18 December 2009

The USA Warriors

“I’m probably the only person you’ll ever meet who opted to have their leg amputated so they could play hockey.”

— Sgt. 1st Class Joe Bowser

Another terrific program that gives our wounded warriors the opportunity to keep doing some of the things they love most - in this case, playing hockey.

The Warriors Way
By: Mark Miller

Battling back from injuries is nothing unusual for hockey players. But “comeback” is an understatement when you’re referring to Sgt. 1st Class Joe Bowser, who’s learned to play with one leg.

Bowser is part of the USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program, which organizes hockey clinics for military personnel who have been wounded in action – mostly while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Affiliated with USA Hockey’s Disabled Hockey Program, the team practices at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel, Md., and a second team is forming in Minnesota.

For Bowser and the other USA Warriors, hockey is playing a major role in their recovery, both physically and emotionally. At 49, Bowser is a role model and mentor to many of the other USA Warrior players.

While serving in Balad, Iraq (about 50 miles north of Baghdad), his unit was hit with mortar fire on April 12, 2004. Before he knew what was happening, shrapnel had fired through his right heel bone and out the bottom of his foot, and also opened a quarter-sized hole in the back of his right leg, piercing his femoral artery.

Sgt. 1st Class Joe Bowser prepares for practice with the same attention to detail that served him well as a solider in the U.S. Army. Bowser is now a proud member of the U.S. National Amputee Team.

Bowser was flown to Germany, where surgeons immediately went to work to try to save his leg. He was then transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and a few days later he had a conversation he remembers vividly.

“The doctor said, ‘We’re going to give you an option. We can try to salvage your leg, but you won’t be able to use your foot, and you’ll be in pain the rest of your life. Or you can have your leg amputated and do everything you could before.’ I asked, ‘So I could get out and play hockey again? And he said, ‘I’m sure you could.’

“The best way I can describe it is when I get out on the ice and I’ve got my gear on, all people see is a hockey player, and I feel normal,” he says. “I play pickup with ‘two-leggers,’ as I call them, and a lot of time people have no idea I have a prosthetic. The only way people would know is if they see me in the locker room.”

In 2007 Bowser served his country in a different way, when he was named to the U.S. National Amputee Team.

Most of the USA Warriors players hear about the program at Walter Reed or Bethesda National Naval Medical Center, both of which treat wounded personnel from all branches of the military.

Anne Moore, a physical therapist assistant at Walter Reed, has helped Bowser and many other players incorporate hockey into their rehabilitation.

As a former hockey player, Moore says, “The general conditioning, core strength, balance and agility developed by playing either standing or sled hockey parallels our goals in physical therapy. The program can also give a patient the motivation to put their all into rehabilitation.

“Recently, a patient said to me, ‘I thought I would never play sports again, much less ice hockey. Now I am going to work twice as hard in physical therapy.’

Head coach Steve Monahan puts the USA Warriors through their practice paces at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Va.

The head coach of the USA Warriors, Steve Monahan, says teamwork comes naturally for players who have served in life-and-death situations overseas.

“No one in this program expects to be in the National Hockey League, but the camaraderie and part of being on a team is what draws these guys together,” he says.

Monahan, who travels from southern New Jersey to work with the team in Maryland, says, “Even though it’s three hours from my house and it takes my whole day, it absolutely makes my day to be able to give back to these guys who’ve sacrificed for us so we can live the way we do.”

While Monahan has had his own challenges, he is inspired by the strength and courage of the players who have suffered incredible injuries from roadside bombs and shrapnel.

“It’s amazing sitting in the locker room with these guys, getting dressed and changed,” Monahan says. “You see half of them with bodies that are held together with duct tape, and the will and determination they have to get out there and play is inspiring.”

With both the USA Warriors and his younger players, he says, “I tell them you have to play with the cards they deal you. You have to adapt and overcome any kind of injury or disability you have and make the best of it.”

Bob Banach, president of the USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program, says the vision for the program is to start teams in cities across the country.

To learn more about the USA Warriors Program, contact info@usawarriorshockey.org

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