Members of the U.S. sled hockey team celebrate winning gold at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 18, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.
Six members of America’s gold-medal sled hockey team at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 voyaged separate paths on a similar journey. These athletes once wore military uniforms for their country. And after sustaining combat injuries and going through excruciating rehabilitation, they turned to sled hockey to integrate back into civilian life.
Marine Corps Cpl. Travis Dodson was injured on Valentine’s Day 2007 in Iraq when a grenade was tossed into a second-story room he was in. The blast removed his left leg at the hip and right leg above the knee. For him, playing sled hockey was about being active.
“Adaptive sports are huge in getting active again. Being an active person creates a fulfillment inside me,” said Dodson, who received a Purple Heart. “With sled hockey, it’s a team again. I love being around all the guys and training and working hard as a unit.”
Military training teaches discipline and teamwork, Dodson said. But when grenades, IED (improvised explosive device) explosions and other atrocities of war take limbs from soldiers, the rehabilitation usually becomes an individual process.
Luke McDermott was with the 1st Battalion 6th Marines in June 2010 when he was injured from an IED while on patrol in Afghanistan, which led to him becoming a bilateral below-the-knee amputee. Now he plays for the San Antonio Rampage, which is comprised entirely of injured vets, when he’s not competing or training with Team USA.
“Everybody has their own injuries and own recovery process,” said McDermott, who’s been training with Team USA in Wisconsin in early November. “You go from working in combat theater as a team to working as an individual in a rehab program. To be on a team like the Rampage, I’m with guys going through same thing I am, and we’re all on a team. I enjoy being part of that team again.”
Other combat veterans on the current roster include 2018 gold medalist Ralph DeQuebec (Marines) and two-time gold medalists Rico Roman and Jen Lee (Army). Josh Misiewicz (Marines), also a 2018 gold medalist, is taking time away for rehabilitation.
Injured combat veterans joining forces in athletics is hardly a new concept. It’s actually how the modern Paralympic Games began through the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948.
In 1944, Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Great Britain opened a unit to treat soldiers and civilians who received spinal injuries during World War II. To coincide with the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games London 1948, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann of the spinal unit organized an archery demonstration involving 14 men and 2 women from the unit.
Dutch servicemen joined the movement in 1952, and the Stoke Mandeville Games became known as the Paralympic Games starting with Rome 1960. A Winter Games was added in 1976 in Sweden.
United States involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has produced a greater number of injured veterans over the last 15 years. Many of them get introduced to adaptive sports as part of their rehabilitation.
Military training goes beyond discipline and teamwork. It entails overcoming adversity and pushing toward a goal. And that training applies whether individuals are battling an injury, going through rehabilitation, playing an adaptive sport, furthering their education or starting a family.
“In the Marines you never give up and never quit,” McDermott said. “That translates in the hockey stuff. When I had a shot at making the national team, it gave me that extra motivation. It gave me the dedication, discipline and teamwork that translates in effort in the gym, on the ice and in nutrition.
“Being in the military is a unique experience, and being in combat is even more unique.”
He said those injured in combat are even fewer still, and the common denominator among them is they understand each other when others might not.
Dodson said having fellow combat veterans on the team is good in that they all can relate to each other’s daily struggles, but it’s usually more unspoken than locker room chatter. He looks at all of his teammates, and not just military veterans, as a single-functioning unit.
“We’re all doing the same thing and have the same work ethic,” Dodson said. “Everyone on the team gels. We are one team all in this together, whether you’re veteran or not. We’ve all bonded as one solid unit. We’re all focused on the next goal, and that’s Beijing 2022."
Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.