Arlington, V.A. – Media members poured into the locker rooms to talk to the invitees of the 2013 U.S. Men’s National Team Orientation Camp. Recorders held from outstretched arms crowded the likes of Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, Ryan Miller, and others. Amidst the hustle and bustle of interviews, David Backes moseyed his way behind the benches at the Kettler Iceplex to watch a hockey game. He stood with a smile on his face as the USA Warriors battled in a sled hockey match on the fresh sheet of ice.
As I stood outside the locker rooms, I saw men who had lost limbs set aside their crutches and prosthetics, hop off their wheelchairs, strap themselves into their sleds, and don the colors of the red, white and blue. It was humbling to witness. Captain Ben Harrow was the player I noticed immediately. Harrow – a Purple Heart recipient – lost both of his legs in an IED explosion on May 15, 2012. I’d never had the experience of seeing injured veterans nonchalantly put on hockey equipment as if they’d been doing it for years. I was at a loss for words. Simply walking over, shaking his hand, and saying, “thank you for all that you’ve done for this country” left me with a lump in my throat.
The head coach of the USA Warriors is Mike Vaccaro, who also happens to be a wounded veteran. He’s been around the game of hockey since he was a kid and the passion for the sport is still coursing through his veins.
“Once I found out there was a program for wounded veterans to play hockey, it was simply a matter of getting in touch of with them,” Mike said. “I heard they needed some help with their sled hockey team so I started filling in. One thing led to another and now I get to coach some of the greatest guys in the sport.”
His injuries were not nearly as severe (shrapnel to the face) as some of the other players on the Warriors, but he knows full well his life could’ve been taken in an instant. He’s watched many of his players progress and develop, but he still is amazed by some of men he deals with.
“We’ve got of mix a guys. Some have never played hockey, some have played hockey at different levels. Just getting them back into the sport, getting new people involved, and their determination to improve is inspiring each day,” Vaccaro mentioned. “Kevin Gatson lost his left leg fighting for our great country. He’s developed complications in his right leg and they are currently trying to save that leg from amputation. He’s never played hockey before in his life, but decided to give it a try.”
Mike continued, “Bo Reichenbach is one of our goalies and made the USA Developmental team. It was a special time for Bo at this camp since it was his one year anniversary since he lost his left legs in an IED explosion. For him to go from a traumatic injury like that to strapping into a sled to play hockey shows what these men are made of and makes me proud to do my job.”
Many think that winning a silver medal in the Olympics would be an memory that is paramount to any other achievement in the sport of hockey. Brian Burke, the man who built the 2010 U.S Olympic Team said, “I was asked what my favorite Olympic memory was and to mention that today. I think if I look back, winning a silver medal there’s something special about it, but I didn’t feel special about it for a long time…But my favorite Olympic memory from 2010 was when we had the USA Warriors talk to our players. We have a very close and proud affiliation with the U.S. Armed Forces. We are, once again, going to have a USA Warrior presence at this camp. We have men that have gone and paid a real severe price to represent and defend their country and I think that’s the thing I remember most about Vancouver, sitting in a room listening to the USA Warriors talk to our players.”
After the USA Warriors game was over and done with, they were met by thunderous applause from the packed rink. Following the Team USA jersey unveiling, the players, coaches, and management taking part in the USA Orientation Camp went over to each wounded veteran and showed respect and gratitude for what they’ve accomplished on and away from the rink.
“Some players stopped by before the game. Many of them watched during the game. A few came on bench to talk to the guys during breaks and periods. I think the whole team shook our hands after the game was over. It was truly special,” said Vaccaro. “They made the USA Warriors feel welcomed. Many took the time to introduce themselves, ask questions, and take pictures with these men.”
It’s clear the men and women of the United States military don’t get nearly the thanks they deserve. Each and every day they risk their lives for our rights and don’t think twice in doing so. This is the land of the free because of the brave. Many have been through more hardships than any one of you or I can fathom. Horrific injuries have left many veterans disabled.
“You realize what you do isn’t that important,” Winnipeg Jets defenseman, Jacob Trouba mentioned. “We have the capability to bring joy and happiness to a whole country, but these guys do it everyday and they don’t get the fame. They accept that and take pride in that. They know they do something special for this country but it’s not in the public eye as much as it should be.”
While some cash in their chips and feel there is no hope in sight, the USA Warriors do so much to restore a sense of normalcy to injured military personnel. The mission of the USA Warriors is simple: to organize and administer an ice hockey program that provides a recreational, therapeutic experience and education. And Mike Vaccaro needs to do very little to inspire his players to prepare and work to be the best. The squad he ices already has it within themselves to achieve what would be considered almost impossible to the average person. Whether it’s an electrician, a soldier, or a hockey player, the idea is still the same:
“You have to be on top of your game. There will always be someone working harder and training harder to be better than. There’s a constant ‘something’ inside you that wants to make you the best at what you’re doing. Soldiers happened to pick the field of combat. Combat is clearly more dangerous than hockey. But with hockey players, focus, willpower, and that drive is what makes players like Gretzky and Howe the best of the best. Same with these [USA Warriors],” said Vaccaro.
Hockey has bridged many gaps. It has broken down the barriers of skin color. It brings people from all walks of life to enjoy the tremendous sport. The USA Warriors are comprised of members from every branch of the military (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard), many of whom have been awarded Purple Hearts – a prestigious honor for any soldier who was injured while a member of the Armed Forces. With Mike Vaccaro at the helm, he’s given these men a chance to return home and find something they enjoy.
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