Rico Roman
U.S. Army veteran Rico Roman and the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team will take on Russia for the gold medal on Saturday.

Bring it on, Russia

BY RICO ROMAN

My uncle Lee was a tanker in the cavalry unit in World War II. My uncle Ruben was in the Army, stationed over in Europe. And my uncle Manuel was in the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam.

They never told me about war or even pushed me to join the service. But growing up, I always knew that these were great, stand-up men, and I knew that they had served. So wanting to be like them, I decided that I wanted to serve too.

My time in the Army was unforgettable and my experiences invaluable. After joining the infantry in 2001, I served one peacekeeping tour in Kosovo and then served three combat tours in Iraq, rising to the rank of staff sergeant. Being in the service taught me the values of hard work, leadership, teamwork and trust. The Army also taught me how to rise.

Those values helped bring me to where I am today, in Sochi, where I am representing my country in a different way, by competing at the Paralympics as a member of the U.S. sled hockey team. On Saturday, we will be competing for a gold medal against Russia. That's right, a rematch from the semifinals. It's going to be exciting so I hope you'll watch tomorrow (March 15) on NBC. It is live at 12 p.m. ET.

The journey to get here wasn’t easy, though, and I wouldn’t be here without the Army and the training I received there. I also wouldn’t be here if not for the events one day in February 2007.

Being a leader has always been part of who I am — a product, probably, of growing up under a single mother and with two younger brothers. And on that day in Iraq I was leading my unit at a vehicle checkpoint in Baghdad. After wrapping up, we loaded into three armored Humvees and, being the leader, I wanted to be out front, so I took the passenger seat in the lead vehicle.

Sometimes there were signs of danger on the roads in Iraq, but on this day there were none. Then, suddenly, an IED struck my vehicle. The blast lifted the Humvee up and slammed it back on its side. If you’ve ever gotten the wind knocked out of you, that’s what it felt like.

The whole experience was life changing, of course, but throughout I just had a calm feeling, as if I knew that everything was going to be OK. That might have been shock, who knows? But I believe it’s because we had trained as hard as we could for this deployment. I had total confidence in the guys with me that day. And thankfully we all did survive. But with pretty bad injuries to my legs and the tips of my gloves completely blown open, my time in Iraq was over.

That day was more than seven years ago, but even today I still miss every moment of my time in the Army. I am so proud to have been able to serve my country, and even if I had to do it all over again, I definitely would. It was truly an honor to be able to serve the United States and to meet all of the guys that I served with, and I don’t regret that choice for a second.

That said, life moved forward, and I had to move with it.

After the explosion I spent about a week in Germany before being transferred to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where I was bedridden for 2.5 months, lost more than 30 pounds, fought off infections in my leg and had more surgeries than I can count to clean the debris out.

Although doctors initially salvaged my leg, I remained in a lot of pain. For the next year I was either out of it due to the prescribed pain medications or cranky because I was in pain, and I said this can’t be it. So I went ahead with amputation on my left leg at Brooke Army Medical Center.

From the start, I knew I didn't have time to sit there and think, “Poor me.” I have two kids, I have a wife, and I feel that I am still the father and the husband in this family and I still have my obligations whether I have the legs or I don’t.

Having that attitude is one thing, but having the resources to rehabilitate and to stay active is just as important. I moved down to San Antonio to continue my rehab, and that’s where I got involved with an organization called Operation Comfort. (They’re here supporting me in Sochi.) Through them, I took part in a hand cycling race, and then I added other sports as well. Wheelchair basketball, wheelchair soccer, swimming, rowing: You name it, and I’m involved.

As I talked about in my first blog, just before the 2010 Paralympics I found my way to sled hockey, a sport I knew nothing about but that I was quickly drawn to. The physicality and intensity and teamwork resonated with me. Although I missed out on the 2010 U.S. Paralympic Team that won a gold medal in Vancouver, the Paralympic Movement was huge for me in my recovery.

Sports, but sled hockey in particular, gave me something to focus on — something I could do, not something I can’t do because I’m missing a leg. Making the Paralympic team became a positive goal for me, and I became motivated to help other veterans get involved in sports so they could feel the same way.

This journey of trying to reach the Paralympics was trying and hard work, but it was something I loved being a part of. Playing with the all-veteran San Antonio Rampage and with the U.S. national team has introduced me to new groups of men I can call my brothers. The sport has kept the values of hard work and teamwork central in my life.

Of course, a sled hockey game is nothing like combat. At the end of these Paralympics I get to go home, and sometimes after combat that’s not the case. But I’m proud that I’m able to continue representing my country in a new way, and I’m proud that I’ve found another group of men that I can call my brothers.

We came into this tournament with high hopes, and going into Saturday's game against Russia, we believe strongly that we can accomplish that goal of winning a gold medal. They got us on Tuesday but we're coming back strong. What makes this experience special is the journey with another group of guys that have come together to represent the United States.

Our squad of 17 players comes from all over the states. We have tons of different cultures and races represented. We all like different music, we like different food, we all have different accents, we comb our hair differently, and we wear different clothes.

But in the end, we all have the same goal: We are chasing the gold medal.

Both in the Army and with Team USA, we are all Americans, no matter what color we are, no matter what language we speak, no matter what our differences are, and that brings me a lot of pride.