March 28, 2014
From the rinks of Rochester, N.Y., to the rare frozen surfaces in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Mark Stoessel played hockey for the majority of his life.
But when the injuries of his 17-year Army career began to mount, the former college hockey player's future on the ice was in doubt.
That was until 2010 when Stoessel, the director of Fort Meade's Soldier and Family Assistance Center, found a new home on the ice with other service members battling to overcome both physical and invisible wounds from their time in the military.
"You get out there on the ice and you don't even think about how bad your knees are going to hurt tomorrow, or how much it hurts," Stoessel said. "You're just thinking about playing the greatest game in the world."
Known as the USA Warriors, the team is comprised of area retired and active-duty service members with VA-rated disabilities and aims to use the sport of hockey as a rehabilitation tool.
Players compete on a standing team or a sled team, in which players sit in individual sleds and propel themselves with sticks in both hands.
The team practices once a week in Rockville and competes nationwide in tournaments and charity games.
The program was established in 2007 by an Army staff sergeant recovering from a 20-foot fall from a helicopter that broke his neck and lower back, and shattered his ankle.
To get back onto the ice, he picked up sled hockey and the USA Warriors program was born with the motto: "None tougher."
What initially started as sled clinics transformed into something even rarer -- a standing team for service members battling injuries including double leg amputations.
Joe Bowser was among the first Soldiers recovering from an amputated leg to compete upright.
While serving in Iraq a decade ago, Bowser was struck by a rocket that severely injured his right leg from the knee down. But as a lifelong hockey player from Ohio, he wasn't going to let the injury end his time on the ice.
"I basically cut my leg off so that I could play hockey," he said. "The way it was, there was no way I'd be able to -- and that's if they could even salvage it. I just told them to go ahead and take it. I wanted to play hockey."
The transition to skating with a prosthetic leg was a challenge for Bowser. When ice skating, players depend on the ankle to make routine movements such as stopping and turning. Without an ankle, Bowser had to learn to make adjustments with his knee instead.
"It was a whole learning experience," said Bowser, who is now serving as a staff assistant for the secretary of the Army for issues regarding wounded Soldiers.
Bowser has been playing with the USA Warriors on-and-off for several years and has seen a handful of wounded service members come and go -- usually better off than when they arrived. The team, he said, provides camaraderie and an outlet for players to talk about their hardships with people who experienced similar situations.
"For us, it's not just a good way of getting out there to play, but it's also a bit of therapy," Bowser said. "It's a great healing device."
Stoessel, who deals with wounded service members on a daily basis at the SFAC, said the program is an "awesome" way for injured military members to overcome their challenges.
"It just does so much for them," he said. "It's a great group of guys."
While the team includes several experienced hockey players learning to adapt their game to their abilities, the USA Warriors also provides a training ground for new players as volunteer coaches help train the teams during their weekly practices.
Among those introduced to the sport through the team are Fort Meade's Sgt. Justin Fallon and Staff Sgt. Andrew Young.
A year ago, the two Soldiers who are members of the installation's Warrior Transition Unit, had never played organized hockey.
"I've always wanted to play," said Fallon, who is recovering from a traumatic brain injury and back injuries. "I never ice skated and I wanted to. So I saw the opportunity and took it."
Young, who grew up in New York, had played hockey in his driveway as a child, but never competed on an ice hockey team. After suffering two traumatic brain injuries in 2006 and 2008, the idea of playing ice hockey seemed far-fetched. Young has now been playing with the USA Warriors for nearly a year.
"It's amazing, it's the best feeling ever," he said. "It's the best therapy. It encompasses everything. It's meeting your social needs and your physical needs."
Although Fallon said he will never fully recover from his wounds, the team and the challenges presented by playing ice hockey have helped him on his journey.
"A lot of guys, when they get out, they're used to being part of a team, part of a unit," he said. "This is a good way to do that and work together with like-minded people who have been through what you've been through. And you can turn around and help people who are starting to go through what you've already been through. It's good."
For Young, the team provides a sense of unity that service members miss when they separate from the military.
"It gives you something that was somewhat taken away from you when you leave the military -- that sense of brotherhood," he said. "This gives it back."
Mark Adams, a Vietnam-era veteran who plays with the team, agreed.
"Not only do you have the great opportunity to play the game, you're almost in the same environment you were in the military -- you're always depending on each other, fast and furious action," Adams said. "You have to handle your part of the game, so no matter how bad you feel, your teammates are depending on you."
Although the jerseys are far different than the ones the players wore when they served, team members still see themselves as a military unit -- just of a different breed.
"We're still a combat team," Bowser said. "Our mission is just a whole lot different. Instead of fighting bad guys, now we just put the little black disk in the net."
Editor's note: For more information about the USA Warriors, visit USAWarriorsHockey.org.