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USA Warriors program uses hockey to help wounded soldiers

03/21/2012, 10:45am EDT
By Tony Lee

For a wounded soldier, rehabilitation can take on several forms. So many of those returning from war have sustained not only serious physical injuries, but they have taken on a heavy emotional toll. 

The USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program, which offers creative avenues for those veterans to return (or be introduced to, as the case may be) to the frozen pond, continues to provide a complete set of rehabilitative activities, assisting the wounded soldiers in many aspects of their recovery. 

For the mark the program has made on countless veterans over the years, it will receive another high honor in May: the 2012 Director’s Creative Humanitarian Achievement Award from the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s esteemed Program in Physical Therapy Education. 

While all forms of therapy can be critical in that long road back, this program has had an incredible impact. Organizers have found that hockey is a perfect fit for those who put their lives on the line in the name of freedom.

USA Warriors feature photo“Ice hockey in particular helps build confidence in our players,” said USA Warriors President Thom Hirsch. “Once they get on the ice, they quickly realize how hard ice hockey is and how anything that they achieve is strictly a result of their persistence and hard work. Through hockey, they can demonstrate to themselves what they can achieve. 

“Another dimension of hockey is that it is a bit rough. That makes our program particularly attractive to the seriously wounded. Most of the wounded warriors were very rough and tumble individuals right up to the moment they were injured and have not had a chance to be rough since. Hockey gives them an outlet and shows them they can be a bit rough and physically aggressive again. … All of this helps to re-build the players’ confidence.”

Those aren’t the only emotions that come forth through involvement with the Warriors, who have teams for vets who are standing (often on one or even two prosthetics) and those that require a sled for mobility on the ice. In some cases, it is that very involvement that gets the emotions going.

Such was the case with one member who recently began participating in the Warriors sled hockey program. Hirsch said that the man had shown virtually no emotion until attending one sled hockey clinic for soldiers from the Walter Reed Medical Center. Now he’s a full-fledged member of the Warriors sled hockey program and ready to play in games.

“For this particular guy, hockey helped get him over the hump in starting to rebuild his life,” Hirsch said.

Assistance projects abound for the Warriors, some of whom will travel to Omaha, Neb., in May to accept their award and to speak with members of the graduating class of physical therapists. In the eyes of those at UNMC, there is no better complement to a commencement exercise. 

“Their program is the perfect example of a community-based program that provides individuals with a disability a chance to reintegrate into their communities in a fun, productive, meaningful way, while at the same time advancing their physical skills,” said Jack Turman Jr., program director at the UNMC Division of Physical Therapy Education.

In addition to aiding veterans in difficult situations, the USA Warriors are especially proud of their connection with several high school hockey programs that visit and skate with the recovering veterans on a regular basis. The program stresses to the students that most of those on the Warriors teams are not much older; recognizing their sacrifices and understanding that these veterans may need assistance for years to come helps create a system of support.

The hockey community itself is a giving one, and it is one committed to such support. Hirsch is quick to reference assistance from USA Hockey, the NHL, the Capitals and others who have helped to broaden exposure. For a volunteer-based organization with no paid staff, every little bit helps and can be tied directly to improving the lives of those who were injured while serving the country.

“It feels very gratifying to be recognized with the award, which is a tremendous boost to our board of directors and the volunteers whose help is critical to sustaining our program and moving forward at the pace we are going,” Hirsch said. “Having said that, I know every one of our board members and volunteers feel the same way I do and they will tell you that it is not about us. It is about the wounded and injured servicemen and women and disabled veterans whom we are trying to help.  

“We want to help more and more of those wounded in the defense of our Nation. That is our mission.” 

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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