“Hockey Heals”. This simple tag line means much more than it reads, one could read the organizations website to find out that the U.S.A. Warriors Ice Hockey Program allows for Veterans with disabilities to put themselves in an environment that provides a therapeutic atmosphere while playing the game of hockey. This organization provides for so much more than the ability to clear the mind and relax when playing the game in an adaptive way that allows for all to play. I have been absolutely grateful that I have found the USA Warriors, and since then I have forged new friendships, mentors, and the ability to put myself into an atmosphere that allows me to build the camaraderie with others that I have long endured since being medically separated from the Army. Beyond the teammates turned friendships and the fun that is had when playing, the ones behind it all are the ones that deserve every bit of thanks as they work tirelessly to make events like the Capitals Standing Warrior Tournament a success. Thanks to the Washington Capitals, LiUNA, and the USA Warriors, I was able to play hockey in a city that I have never been while meeting Clint Malarchuk and visiting our nations monuments. Everything that the USA Warriors have and provide for allow individuals like myself to feel a part of something bigger than oneself and if you were to ask anyone that has benefited from the USA Warriors program they will tell you that hockey does heal as this program is so much bigger than just playing a game. You don’t just play on a team, everyone that plays and connects with the USA Warriors organization becomes family and I have felt nothing but that from this amazing program!
Badger State Warriors (formerly Wisconsin Marauders)
I grew up in suburban Philadelphia in the 1970’s. My friends and I watched the Flyers win the Stanley Cup, and watched a hardscrabble, blue collar city rally around the first winner we had in – well, as long as we could remember. We all began to play hockey- on the streets in the summer, and on the ice for my High School Club team as soon as I was able. Late night practices, learning to do doughnuts in the frozen parking lot after practice, and thru hockey getting one of my first jobs, as an ice rink guard and skate sharpener for a few winters.
We learned a great deal on the street hockey rink (actually a fenced in tennis court that had the netting removed- still had to be careful of the two net posts…) individuals got bumped, bruised, and there was the occasional fight, but after a few punches and some grappling, it was over, and we moved on- nothing was ever carried beyond the playing surface… We grew up a bit tougher, learned how to play fair, and won or lost on our skills, merits and hard work.
I went to college and played a year of club hockey at Delaware, but stepped away from the game because I was in ROTC, and (since they were paying for my education) I needed to focus on school and my eventual career in the Army.
What I found in the Army was a brotherhood of likeminded individuals- willing to do whatever it took to get the job done- Hard work and perseverance- drive, determination and grit to be successful in the Army. Long hours, out in the rain and cold, rain and hot (it always rains when you are out in the field). Early on in my career was stationed in Germany, so I did not get the opportunity to play hockey, but I picked up a sport with very similar characteristics – rugby, while over in Europe. In both hockey and rugby, you need to be member of a team- a very close-nit, band of brothers (and I use the term “brothers” with no connotation of male of female) who rely on one another to accomplish the task at hand.
I returned from the first Gulf War left active duty in 1994, settling in San Francisco, CA. I missed the brotherhood of the military, but found an immediate brotherhood in the local deck hockey community, which got me back on the ice in very short order. I played for several adult “beer league” teams in the Bay area- a very growing sport with the arrival of the San Jose Sharks organization a few years before.
Once again I had to put my skates up as I was again called upon to serve in combat in Iraq, in 2003 to 2004, where this time my “brothers in arms” were my very own kids, the battalion I had served in for almost 10 years and was now commanding - and successfully led them in combat, and brought them all home alive and well.
After returning in from Iraq my wife and I relocated from San Francisco to the Washington, DC area for work. I was now separated from my “Army Band of Brothers” and yearned for that comradery and purpose away from the grind of “work.” I found it again during a stint working near Ft Meade, MD, when I happened upon Piney Orchard Rink, and Nelson Burton. Nelson brought me back into hockey.
I played with Nelson and his crew at Piney Orchard for several years, several times a week, and got on to a few teams at the Laurel rink- even played goalie last year during the Washington Capitals Alumni game- what a wonderful group of men – that same Band of Brothers- passionate about the game, gritty and determined, but all done with a smile and a helping hand when needed, a kick in the ass if that is what was required, but again, all with a smile and love.
Work moved me away from Piney Orchard, and my wife recommended I look for a rink closer to home - she suggested the Rockville rink, and so I searched the website and found the USA Warriors link.
The more I read, the more I wanted – needed to be a part of this great organization- I reached out to the general point of contact and told them my story- and I was welcomed with open arms. I went to a recent game to see the team first hand, and I was instantly hooked. I have only skated with the team a few times, but they fit like a glove. Practice starts with a few comments from everyone, sharing experiences and thoughts- very cathartic for a bunch of guys carrying sticks! This is that Band of Brothers.
I look forward to the practices and games, and can only tell you that the locker room atmosphere is awesome. That same “Band of Brothers” gritty, determined, a bit rough around the edges, passionate and dedicated, devoted to both individual and group improvement and always looking to help one another out- with that hand up or kick, as needed, but all with love, respect and appreciation for where we all have been before, and the journey we all face both on the ice, and moving forward in the world.
Drew Ryan # 31
I have had the same VA MS doctor since 2003. My last check up she told me that physically this is the best version of me that she has seen. Sled hockey was extremely hard at first but it was fun. I started exercising regularly to help increase my stamina. Now, I have a regular workout regiment because of this program. The year and a half that I have been with the USA Warriors ice hockey program has greatly improved me physically. I'm starting to feel like an athlete again because of the USA Warriors. At 55 and have MS for 24 years, that's pretty cool!
David L. Aagesen
SGT, USA (Ret)
In 2012, I finally returned home after several years of military service in the Army with numerous tours in Iraq and a tour in Afghanistan. I was looking forward to returning to my family, my life, and my career as a Baltimore City Fire Fighter. This would not be so due to the wounds, injuries, and most of all the illnesses I had received over the years. These three factors along with other issues related to my combat service would cast me into a life of dread and darkness. Within a short period of time after returning home my medical issues would take away a life time career, my strength, and render me 100% disabled. I was so distraught that I could not even imagine what my future looked like. I was lost in a cavern of dark dreams, worthlessness, guilt, and sorrow. I could not understand how someone at 50 years old goes from climbing the mountains of Afghanistan with soldiers who were 20 years old to barely walking up the steps a few months later. As my life continued more things were taken away due to my illnesses. First, I had to turn in my Commercial Drivers Licenses due to my illness. Next, they discovered that the nerve in my stomach was severely damaged and that was why I could not keep any food down. This alone resulted in the loss of 50 lbs. in just a few months. I was ready to give up because life became so miserable.
Then one day during a medical visit at the hospital I heard about an ice hockey team for Veterans with disabilities that just started up. I played ice hockey, so I reached out to the USA Warriors Ice Hockey Team. A few days later I drove down and met a few of the players and the coaches during a practice at the Herbert Wells Ice Rink in College Park, Maryland. I was hooked, and I signed up and began playing with the Warriors, and even though I did not know it yet, this would be a turning point in my life. As I practiced and played with the team, I started to feel comfortable because I could relate to these guys. We all seen the same things and lived in the same places. I did not have to explain or defend anything I had done during my combat tours. I started to feel part of something and the camaraderie lifted my spirits. My spirits would be lifted and overwhelmed when we traveled to Brick, NJ to play the Brick All Star Special Needs Ice Hockey Team during their winter classic. I felt like I had found where I was supposed to be, and this was the happiest I had been in years. I could have stayed on the ice all day with the players from the Brick All Stars, but the game was over.
As my wife Vickie and I drove home we talked about the game, the team, and how it impacted us. She said, “that she hasn’t seen me this happy for a while and I had a smile on my face the whole time.” I continued to practice and play with the Warriors anticipating our next trip to NJ, so I could see the Brick All Stars again. The day was finally here, and we traveled to NJ a day early, and this time we took our youngest daughter Karlie with us to check out the area. After a day of exploring it was time to hit the ice. Like a child on Christmas morning I was up early and eager to skate, but something was different today. The game went well, and everyone enjoyed themselves and we made some new friends, but I felt like I was being nudged to do something. We gathered our things; my family ate at the firehouse and we headed for home. During the trip home I told my wife that I felt like I needed to do something, like I was missing something. We arrived home and life went back to normal, but a few weeks later I woke up on a Saturday morning, and I came into the kitchen to find my wife sitting at the island. I said to her, “I had the wildest dream.” She said, “she had a wild dream also,” and went on to explain her dream. I was overwhelmed with her dream because it was almost the exact one as I had. We both dreamt of starting an ice hockey team in York, PA for children with Special Needs. I told her, “I felt like someone was nudging me to do this.” She said, “I guess the lord has given us enough clues and we didn’t get them, so I guess He just let us know what He wanted us to do.” So, we sat at the kitchen table that day and took our savings and began the process of starting a 501c3 ice hockey organization for children with Special Needs. In February 2016, the York Polar Bears took to the ice for the first time with 8 players. We just started our third year and we have over 30 players of all ages and we are continuing to grow.
I can sit here now and see that the road I traveled was one that the Lord put in front of me. If I would not have reenlisted in the Army, played Ice Hockey with the USA Warriors, traveled with the Warriors to play the Brick All Stars, the York Polar Bears would not have been created. The USA Warriors brought me out of my darkness which helped my wife and I to start the Polar Bears. They helped us to bring hope and compassion to the families, players, the ice hockey family in York, and York County. The Lord said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” (Matthew 25:40).
The Spirit of the USA Warriors to give back to the community has passed to the York Polar Bears. The Polar Bears played the Baltimore City Fire Department to raise money for the families of 2 York City Fire Fighters who gave their lives in the line of duty.
On several occasions the USA Warriors have played the Baltimore City Fire Department Team to raise money for charities like the St. Elizabeth School in the Annual Frozen Classic.
The USA Warriors have left a legacy of compassion that others can follow.
Being involved in a local youth hockey program, I heard about the Warriors team in the area but never really knew whether I was eligible to participate. I reached out on Facebook and quickly learned I was eligible and that the team accepted all injured or ill veterans on the team. I’ve dedicated my life’s work to injured and ill veterans and their families so I knew immediately this was an organization I wanted to be a part of.
Being on a team of veterans—people who truly understand me, get my jokes, and share a similar motivation and passion—has been the best thing I’ve ever done for my physical and mental health.
Since joining the sled hockey program of the USA Warriors, my drive and sprint that I once embodied in the US Marine Corps has returned. This is truly an amazing group of coaches and warriors who strive to bring everyone together for a common goal, healing. No matter if you just want to be around military folks or are looking for the adrenaline rush of hockey and physically contact. I am truly blessed to be apart of this outstanding organization that care very deeply about this country’s veterans and our physical/mental health.
Mike “Mikey No Legs” Martinez
I first heard about the USA Warriors in 2009, on the heels of my recovery at Walter Reed. I was still learning to manage my balance and advanced functions while using my newly-issued prosthetic legs, having lost both of mine below the knee to an IED blast in Iraq barely a year prior. Having played hockey my entire life, I was excited to learn that there was a team specifically designed to aid in the rehabilitation of wounded Service-members, through the amazing sport of ice hockey. With almost no prior coordination or planning, I purchased all new hockey equipment and showed up to a USA Warriors practice. Showing zero hesitation or reservations, the USA Warriors team immediately welcomed me into the locker room and each player provided advice, input, and recommendations on how I might "suit-up" given my new prosthetics and circumstances. From that moment forward, I have experienced nothing but amazing experiences and friendships through the USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program. The USA Warriors engender a unique spirit of camaraderie and brotherhood that is rarely found on traditional sports teams. In my first game ever with the Warriors (less than 3 weeks after showing up to that initial practice), the score was still tied after 4 shootout attempts had passed. The moment that the team unanimously decided that I should take the final shot-attempt, despite the risk of losing the game, I was deeply humbled and honored to be part of such a spirited, selfless, and caring organization.
An often overlooked byproduct of being a part of the USA Warriors is the fact that the team serves as a new "squad" for transitioning and former Service-members to be a part of. When Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines depart from Military service, especially long before they had intended to - due to catastrophic injuries - they often feel a significant void where that military "family" and brotherhood used to be. The USA Warriors provides that inclusion, sense of belonging, and extremely valuable friendship that is otherwise left vacant in many former Service-members' lives. This - is the core of the USA Warrior's worth; the game of hockey is truly second.
Lastly, the volunteers...These selfless individuals consistently demonstrate the purest form of dedication and hard work, all towards the mission of supporting Veterans and recovering Service-members to regain the physical and mental strength to compete on their new battlefield - the freshly cut sheet of ice that is our new location to support our brothers and sisters in the mutual endeavor towards victory!
PS - I DID score that final shootout goal and saw my first on-ice celebration with the USA Warriors!
US Army, CPT (Ret)