Injured vets find healing on Warrior Hockey team
Squad is chance to get wounded warriors back on the ice
By Brandon Bieltz
Joe Bowser grew up playing ice hockey on the ponds of Toledo, Ohio. It's not out of the ordinary for the retired sergeant first class to still put on his gloves, grab a stick and hit the ice.
One time while playing recently, his right leg popped out of place. When he asked some teammates to help him turn his foot so he could stand up, they told him not to touch it to avoid further injury to the leg.
What they didn't know was that underneath all the gear and tucked snugly into his skate was a prosthetic leg.
Bowser lost his right leg from the knee down a few years before, when he was serving in Iraq with the 283rd Transport Company. He was struck by a rocket.
"I can take a good slap shot to my right leg and not even feel it," Bowser said.
In most sports circles, playing hockey with one leg is rare. But when Bowser laces up his skates, there are veterans sitting across the locker room with injuries far worse. Like Mark Little, who lost both legs in Iraq.
The U.S. Warrior Hockey team is designed to give injured veterans the opportunity to get back out on the ice or try out the game of hockey for the first time after being wounded in battle.
The program was founded in January 2007 by retired Staff Sgt. Andrew Hill, an avid hockey player, while recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center from a 2006 injury.
While serving in Afghanistan, Hill was ejected from a helicopter after it was struck by a mortar round. He fell 15 to 20 feet to the ground, shattering his right ankle and breaking his neck and lower back. His left thumb was pulled back to his wrist and his shoulder was out of place.
Hill's path back to the ice began by playing sled hockey, in which players sit in individual sleds and propel themselves with their hands and a stick. The U.S. Warrior Hockey team initially started as a clinic for sled players.
"I didn't care if I had my skates on," Hill said. "I'd spend the entire time on my belly, but at least I was on my ice."
As he began to heal, Hill shed the sled and laced his skates. He required nearly 52 surgeries to play hockey at his current skill level. But the Lutherville resident credits hockey as a help to his healing.
He started the standing team so other injured veterans could find the same enjoyment.
"Our mission was to anyone who was an injured vet -- no matter what disability," he said. "If they could get a [Veterans Affairs disability] rating of 10 percent or higher, they can play for us. We want to suit them up and train them and heal them through hockey."
Following in Hill's footsteps, the combat veterans have begun playing ice hockey with the Warriors to help their recovery from injuries -- whether it's on a sled or standing.
Many of the team's players are patients at Walter Reed, or still recovering yet reside throughout the area.
"We're basically a way for guys who got injured to have a release and find therapy, not in a clinical sense but through camaraderie and the great sport of hockey," Little said.
For Little, who lost both legs from an improvised explosive device in 2007 in Iraq, to be back out on the ice was his goal from an early point in his rehabilitation. After seeing a fellow double amputee with roller blades on his prosthetic legs, Little knew he could play hockey again.
"At that moment I was like 'All right. That's it. There's nothing that can hold me back,'" the retired captain said.
But being back on the ice now isn't just about achieving his goal.
"It's wanting to inspire other guys that have been hurt," Little said. "It's a way to give back silently."
Skating with a prosthetic leg isn't as difficult as it may seem to "two-leggers," both Little and Bowser said. They use regular skates, with only foam padding in the ankle as a modification.
"It's left, right, repeat -- much like walking," Little said.
However, the players did need to learn to skate a little differently than before their injuries.
"I'm working with my thigh instead of my calf," Bowser said. "All my calf does is hold my skate on."
The program is also open to any veteran or service member interested in hockey, whether or not they have a disability. Mentors help run the practices and coach the injured players.
Retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Timothy Higgins is one of the mentors for the disabled players. Having served in three combat zones himself, Higgins shows up to the practices to give back to the veterans.
"I think these guys are fantastic; to me their the salt of the earth," Higgins said. "If I can help in anyway -- I live for that."
He has been attending practices for more than three months and said he's never once heard a player complain about injuries on the ice -- they just smile.
"I think people go away from this a lot happier," Higgins said. "This puts a lot of happiness in their lives."
Higgins helps run practices on Wednesday nights at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel. During the sessions, the group looks like any other team sharpening its skills. Team members work half-ice drills such as three-on-threes and end with a shoot-out.
The Warriors don't see themselves as any different from other hockey teams carving up the ice. They put on their pads and work hard every time -- just like any other hockey player might.
"It's great, I love hockey," Hill said. "There's no greater feeling than this."
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