Stars Stripes And Sleds

Operation Comfort Adds More Than Just Ice To Help Heal Injured Servicemen

They laugh and joke, throw tape balls and residual ice from their skate blades, and razz each other about missing a wide-open net or getting leveled by a hard bodycheck.

The scene inside the Ice and Golf Center in Northwoods, Texas could pass for any locker room in any rink around the country. But the San Antonio Rampage is not your typical hockey team.

The men who make up the Rampage are part of a fraternity that no one would willingly join, but has created bonds that can’t be broken. It started at  Brooke Army Medical Center, where these servicemen began the long journey of recovery from injuries suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has brought them to the rink.

Sled hockey provides the soldiers with an opportunity to play a full-contact sport as well as a bonding experience away from the rehabilitation center.

They are brought together by Operation Comfort, a San Antonio-based organization dedicated to helping veterans rehabilitate their injuries and adjust to life after combat.

Operation Comfort was founded by Janis Roznowski, an American Airlines flight attendant who was inspired by soldiers she met on flights transporting them back from overseas.

With the help of the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association and the Air Warrior Courage Foundation, Operation Comfort raised the money to purchase 20 sleds. The San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League donated equipment, and the Ice and Golf Center provided the ice time.

Bringing it all together on the ice and in the locker room is coach and star player Lonnie Hannah, the only member of the team who hasn’t served in the military.

After launching a sled hockey program in Dallas several years ago, Hannah moved to San Antonio in 2006 and partnered with Operation Comfort to establish the fledgling team.

While few of the Texas-based soldiers were into hockey, once they sat in a sled and propelled themselves around the ice with their special sticks, they were hooked.

“You get a lot of frustration going on, and it comes back to teamwork, hanging out with your friends, making another bond and brotherhood of a different kind. We push each other, we get grumpy with each other, we yell at each other.”

—Shane Parsons,
San Antonio Rampage

“It gets very physical, it’s full checking,” said Hannah, who was a mainstay on the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team that won a Paralympics gold medal in 2002, a bronze in 2006 and a gold medal again at the 2009 World Championships.

For men mostly in their 20s accustomed to an active lifestyle, returning from war with debilitating injuries is a difficult adjustment. Being able to participate in a competitive, contact sport allows them to maintain some aspect of their former lives while offering other positives.

“I’ve been an active guy most of my life,” said Chris Leverkuhn, the Rampage’s captain who had his right leg amputated after a roadside bomb blew up the fuel tanker he was driving in Iraq. “So, just to have a hard-hitting, full-contact sport – you can just take that aggression out. It’s nice to have that kind of a sport to be able to go into.”

The fast-paced and hard-hitting nature of the sport provides a good outlet, said Fred Jesse, staff physical therapist at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, a facility that treats wounded veterans and refers some to the program.

“A lot of these guys are young and competitive, and they want to continue to be in a sport,” Jesse said. “It builds teamwork and camaraderie – they work together. A lot of them have post-traumatic stress syndrome, and this is a good outlet for that.”

Shane Parsons, a former Special Forces sniper who suffered a serious head injury and lost both his legs in an explosion in Baghdad three years ago, is a perfect example of how sled hockey can brighten a wounded soldier’s post-combat life.

“I’m trying to do the best I can. The only thing you can do is get better,” said Parsons, who had been injured two other times during the 11 months he was deployed in Iraq. “It’s a lot of stepping up the bars and trying to push yourself and what you’re capable of doing, especially being a double amputee.

 

“You get a lot of frustration going on, and it comes back to teamwork, hanging out with your friends, making another bond and brotherhood of a different kind. We push each other, we get grumpy with each other, we yell at each other.”

That sense of belonging to another close-knit group, reminiscent of their military unit, is a crucial aspect of the experience.

“I’ve seen it help so many people,” said Hannah, who has been paralyzed from the waist down for 25 years. “For the same reason that disabled sports helped me, these guys are around people who have gone through similar situations.

“Sled hockey is a team sport, so it builds that camaraderie, and now you have a second family of these sled hockey players that people can lean on, can depend on.”

The proof can be found in the locker room, as players laugh, joke and tease one another, all the while putting all the pain, all the hours of rehabilitation, on ice, if only for a little while.

“It’s really helps their morale and helps them adjust,” Hannah said. “It’s tough when you come back and you’re not really the same person you were when you went over there. It’s a life-altering event when something like that happens.

“If anything, I can emit that positive, ‘Everything’s going to be OK’ attitude and not just teach them sled hockey but how to have a better life.”

John Tranchina is a freelance writer based out of Dallas.

Issue: 
2009-12

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