldier in the Peacekeeping troops in Croatia. Six months which has marked him for life.

Stationed in Croatia

Back in 1994 Jesper dreams of becoming a professional soldier. He wants to make a difference in the world and pictures a future in the military. He starts his compulsory military service on the Danish island Bornholm where he becomes a part of the marine infantry. He stays there until he agrees to be stationed in Croatia as a part of the Peacekeeping troops a year and a half later.

- It was a good time in the marine infantry. I wanted to be a soldier fulltime and going to Croatia would make my chances of that a lot better. So, it was an easy choice.

In Croatia Jesper is a part of the scout section. Six months which will turn out to impact Jesper forever.

- The war was tough even though I was there with the Peacekeeping troops. We could only move on asphalt because of mines. I heard shots day and night, I saw dead bodies, and I was threatened with dead in a degree that has traumatized me forever.

“Go home! It’s not your war!” a Serb screams at Jesper with a Kalashnikov pressed against his forehead. Those words are imprinted in Jesper’s memory and have marked him for life. Because of this experience and others like it Jesper already develops PTSD during his stationing.

After his demobilisation Jesper fails to address his traumas. He doesn’t talk to anyone about how he feels or how awful New Year’s Eve is every year. He tries to hide it but he doesn’t forget the extreme pressure he has been under in Croatia.

A new beginning

To see if it can help him with his PTSD Jesper takes a mindfulness course in October 2018. For 20 years it has affected him daily and disturbed his sleep every night, but he has never processed it properly. On the course he meets a couple of veterans who just got back from the international competition Invictus Games in Sydney. They talk about an amazing experience with training and personal development with likeminded. That whets Jesper’s appetite. He decides that PTSD will no longer run his life and gets diagnosed.

- It was a very big decision. For all those years I had tried to hide the traumas and now I had to face it all. It was very difficult. But it was necessary for me to move on with my life.

After getting his PTSD diagnosis Jesper signs up for the Invictus Games qualification where he gets through the eye of the needle and is selected for the competition with 23 other Danish veterans. Jesper signs up for swimming and archery and begins the training. The preparations were supposed to culminate in May 2020 in Haag. But because of the Corona situation the competition has been postponed. Jesper is still training and preparing for the event in 2021.

Flexible workplace

It takes a lot from Jesper both physically and mentally to prepare for Invictus Games, and it took him some time to process the postponement. Until now he has been at four training camps with the other Danish participants. The camps consist of both physical tests and personal development. More camps are scheduled before the competition, and Jesper trains daily. It takes time from work so Jesper needs support and understanding from the work gang and production manager on NBB to maintain his training. 

- Of course, Jesper’s training comes with planning challenges. But we figured out a solution to Jesper not working full time. The work gang and I support Jesper going to Invictus Games 100%. This process is really good for him and has given him more peace. It also benefits his relationship with his colleagues says production manager Jesper Biilmann.

Apart from making time for Jesper to maintain his training Jesper Biilmann and the work gang make an effort for Jesper to thrive at work with his diagnosis and the challenges that come with it. Jesper struggles being among too many people, and he can have a hard time handling unexpected incidents, loud noises, and sudden voices behind him. That can be challenging in a work gang. So, on NBB they have arranged for Jesper to work on his own. His colleagues know to show consideration and let Jesper work in peace. That way he can perform his best. Because Jesper is a skilled employee, who is much appreciated in the work gang.

For Kenneth Skjødt who is a carpenter colleague at NBB the colleagueship with Jesper has evolved to a close friendship, and Kenneth sees a different Jesper after he started training for Invictus Games.

- Jesper has a lot more energy, he’s happier, and it has lit a spark in him to be a part of the Invictus Games-team. He’s also gotten better at participating when the work gang gets together and talk over a soda. It’s very good for him that he can get out now with the rest of us and socialize instead of being isolated, says Kenneth who is a big support for Jesper.

Jesper himself is very thankful for the flexibility and support, he has been met with in his workplace.

- It means everything for me that MT Højgaard supports me in this. It’s going to be a while before I compete in Invictus Games, and that is hard for me to process, but the support from my workplace is important. If I didn’t feel supported it would be hard for me to focus on my job. It is important for me to perform my best, and it is all or nothing for me both on my job and in my battle to beat the PTSD. Both the work gang, workplace, and Invictus Games has helped me in that battle.

From the left is: Carpenter Kenneth Skjødt, carpenter Jesper Smollerup, production manager Jesper Miilmann.

Chasing a personal record

When asked about his expectations to competing at Invictus Games Jesper answers after long consideration:

- It’s huge for me. It’ll be an experience of a lifetime. It’ll be the reward after many months of hard work. I want to take the gold but I probably won’t. So, my goal is to beat my personal records. And I know that my supervisor, Jakob, is proud of me. That means a lot. It’ll be a once in a lifetime-experience, and I’m very proud that I’ve reached the point where I am today. Hopefully I have come even further in my personal fight in a year. I have a better future ahead of me says Jesper and puts on his helmet so he can get back to work.

Invictus Games in Haag has been postponed until May/June 2021. Jesper and the other Danish athletes are still guaranteed to participate in the competition.

About Invictus Games

Invictus Games is a multisport competition for soldiers and veterans with physical or psychical injuries. The originator behind the competition is the British prince Harry who is a veteran himself. He was inspired to create the games after his own stationing.

Invictus Games have been held in London, Orlando, Toronto and Sydney. Denmark has participated at every event.

In 2021 around 500 veterans from 20 nations will participate in 10 different sports. Denmark has a team of 24 veterans.

The purpose of Invictus Games is to motivate the injured veterans to create a better life for themselves through sports. From 2014 to 2017 Denmark has had both physically and psychically injured participants, but since 2018 it has mostly been veterans with psychical repercussions.

Every participator from the Danish team sets personal goals for what they want to get out of the Invictus Games. The participation in the games cannot be the goal in itself but needs to be a catalysator for the veterans’ personal development and rehabilitation. Invictus Games uses sport for rehabilitation because many veterans have been very physically active as soldiers. Moreover, many find new communities through sport first through the Invictus Games and later in the Danish sports clubs on their own.

Selection criteria

Since Invictus Games 2018 the Danish program has had four criteria for the veterans who applies for the team. On the two first training camps and during the intervening period with self-training the participants are assessed on:

  • The degree of engagement in training
  • The degree of contribution to the team spirit
  • How participation in the Invictus Games can contribute to the veteran’s rehabilitation and personal development.
  • If the veteran has participated in the program before. The Danish program wants to give as many veterans as possible the opportunity to participate.

The team has associated coaches with experience in each discipline. Among others there is a physiotherapist, a nutrition expert, military psychologists, and advisers in rehabilitation from the Veterancenter.

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