Military veterans are overcoming disabilities and getting their lives in order through hockey
PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — Some have emotional scars from their time in the military. Some have long-lasting injuries from combat. And some, to put it mildly, have had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life.
All have a common bond — their love for hockey.
That passion has brought them together as members of the Philadelphia Flyers Warriors, a military hockey organization that offers an outlet for injured and disabled U.S. veterans. The Warriors consist of three different-level teams that total 70 players, including five women.
"Just like so many guys, this team saved my life," said Jim Young, a 37-year-old defenseman from Delaware County who was the captain of the Warriors' first team in 2019. "It got me out of the house. It got me to where my social functions weren't revolving around detracting behaviors. Let's put it that way: I played in high school and played in college. But when I left college and went into the Marine Corps, I didn't skate again for about 17 years."
He said the Warriors "gave me a fresh slate, something to do on Sundays, something to give me a reason to stay in shape, and accountability to my buddies" on the team. "We're like-minded individuals who have had some of the same experiences, and it opened a lot of doors to the veterans' programs in the area and how to navigate the [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] to get the help I need and other veterans need."
Like Young, goaltender Bill Duffy, said the Warriors have turned his life around. Duffy, 47, of Somerdale, N.J., spent 21 years in the Air Force. He was in Iraq for four of his nine deployments, which also included Africa and Haiti. He also worked in Afghanistan for about a year as a civilian contractor for the state department.
But he feels at home in a hockey crease, and hasn't let the fact he is 70% disabled — a rating derived from post-traumatic stress disorder issues, a major knee injury, and back problems from wearing 80 pounds of combat armor and weaponry — slow him down.
"You learn to live in pain, to be honest with you, and that's with a lot of the guys," said Duffy, who also serves as the Warriors' president and has countless administrative duties. "You learn to manage it, and [for] the guys that can't, we have a free resource now that we can reach out to somebody at a moment's notice and get the help they deserve."
His involvement with the Warriors came unexpectedly.
"One of the chiefs I served with in the Air Force texted me one day and said the Flyers were doing something really cool with disabled veterans and that I should check it out," said Duffy, who worked as a cable and data technician for hospitals when he got out of the Air Force and is now studying criminology at Rowan University. "Of course, I told my wife and she said [sarcastically], 'Great. Another hockey team you're playing on.' I said, 'No, I think this is going to be different.' \"
At his first practice, he saw Brad Marsh, the former Flyers defenseman who serves as the Warriors' coach, putting on his skates in the locker room. He knew right then this was different than any of his men's-league teams.
"I went to a couple practices, and I said to my wife, 'This is something special,' \" Duffy said. "You have friends you grew up with [and are important to you], but when you join the military, you're part of a different kind of family that understands each other a lot more, especially when you've served. I immediately felt that with these guys, and it's something that was missing out of my life once I retired from the Air Force."
Marsh, who spent seven of his 15 NHL seasons with the Flyers and is thoroughly immersed in duties as the Warriors' coach, has always had a deep appreciation for the military, especially around Remembrance Day in Canada (Nov. 11) and Memorial Day in the United States.
Being around the Warriors has made that appreciation grow deeper.
"It's one of those things that's very special," Marsh said. "And being involved with the guys on a day-to-day basis, I can appreciate what they've done on both sides of the border. I have a better appreciation of the military, both active and retired."
Some of the players have physical and mental issues from war battles that are fresh in their minds, even if they happened decades ago.
"Everybody who plays for us has their limbs, and we say they're standing disabled," Marsh said. "In saying that, there's lots of them who were blown up at various times."
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Young, who played hockey at Central Bucks East High School and then at Kutztown University, served eight years in the Marines after enlisting because he felt a calling after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. (Two of Young's current Warriors teammates, Nick Santoro and Dave Nawrocki, are also Central Bucks East grads who, like him, served in Iraq.)
An operations manager for a fire-protection company, Young said several of his hockey teammates have been awarded Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars, among other honors.
"I was in Iraq in 2005 and, thank God, was never hit," Young said.
To him, Memorial Day, which is celebrated Monday, has a more profound meaning than it did when he was a youngster.
"When I was a kid, Memorial Day was barbecues and mattress sales and whatever," he said with a chuckle.
His tone quickly turned serious.
"After deploying in 2005, we lost 48 guys in our battalion," Young said. "Memorial Day is in memory of them and all the other soldiers that lost their lives in combat to protect this nation and for freedom. Memorial Day is for the ones who aren't here anymore. It hits a little harder for a lot of the guys, myself included. Veterans Day is more of a party, but Memorial Day is for the guys who stole our funerals."
"I served with some guys who didn't get to go home," said Duffy, the goalie. "That day is for them."
The Warriors, all unpaid and sponsored by the Flyers and the NHL, are composed of players who suffered disabilities — some physical, some emotional — while in the military. The competition is mostly composed of USA Hockey-affiliated teams from around the country, including many that have varying degrees of affiliations with NHL teams.
The Warriors were formed after Rick Stabeno, a Marine Corps veteran and hockey player from South Jersey, contacted Marsh, the Flyers' community development director and president of the alumni association. That put the wheels in motion, and, after several meetings, a Learn to Skate program was started for local military veterans who wanted to play hockey.
The program has evolved, and the Philadelphia Flyers Warriors won the Warrior Classic in Las Vegas in 2019. They practice twice a week, primarily at the Skate Zone in Pennsauken — day care is supplied at the rink because many of the players are single parents — and participate in games throughout the year. The players must be veterans of any military branch and have at least a 10% disability from their time in the service.
Marsh, 63, said his players range from their 20s to 60, and most are in the 35-to-45-year-old range.
They will play in a Warriors tournament in Minnesota June 4-6, and their first game is against a St. Louis Blues-affiliated team coached by former NHL defenseman Rob Ramage, 62, a childhood friend of Marsh's who spent the final part of his 15-year career with the Flyers in 1993-94.
The Warriors also have an upcoming game against the Flyers' alumni team June 27 at the Ice Works in Aston at 4 p.m. That game is part of an alumni weekend that is honoring former Flyers defenseman Joe Watson, who just finished his 54th and final year working for the organization in different capacities.
Hockey brings the military veterans together, Marsh said, but the Warriors program offers much more.
"We have a behavioral health program that deals with mental health for the players, their wives, and their kids, and we've extended it to the St. Louis Warriors," he said. "We have all kinds of medical things set up for them for further testing and further evaluations, and we're about to launch a continuing-education program for them."
Duffy, a Triton High School graduate, said the establishment of the local Warriors has not only helped the players who served in the military but given their spouses a way to share feelings with people who have had similar experiences.
"The wives get together, and it's good for them to talk to each other," Duffy said. "They talk about what they deal with, and they have an outlet now, too, which is great. They're around like-minded spouses as well now, and not everybody understands the military better than them and what they've been through. They can relate."
Left winger Tim Wynn, 41, is probably the best-known member of the Warriors, and has become the center of a feel-good story that saw him recover from alcohol and drug dependency and rebound from seven arrests, most of them for bar fights.
His transformation was on national display Nov. 11, when he led the Pledge of Allegiance as President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, stood behind him during a Veterans Day ceremony at the Korean War Memorial in Philadelphia.
Wynn now mentors veterans, and he helps his teammates navigate the system and supplies contacts to confront issues that arise.
"Timmy Wynn has been a godsend," Young said. "He's a rock star."
Wynn is considered 100% disabled because of issues related to PTSD and ear problems from his time in the service.
"All kinds of stuff. We're beat up, man," he said. "We fought in the two longest wars in our history, and we fought them at the same time ... and it took a toll on everybody."
Wynn's journey, from nearly 4 1/2 years in the Marines to civilian, became rocky late in his military stint.
One of the first Marines deployed to Iraq in 2003, Wynn spent about six months there before returning home to Northeast Philadelphia. He had little time to process the transition.
Four days later, he was arrested for aggravated assault. "And I didn't stop there," he said. "I had seven arrests and got addicted to drugs and alcohol. I messed my life up pretty bad."
Wynn was in and out of jail, including a stay that lasted almost a year. After his last arrest, he was put in the Philadelphia Veterans Treatment Court. He eventually got assistance from the city's behavioral health program and received treatment after a four-year battle with addiction.
He has been sober and drug-free for 12 years.
"I'm fully engaged in this recovery thing, and that's what I do for a living now," he said. "I work for the same court that saved my life."
Wynn went to college and put his life in order. He now runs the mentor program at the Philadelphia Veterans Treatment Court, which provides a holistic treatment approach to criminal justice involving veterans. Patrick Dugan, the judge in Wynn's case, recommended he be hired.
"I went from a defendant standing in front of him, and he's now been my boss for five years," Wynn said. "He's a friend and a father figure to me now. I can call him at any time, and he would give me the most solid advice."
According to Wynn, it was Dugan who set him up to recite the Pledge of Allegiance for the Bidens.
Wynn, who has been with the Warriors since they started playing games in 2019, was one of three veterans profiled in "Warrior Class," a documentary produced by Villanova University students from its social justice department. The documentary revolves around the veterans' difficult transition to civilian life.
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Being a part of the Warriors, Wynn said, has "tremendously" affected his life.
"Being in recovery is a lifelong thing," said Wynn, who, along with his wife, Nicole, is raising three daughters: Sienna, 13; Fiona, 8; and Maeve, 3. "You have to find different ways to combat it through your life. I'm always finding different tools and different things to help me through my recovery, and when the hockey program entered my life, it was a game-changer. It's a necessity for me; it's a tool to my recovery. If I don't go to hockey, I don't feel right that week.
"It's food for my soul, man."
A lifelong Flyers fan who was introduced to them by his mom, Wynn grew up idolizing players like Eric Lindros, Mark Howe, and Tim Kerr. He is captain of the Warriors' second-tier team and says the camaraderie with his teammates "takes me back to being a sergeant and giving orders and having younger people depend on me and look up to me for guidance. It's special. We miss that feeling when we get out of the military: the people, the camaraderie, the leadership, the whole culture of it."
Hockey has made that feeling return.
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