Wounded warriors take to the ice
February 18, 2009
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Bowser is an amputee, but when he\'s out on the ice rink, his injuries disappear-literally-and he becomes a regular hockey player. His prosthesis vanishes under layers of padding and hockey gear, and like many other wounded warriors involved in the USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program, he looks and skates like an able-bodied player.
Soldiers say the program, supported by the USA Hockey Disabled section, is the highlight of their week. It was formed last spring to give wounded servicemembers an opportunity to get out of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Bethesda Naval Medical Center and other facilities. They can forget about their injuries and just be athletes a couple Saturdays a month at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel, Md.
"It shows the guys at all levels that you can get out here and do it," said Bowser, who lost a leg in Iraq in 2004. "Even if it's the first time you get your skates on, you come out here and you try. It's not what we can't do. It's what we can do.
"We're all here to support each other," he added. "It's almost like a therapy group because we're all here, we all have the love for the game and it doesn't matter what level we are. We help each other out. To me, it's the best therapy going, because I'm out here with guys who are just like me instead of being out there with guys with two legs and no other problems."
An experienced hockey player, after he was wounded, Bowser focused on getting back on the ice. It took a year and a half to heal, rebuild his strength and adjust to his prosthetic before he could balance on skates, but last year he made the U.S. Amputee Hockey team. More than anything, he said, hockey is great exercise and good physical therapy because he doesn't think about where to transfer his weight when he's playing. He said he just concentrates on the game.
Other players like Pfc. Phillip W. Clement, who is undergoing cancer treatment, are out on the ice for the first or second time. Clement admits that he still isn't sure how to stop once he starts moving on the ice.
He said he loves "just being out with all the other wounded Soldiers. It's fun to be with other people who don't know what they're doing. We're all learning together."
Experienced coaches like retired Col. Bob Atkinson are on hand to make sure the servicemembers-who may be amputees like Bowser, sick like Clement or have serious nerve damage-learn the game and aren't re-injured.
The players must first clear their participation with their physical and occupational therapists, Atkinson said. The coaches also call for frequent breaks and watch carefully to make sure the Soldiers aren't getting too worn out.
He added that one of the first things the coaches learned is that the legs of servicemembers with a certain type of pin prosthesis might turn without their knowledge when they skate.
"A concern we always had was that if they're below-knee amputees, they could badly damage their remaining knee joints or their other knees," Atkinson said of the prosthetics. "So that was something we had to work on quickly, and we're learning too.
"The coaching staff and everybody who works with these folks, we're learning on a medical and physiological side what they can do and emotionally what they can do, which is sometimes way over what we ever expected. Their enthusiasm is way, way over the top. We have to be careful to stop them when it's time to stop. If we don't, they will stay out here all day."
Bowser knows exactly what Atkinson was talking about. He plays with able-bodied men all the time, and has to be careful, especially because they usually have no idea he's injured.
"I remember one time we were out there playing and I caught an edge and I fell down and I couldn't get back up and I asked the guys on the bench if they'd help me up and they said, 'Oh yeah, no problem.' I said, 'Well, before you pick me all the way up, can you take my foot and turn it in a little bit'' They said, 'Oh dude, don't even touch it!' So they thought that I broke my leg. I said, 'It's a prosthetic.' They had no idea."
Not only do many of the Soldiers look like able-bodied players, they're treated like it. Atkinson said USA Hockey doesn't bend the rules for disabled players. The Soldiers skated, blocked and turned with the best, and they got back up and started playing again after slipping and sliding on the ice.
Servicemembers who can't stand or balance on skates can play as well, thanks to sled hockey, where players sit on low seats with skates on the bottom and propel themselves using two small hockey sticks. Atkinson said these players need a few rule adjustments, but that otherwise they're also treated like average players.
"You're out here with other guys who are wounded, and the ones who will be the hardest on you are the other wounded guys. I'm going to dog him if he's not skating the way he should," said Bowser.
With many of the players still learning hockey basics, the team is mostly in practice mode, but played their first game in November against the American Special Hockey Association's Washington Ice Dogs, whose players also have special needs. The warriors lost, but Mike Hickey, president of the American Special Hockey Association, said it was a great experience, and at press time the two teams planned to match up again in December and February.
They'll play against anyone they can, whether kids or able-bodied teams, Bowser said, adding that his real hope is that other warrior transition units will form teams. Right now, he said there's a sled-hockey team at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio that he wants to play.
But the best part about the match-up was that it gave the servicemembers the opportunity to mentor young special-needs players, said Hickey, adding he hopes many of the players will remain involved in special-hockey programs after they return to their hometowns or duty stations.
"The special-hockey players really look up to the warriors, so it's a great combination of them working together for the sport of hockey," he said.
The Soldiers are truly inspiring, said Atkinson.
"These are fellow Soldiers for the most part," Atkinson said. "Once you're in the military, you don't give up. You're going to stay with these guys and help them. There's an awful lot of satisfaction we get by working with these guys and seeing them progress from week to week.
"They're more than deserving of recognition for what they give up, and any support anybody can give is a big, big thing...I put my skates on probably 20 or 30 times a week and I just don't think about it anymore, but now, every time I come out here with these guys and put my skates on, there's always going to be one or two of them who come back and say just how appreciative they are of what we do for them. It's very humbling. They're appreciative of us putting in an hour out here on the ice rink, but we're appreciative of what they did. Look at how much they gave."