After sustaining serious injuries from a suicide bomber while on tour in Afghanistan in 2010, Derek McDonald knew he had a long road to recovery.
He had been a rower for 15 years before joining the military, so he turned back to rowing as a way to recover from post-concussion syndrome, traumatic brain injury and mental health challenges.
Now McDonald wants to use his passion for rowing to help other soldiers with injuries and illnesses in a fundraiser that he's calling Rowing for Heroes.
On Sunday, McDonald plans to row 158 kilometres on a rowing machine in support of Soldier On, a Canadian Armed Forces organization that helps injured and ill service members and veterans on their journey to recovery.
"This is my way of paying it forward, giving back to an organization that has helped me," McDonald said in an interview at his Mount Pearl, N.L. home with Weekend AM.
Soldier On helps reintroduce veterans and service members to an active lifestyle by providing equipment and resources for sport, recreational, and creative activities.
McDonald said the organization has helped him get sports equipment and a road bike, which he used to travel across Newfoundland in 2016.
In 2018, McDonald again biked across Newfoundland, and was joined by seven members of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary in a campaign to raise money for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The group raised over $10,000.
Soldier On even facilitated a trip for McDonald to compete in the Warrior Games in Tampa, Fla., where he won gold and silver medals in rowing.
"They've been there for me for many years," McDonald said.
McDonald said he is rowing 158 kilometres to honour the 158 Canadian soldiers who died in the war in Afghanistan, including Cpl. Brian Pinksen, who was under McDonald's command.
Outpouring of support
McDonald estimates that it will take him 14 hours to do it, but he says he isn't doing it alone. Every hour, teams of rowers will be rowing alongside him as he strives to achieve his ambitious goal.
"Rowing for Heroes has turned into, in essence, a support program in and of itself to get me through 158 kilometres," McDonald said.
McDonald said he's "absolutely overwhelmed" by the support he's received from local rowers.
"It's turned into a community, standing behind someone to go and row a goal that they have set for themselves," he said.
With Rowing for Heroes, McDonald also hopes to inspire other former service members who are struggling with mental or physical challenges. His message is to never give up.
"I wanted to show other service members that you can pick yourself up and you can carry on," McDonald said. "People in the military, people outside the military, all come with physical and mental health adversity. And there is a way forward."
Rowing for Heroes will be broadcast on Facebook Live starting at 4 a.m. NT on Sunday.