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.
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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.
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.’
“I’m probably the only person you’ll ever meet who opted to have their leg amputated so they could play hockey, and that was my whole goal. I spent two and a half years at Walter Reed, and everyone there knew that my first goal in life was to get back on the ice.”
For Bowser, and many others, hockey has been the best therapy imaginable.
“When you first lose your leg, it’s very difficult to trust an object that isn’t yours. So you often compensate by putting most of your weight on the strong side,” Bowser says. “Playing hockey helps me transfer weight from my good leg to my amputated one without thinking about it.”
And the benefits go beyond the physical conditioning.
“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.’
“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
“For someone who has a passion for the game, thinking that he or she will never play again can be devastating,” Moore adds. “When I tell wounded soldiers that they can still play ice hockey and there’s a program with other wounded vets, the response I get is unbelievable.”
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.”
Also the coach of the USA junior amputee team, Monahan has a personal connection with players who are coping with injuries. He lost four fingers on his right hand in a machine accident while playing college hockey for Canada’s University of Brunswick.
“When I got hurt in my sophomore year, they told me I’d never be able to play hockey again. Three weeks later I was playing in a men’s league.”
Monahan went on to play professionally for the Jersey Aces & Hampton Aces in the Eastern Hockey League.
“Seven broken noses and 250 stitches later, I had accomplished my goal of playing professionally, hung it up, and started coaching,” he says.
In addition to the amputee team and the USA Warriors, he also coaches for Moorestown High School in New Jersey.
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.
“We started with Walter Reed and Bethesda because so many wounded soldiers are treated here when they return from the war zones,” he says. “We also want to branch out across the country to include people who have left the military. They’re back home, back at their jobs, and we’d like them all to be able to play in this program.”
Expanding the program will require financial support and volunteers in other cities.
“We don’t pay any staff, coaches, or board members, but we do have expenses for things like equipment and transportation,” Banach says. “We’d love to have more people support the program and get involved with this great cause.”
Mark Miller is a volunteer with the American Special Hockey Association and tweets at twitter.com/specialhockey.