A little ice helps wounded warriors' most grievous pain
Wounded veterans participate in ice hockey practice in College Park, Md. "On the ice, a lot of our injuries go away," says Special Forces vet Mike Davis.
When you deploy to a war zone, Kevin Gatson was saying, your teammates are everything. You work with them, live with them, venture into combat with them, knowing that your life quite literally depends on the guy next to you. You get to know what he'll do in certain situations, where you need to be, what you need to do.
"That team is essentially a lifeline," the 34-year-old Army sergeant said. "You have to watch this guy's back, and he had to watch yours. . . . Everyone had to look out for themselves and the person next to them."
A hockey team can be like that, too, he said. It looks like chaos on ice, but when you get to know your teammates, where they'll be and when, you begin to forge that same kind of bond, in pursuit of another kind of victory.
"I know if he moves the puck over here, I need to be over there to get his back. And if I go this way, he's going to do this.
"It's that teamwork you had, only you're doing it on the ice instead of in the fields."
And you're doing it with guys who have only one leg. Or smashed feet. Or worn-out hips.
Gatson plays hockey sitting down, on a special sled that is perched on blades, with other wounded warriors from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Gatson still lives there nearly four years after a hidden bomb destroyed his left leg and damaged his right so badly that doctors wanted to amputate it, too.
On Saturday evening, I watched him set aside his above-the-knee prosthesis and climb into a sled before heading out onto the ice. He and his teammates on the USA Warriors ice hockey team were in full gear, with shoulder pads, helmets and face masks, but instead of a long hockey stick, each carried two shorter versions, one in each hand. At one end of each stick is a version of the blade you'd recognize if you've ever watched ice hockey. At the other are metal "picks" that bite into the ice. Players use that end to propel themselves across the ice with surprising speed.
While Gatson and three other members of the sled team practiced at one end of Herbert Wells Ice Rink in College Park, Md., about 16 members of the USA Warriors standing hockey team went through their drills at the other. You couldn't tell under those hockey uniforms, but every member of that team also has suffered a service-related injury. The team's two goalies have only two good eyes between them, said Mike Davis, a 53-year-old former Army Special Forces soldier who needed two hip replacements after making more than 200 parachute jumps.
"On the ice, a lot of our injuries go away," said Davis, who served in El Salvador, Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East. "Everybody here gets it," he added. "They know where they came from."
The team has been around for about five years, but it took off about two years ago. The players travel the Northeast, the sled team battling other sled teams of players with various kinds of disabilities. The standing team competes against both disabled and able-bodied teams. They are funded by donations, money that pays for their equipment and travel. If a wounded warrior moves away but wants to continue playing on the sled team, it will pay to fly him in for a game.
Next month, sled hockey will be featured as a sport at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Gatson was on patrol in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan on July 12, 2010, when he and other troops had to climb a wall in their way. Two teams of soldiers made it over, and Gatson, the first man from the third unit, was just about to clear the barrier when the man ahead of him stepped on a pressure plate and a bomb buried in the wall exploded.
It took Gatson's left leg and left index finger, and his left thumb had to be amputated. His right leg was nearly destroyed as well. For more than a month after he made it back to Walter Reed, he had major or minor surgeries three days a week, rotating from the operating room to the intensive care unit and back again, he said. He doesn't know how many operations he underwent.
"Honestly, I have no idea," he said. "Quite a few. I am definitely no stranger to surgeries."
Doctors wanted to amputate his shattered right leg, but he wouldn't let them. "I kept telling them, 'I'm going to keep my leg,' " he said. Instead, he wore a kind of halo brace, known as an "external fixator." It saved the leg but made sports impossible.
When that came off a couple of years ago, Gatson was introduced to sled hockey by an occupational therapist. "It was actually more of a workout than I had anticipated," the Mississippi native recalled, "and it was actually pretty fun. I felt that I was getting much more of a workout than anything I was doing in physical therapy."
There's also plenty of action, stick-handling and hitting, which Gatson likes. "Basically," he said, "sled hockey is a way that a lot of people who really wouldn't be considered athletes can be athletes."
And there is all that teamwork.
When you're wounded, "what you miss the most is the guys," he said. "That team, that team you're on. Everyone has that feeling of being on that team and knows what that's like. And sled hockey brings that back."