Band of Brothers

Wounded Warriors Help Lead The Charge To Gold With U.S. National Sled Team

Located on the banks of the Euphrates River, the small town of Haqlaniyah was considered an oasis from the daily horrors of war in Iraq's Anbar province. 

That all changed in the early evening hours on Valentine's Day in 2007, as four Marines and two Navy corpsmen took refuge in a second story room inside a home the Marines of Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment were using as a temporary outpost.

Travis Dodson was sitting on the floor cleaning his weapon when an Iraqi insurgent crept up out of sight from a Marine sentry positioned on a nearby rooftop and hurled a grenade through the window.

The blast tore through the room, leaving the 21-year-old Dodson and fellow Marine Daniel T. Morris, a 19-year-old radio operator from Crimora, Va., gravely injured. 

Fellow Marines and Navy corpsmen raced to their rescue, pulling the pair out of the building and onto medical evacuation helicopters that would carry them to Al Asad Air Base, where Dodson received more than 30 units of blood to stabilize his condition. Morris would succumb to his injuries, while Dodson lost his left leg at the hip, his right leg below the knee and damaged his right eye.

After a stay at a U.S. Army hospital in Germany, he made the long trip home where, like so many wounded warriors, he would begin the long and lonely road to recovery.

 

Always active and athletic, Dodson attacked his rehabilitation with the same tenacity as he did everything else in life and eventually earned a spot on the USA Nordic Ski Team that competed in Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. 

"Adaptive sports are huge in getting active again. Being an active person creates a fulfillment inside me," said Dodson, who played varsity golf at Deming High School in southwestern New Mexico. 

But there was still something missing. That camaraderie and cohesion that comes with being part of a military unit was not there when he was competing in an individual sport like Nordic skiing.

It was during his time in Sochi that Dodson first discovered sled hockey, and it was love at first sight.

"I thought, 'I'm in the wrong sport. I need to go play that,'" Dodson recalled.

Four years later, at age 32, he made his Paralympic debut in sled hockey in PyeongChang, scoring two goals in his first game and finishing as the squad's No. 4 goal scorer during the team's third straight gold-medal run.

"With sled hockey, it's about being part of a team again," he said. "I love being around all the guys, training and working hard as a unit."

 

Dodson is one of seven military veterans on this year's U.S. National Sled Hockey Team roster. The others are Ralph DeQuebec (U.S. Marines), Joseph Woodke (U.S. Marines), Jen Lee (U.S. Army), Josh Hargis (U.S. Army), Luke McDermott (U.S. Marines) and Rico Roman (U.S. Army). 

Many didn't grow up playing hockey. Most didn't even know the rules, let alone have the skills to propel themselves along the ice seated on top of two thin blades while trying to manage the art of stickhandling and shooting while trying to avoid oncoming defenders.

"When I started on this team I really didn't know anything about hockey. In fact, I'm still learning about the game," said Roman, one of the senior statesmen on the team who is now in his eighth season wearing the USA crest.

Like his teammates, sled hockey gave Roman a sense of purpose at a stage in his life that he was dealing with more than just the loss of a limb. The road to recovery can be a lonely journey, especially after developing tight-knit bonds with your military brothers and sisters. And then one day, all of that is taken away from you. Sled hockey brought that all back to Roman and his fellow veterans.

"You live next to this guy, sleep next to this guy, eat with this guy, he knows everything about you and then one day you're hurt and that's taken away. And that's really tough," said Roman, who was introduced to the sport by "Operation Comfort," an organization dedicated to assisting injured U.S. service personnel at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

"Hockey really gave me a sense of being a part of a team again. When I went into that locker room and saw that big American flag we have in that locker room, the teasing that goes on, the camaraderie, the brotherhood, I got that all back when I became a part of this team."

 

An unfortunate reality of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a greater number of injured veterans, which has provided adaptive sports with a new stream of talented and dedicated athletes who refuse to let their injuries define them. It gives them a renewed sense of purpose and an avenue to continue to represent the country they have sacrificed so much to support and defend.

For any of the military veterans, leadership does not come from locker room speeches or on-ice heroics, of which there are plenty, but from setting a good example through their dedication and hard work at home and during practices and games.

"In the military we work day in and day out to train up to our best abilities because when we do go overseas it is life or death. We are doing everything that we can to make sure that we are on top of our training," said Hargis, who was on his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan when he lost both of his legs in 2013. 

"When I made this team, I found that everyone had that same work ethic. Everyone is going to do everything they can both at home and at training camps to make sure they are at the peak of their performance so that we can have success on the ice."

That success includes winning the last three Paralympic competitions and four of the last six IPC World Championships.

DeQuebec knew little about the sport the first time he was coaxed out of his hospital bed and into a sled. That's where legendary coach Jeff Sauer saw something in the burly Marine and offered him a spot on the development team. As his skills improved on the ice, the leadership skills he developed as a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant were beneficial among the youngsters in the U.S. locker room.

"When I was on the development team, I learned the hockey aspect from them and I was trying to teach them a little about life," said DeQuebec, who lost both his legs above the knees to an improvised explosive device while serving in Afghanistan in 2012.

"The biggest thing that I could give to them from my perspective was that you have to be a good person on and off the ice. You can be talented in hockey but nobody's ever really naturally talented in life. If you're able to bring those two things together then the sky's the limit."

 

Much like the military, everyone on the team knows his role but they're all working for one goal. It may not be a life or death situation like combat, but each of these 17 players knows that when things are at their worse, such as being down a goal late in the gold-medal game at both the 2018 Paralympics and last year's IPC World Championship, they can rely on their teammates to come through.

"You know what your job is in the military and you trust that the guys next to you are going to do their job," Dodson said. "It's the same here. I've got my man and everyone else has to pick up their man. That makes it very similar, and I like that part of it."

Even though the next major international competition is far off on the horizon, members of this year's team continue to train hard every day in places like Nashville and New Jersey, St. Louis and San Antonio. They do so for the love of the game but more than anything, they do it out of a sense of dedication and commitment to their brothers who are training just as hard hundreds of miles away. And they do it for the country they were all willing to lay down their lives to serve. 

"It's very different to being in the military. This is a game and at the end of the day we get to go home," Roman said. "But we all are still representing our country on and off the ice. It's just another way to do it. 

"I'm honored and proud to be able to wear that USA on my jersey and I feel that everyone on this team, whether they are military veterans or civilians, feels the same way." 

 

Issue: 
2019-11

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