By Ashley Dunkak
DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) – On the rink, they look and sound like a regular hockey team, with the slick, sharp slice of blades on ice and players’ shouts amid the skittering and snapping of the puck bouncing off sticks and skates and boards.
At a rink built up inside snow-covered Comerica Park early Monday morning, though, the teams on the ice were far from ordinary.
The USA Warriors faced off against Soldier On Sans Limites, a Canadian organization. Both use hockey as tool for rehabilitation for wounded veterans.
The Warriors, based in Rockville, Md., have about 60 veterans as active players, many of whom are still patients at Walter Reed Military Medical Center. A group of 16 and several staff members traveled to Detroit this past weekend, when they attended a Detroit Red Wings game and played three games of their own.
The players love the game, but being on this team in particular – the Warriors – is about much more than just hockey.
While some people live for the next paycheck, Marine Corps veteran Jeremy Mishler lives for the next practice. He already drives an hour and a half there, and he is moving farther away, but it doesn’t matter. He’ll figure it out.
Mishler had always been a hockey fan but never played. While at a Washington Capitals game, he saw a halftime exhibition by the sled team of the USA Warriors.
Having skated just twice in his life, Mishler reached out.
In two years with the team since then, he has missed just two practices.
“Everything I schedule is off of practice – two days to practice, oh, now it’s five days to practice,” Mishler said. “I’m just looking out for that … It’s the only thing I can remember. I forget everything else, but I just know when I have practice and to be on the ice with these guys.”
The Warriors are partnered with Disabled American Veterans, which has contributed grants, publicity, guidance and finances. Their support makes it possible for the team to get equipment for all its players.
“It’s no longer us opening up a stinky bag and saying, ‘Hey, try and find something that you need,’” Army veteran Mark Little said. “It’s now, ‘Hey, it’s proven that you want to be on this team and you want to play hockey, here’s a full set of equipment. It’s yours. It’s new. It’s not from the ‘40s and somebody’s hand-me-down. It’s very cool. It’s changed our program night and day. It’s made what we do possible.”
‘It’s Kind Of Like This Is My Therapy’
Army veteran Jared Lemon does not want to sit in a group and talk about his experiences, nor is he a huge fan of psychiatrists. He definitely does not want to sit in an office and cry for an hour. Hockey, interestingly enough, has been a solid alternative.
“It’s kind of like this is my therapy,” Lemon said. “It’s definitely fun therapy. Therapy should be fun, right? Who wants to go to crappy therapy, like, ‘Ah I can’t wait to go cry for an hour,’ you know?”
Guys on the team sometimes discuss their recoveries or various struggles with each other, but for the most part, no one needs to explain themselves. To Marine Corps veteran Christopher McNair, that understanding is wonderful.
“We don’t talk about war. We don’t talk about the military. We really don’t because we don’t have to, and that’s the best part about it,” McNair said. “If somebody’s having a moment, they’re pissed off, we just make fun of them, get them out of that mindset. We don’t ask, ‘Are you okay?’ It’s a good feeling. You just know. That’s the nice thing about having a combat-wounded team is that everybody knows. You don’t have to explain. It’s pretty cool.”
Looking around at the group, one might notice missing arms and legs and eyes, though other trauma exists below the surface.
“There are guys on this team, they’ve been through a lot of stuff,” Army veteran Michael Davis said. “The stuff that you can’t see is really where this team brings out the best in the group and helping each other out so they can be successful.
“It’s one thing for me to tell you how great this program is,” Davis continued. “It’s another thing seeing us skate, to watch Mark Little on two titanium legs, skating and banging in front of the net. That’ll change anybody’s attitude about whether this is beneficial or not.”
The phrase emblazoned in bright red across the top of the website of USA Warriors is “None Tougher.” Listening to the stories of various players, one gets an overwhelming sense of exactly how well that phrase describes this group.
When asked how they joined up with the team, some describe a recommendation from a friend, or curiosity about recovering soldiers carrying big bags of hockey equipment out of Walter Reed. Others simply say, “I got blown up in Iraq,” or “I got blown up in Afghanistan.”
‘When You’re In The Hospital, You’re Alone’
Everyone on the team has sustained some kind of injury, and many have been awarded Purple Hearts. Some are missing limbs. Some suffer from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries. For the super- competitive, take-charge types that populate the military, being sidelined is a rude shock in a number of ways.
“Alpha male – that’s what we all are, and then when we get cooped up in a hospital room, we feel like nothing,” McNair said. “We feel we’re failures. We all feel like we’re Superman, we can’t get hurt, and so when we finally do get hurt, it’s a different feeling. It’s like, ‘Wow, I can’t move.’ It’s different.”
Besides dealing with the immediate physical limitations that at least initially accompany severe injuries, soldiers also miss their camaraderie of their unit.
“These guys got shipped out of theater away from their friends,” explained Marine Corps veteran Craig Grossi, who suffered a traumatic brain injury overseas but recovered in theater. “They couldn’t say goodbye to their unit, they couldn’t say goodbye to the guys in the field, next thing they knew they woke up in the states or in Germany, and they’re like, ‘Where the f— am I?’”
Regaining that sense of community means the world to the players on the team.
“When you’re in the hospital, you’re alone,” McNair said. “You have nobody there, so when I got back on this team, it was nice. It was different. It was almost like I’ve never felt it before because to go from the unit you have to nothing and then you have it again, it’s just like you treasure it even more.”
For Army veteran Mark Stoessel, who fought in the Persian Gulf War, the camaraderie is the best part of being on the team.
“To me, that’s everything,” Stoessel said. “To be in the locker room, and the banter that goes back and forth in the locker room with guys … Military people have a little different mindset than civilians. We went through things, we’ve been around the world, most of us, traveled, been through different trainings and different things, so it’s just great to be with guys that we all speak the same language, you know, really. That’s what it’s about to me.”
‘There’s No Part Of Your Heart, Your Soul, Your Brain That’s In Your Legs’
Some of the Warriors go back to Walter Reed to encourage men and women coming back wounded to sign up for hockey or for other team sports that allow them to regain that sense of ability and community.
Little, who served in Iraq, lost both his legs. He had always enjoyed roller blading, which eventually extended to ice hockey. When a fellow double amputee visited Little in the hospital with a pair of roller blade prosthetics, Little decided that, injuries be damned, he would do just what he had always done.
“It was that moment when everything snapped,” Little said. “I said, ‘All right, I’m fine. I don’t have to worry about anything. Everything’s going to be great for me.’”
By returning to Walter Reed, Little and others want to remind other wounded soldiers that it can be great for them too, no matter what obstacles stand in their way.
“The more that we can reach out to touch them, the more that we can show them, just because you lost a leg or you lost an arm, you’re still a whole person,” said Tony Campanella, a Marine Corps veteran and the director of events for the Warriors. “You’re still a whole person. There’s no part of your heart, your soul, your brain that’s in your legs. It’s who you are.”
Who are the Warriors? In a word, heroes. And hockey players.