Scarred by war, Nigeria’s wounded soldiers fought to recover at Prince Harry’s Invictus Games

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ABUJA, Nigeria — One evening in November 2020, a year into his military service, Peacemaker Azuegbulam’s lifelong dream of being a soldier came to an abrupt end.

He was among a group of Nigerian soldiers deployed in the country’s grinding counteroffensive against Islamic extremists in northeastern Borno state when an anti-aircraft weapon was fired at them. When he regained consciousness, his life was no longer the same, and his left leg later had to be amputated.

He was given what he described as a chance to recover when he joined Nigeria’s team in last year’s Invictus Games and won Africa’s first gold medal at the biennial sporting event founded a decade ago by the U.K.’s Prince Harry to aid in the rehabilitation of wounded soldiers.

“I thought I couldn’t meet up with life, but Invictus gave me an opportunity to recover through sports,” Azuegbulam, 27, said of the games, which are in the spotlight with Harry and his wife, Meghan’s three-day visit to Nigeria.

Azuegbulam is among the Nigerian servicemembers wounded and mentally battered in the country’s 14-year-long war against Islamic extremists and other armed groups in the country’s northern region. They say they feel better and are recovering faster since last year’s Invictus Games, when Nigeria became the first African country to compete in the event.

Though sports had been part of the recovery process for Nigeria’s wounded soldiers, military officials said the Invictus Games offers them a better chance, especially in dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Eighty percent of our soldiers that have been involved in this recovery program are getting better and their outlook on life is positive,” said Abidemi Marquis, the military’s director of sports at the Nigerian Defense Headquarters.

Security analysts say it can help deal with the mental health crisis that is overwhelming Nigeria’s overstretched and underfunded military, but only if it is in addition to measures to improve the welfare of soldiers. In the past, soldiers have complained of poor pay, old weapons and fatigue.

In Nigeria, Harry played an Invictus Games-related volleyball match with wounded soldiers in Abuja, the capital, and visited a military hospital handling critical injuries.

The game with Harry was “like a lifting of our spirits,” said Lance Cpl. Dean Onuwchekwa, an explosive ordnance disposal specialist whose upper body was damaged in 2021 by a homemade bomb he was trying to disarm in Borno state’s Mallam Fatori town.

“It is so hard just waking up and discovering that you don’t have hands, are left with only one eye and 25% of your hearing – it was like life is over,” said Onuwchekwa, 45.

He said that after explosion, he more than once thought of turning his gun on himself as he battled PTSD, bouts of panic and nights filled with terrifying dreams and days filled with memories of the blast.

Last September, he was selected to join Nigeria’s team of 10 to attend the games, where he participated in snowboarding.

“I was down when I went there but coming back, I became alive,” he said, his functional left eye widening in excitement.

Sitting beside him was Sgt. Monday Peter, whose legs were amputated after an armored personnel carrier shattered them as they patrolled villages in northwestern Kaduna state in 2011.

“I didn’t know what sitting volleyball was before,” Peter said of the game played with Prince Harry. “But today, I can play it, I can play basketball, I can even swim. The Invictus Games have built my confidence and my morale.”

Studies have shown that sports can help veterans heal from the physical and psychological issues related to their combat experiences. Sports help, for instance, to enhance social connections, stress management, self-esteem and mental wellness, according to Dr. Maymunah Yusuf Kadiri, one of Nigeria’s most popular mental health physicians.

“These soldiers develop resilience and a fresh sense of purpose,” Kadiri said. “Sports provide them with a glimmer of hope and solace as they negotiate the difficulties of life after the war.”

Having served in Afghanistan as an Apache helicopter copilot gunner from 2012 to 2013, Harry, the Duke of Sussex, has also experienced PTSD. In his recent Netflix series about the Invictus Games, he said he didn’t have the support he needed when he returned home from combat in Afghanistan in 2012 and that it triggered emotions that he had suppressed after the death of his mother, Princess Diana, when he was 12 years old.

He later started the Invictus Games, modeled after the Warrior Games in the United States, to give servicemembers and veterans the challenge of competing in sports events similar to the Paralympics.

Harry visited the Nigerian Army Reference Hospital for critical injuries in northern Nigeria. Among the wounded soldiers there, Cpl. Iziogo Onyema, 31, had his right arm reset after a gunshot wound. A bullet went in and out of Sgt. Emmanuel Oyesigi’s stomach during an ambush. An explosion ripped through Private Habu Sadiq’s eyes.

But even the prosthetics being produced at the hospital were not being used by some.

“It’s partly stigma,” Gen. Ndidi Onuchukwu, the hospital’s chief medical director, told Harry when he asked why they were not using the prosthetics.

At the officers’ mess in Abuja, servicemembers spoke freely about how they dealt with the shame in the past. Now, they say, they are no longer bothered when people stop to look at the burned or damaged parts of their bodies.

“After I got injured, it affected me mentally, emotionally and physically,” Azuegbulam said. “But today, I am living proof of resilience and hope.”

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