Six teams of wounded, ill and injured military veterans are headed to the Rockville Ice Arena in Rockville, Maryland, August 20-22 to face off in the USA Warriors Sled Hockey Tournament, a first of its kind event for military members and veterans wounded or injured in service.
Since 2008, the USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program has offered service-disabled veterans a way to rehabilitate and connect through traditional and sled hockey. Though the program started in Maryland for patients recovering at Walter Reed, it has since expanded as patients returned home and started affiliate programs in Wisconsin, South Carolina, Georgia, Maine and Ohio.
Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Kevin Gatson of Mississippi is just one of the veterans whose life has been impacted by the program. He served seven years in the Mississippi National Guard before going to active duty. He became part of the 101st Airborne Division, serving three combat tours—two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, where he was injured.
On a dismounted patrol in 2010, Gatson and his team were scaling a wall which was rigged with an explosive device.
“The person who went over the wall before me felt like he was too far under me, like I was going to land on him, so he moved to make sure that I had enough room to clear and he stepped on a pressure plate,” recalled Gatson. “But the actual bomb was inside of the wall, so as I was jumping, the wall basically exploded right onto me.”
Gatson lost his left leg above the knee and suffered severe damage to his right leg, and while rehabilitating at what is now the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, he was offered a unique—albeit unexpected—path to recovery.
“One of the occupational therapists came by and was like, hey, we have a hockey clinic coming up at the end of the week, do you want to go to it?” Gatson recalled. “And initially my response to that was like I'm a black man from Mississippi—we don't do hockey.”
He did try it, and all these years later is still playing for the team—the USA Warriors, made up of all service-connected disabled military veterans.
“It basically gave me a brotherhood, like I had when it came to combat and the guys who I was with—it kind of gave that back to me,” said Gatson. “I started recruiting people heavily to join and we eventually got a team and became pretty good.”
“And then we all became really good with each other where we didn't just see each other during hockey, but we hung out together during the week. It gave us something that a lot of us missed after getting hurt—it was like you got that brotherhood back.”
Gatson has traveled the 900 miles from Mississippi to attend games with the Rockville-based USA Warriors, though he is now trying to bring the program to his fellow veterans back home.
“I have been in talks with the Veterans Affairs medical center in my area and the USA Warriors, basically trying to get the groundwork laid to try to get a hockey team in Mississippi,” said Gatson. “We're still just in the talking phase right now, but if we can make that happen, then as long as I'm in Mississippi, I'll be able to help people learn how to play.”
This year’s tournament signals an important return to tournament play for team members after many months of restrictions, giving players a chance to get back to the game that has been so important to their physical and mental health alongside fellow veterans.
"After a year away from the game, we know how much it means for these men and women to have a chance to be on the ice and, more importantly, to be back among fellow veterans,” said USA Warriors president Gary Rosenfeld. “This program has been a lifeline for many individuals and we’re proud to see everyone ready to get back in the game.”
“When I started playing hockey and started growing and building those bonds, it made me realize how much I was missing having those types of bonds with people,” said Gatson. “Hockey has healed a lot of people—it’s amazing.”
Visit www.usawarriorshockey.org/sledtournament for more information. Photos available upon request.
About the USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program:
The USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program, a 501(c)(3), has been organized to operate exclusively for charitable and educational purposes, for those wounded in defense of the United States. The Program’s mission is to organize and administer an ice hockey program that provides a recreational, therapeutic experience and education. The program educates, trains, motivates, and encourages the formation of “USA Warrior Hockey Programs” locally and nationally while encouraging individuals who have physical disabilities incurred during service to the United States to participate in the sport of ice hockey in an environment that is adapted to the level of their ability. Learn more at www.usawarriorshockey.org.