Wounded U.S. Soldiers, Marines Participate in Ice Hockey Clinic

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

LAUREL, Md., May 20, 2008 - A group of wounded U.S. military veterans gathered at a Maryland ice rink for some fun, camaraderie and exercise May 17.

Armed Forces Day is an ideal time to start a free ice hockey clinic for wounded warriors, John Coleman, president of the Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association, said as he watched sled-mounted and upright disabled veterans skate across the slick, glistening surface at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel, Md.

"It is appropriate that today is Armed Forces Day," Coleman said. "There is not enough that we can do for these guys."

Most of the injured soldiers and Marines on the ice were undergoing rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here, Coleman noted.

"The Gardens Ice House has been very helpful," Coleman said, noting the rink provided free ice time for the veterans' hockey clinic. Claiborn Carr III, one of the rink's owners, and manager Thomas Hendrix are military veterans themselves, he observed.

The clinic dovetails with other USA Hockey-sponsored events for disabled players, Coleman said. USA Hockey promotes and governs amateur ice hockey events across the United States. It provided jerseys and equipment for the clinic, as well as the specially constructed sleds that were used by veterans who lost legs or suffered other severe injuries during their overseas service.

USA Hockey sponsors four categories for disabled players: sled, amputee, hearing impaired, and special hockey for developmentally disabled children and adults, said Bob Banach, USA Disabled Hockey's southeastern district representative. The clinic, he said, featured sled players and standing amputees.

Some veterans at the clinic employed prosthetic legs to skate upright, while others who'd lost one or both lower limbs opted for the sleds. The sled-borne players employed two shortened hockey sticks with metal picks at the ends that are used to dig into the ice for propulsion, Banach, a Coast Guard veteran, explained.

Offering a cost-free ice hockey clinic for wounded veterans is a way to show appreciation for their military service, he said.

"These guys have really sacrificed themselves for our country," he said. "We need to show them that we're here for them. We'll help them transition back to anything they want to do; we will help them do that -- such as playing hockey."

Marine Cpl. Ray Hennagir, 21, a combat engineer who hails from Deptford, N.J., took to his sled with apparent ease as he zipped across the slick ice and used his truncated hockey stick to shoot hard rubber pucks into the goal netting. Hennagir lost both of his legs and four fingers of his left hand when an improvised explosive device detonated during a mission near Fallujah, Iraq, on June 16, 2007.

Hennagir thinks he is lucky to have survived the blast, which he said hurled him into the air.

"Someone upstairs likes me," Hennagir said with a grin during a pause in the action at the rink. Military surgeons were able to save his left arm, which also was damaged in the explosion. Hennagir spent about four months at the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md.

Hennagir has been undergoing rehabilitation treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here since early August. He said he has prosthetic legs that attach to his residual limbs so he can walk upright, but he's still mastering the process.

"They're doing a great job," Hennagir said of the medical care he is receiving at Walter Reed.

"I'm a big hockey fan," he said, noting he plans to continue attending the weekly ice hockey clinics and perhaps compete in sled hockey or mono-skiing in the Paralympics

"Of all the things I've lost, I miss my fingers the most," he said.

Hennagir said he always wanted to be in the military and that he appreciates how people routinely thank him for his service to the country. "It's good that there are people out there that are supportive" of America's veterans, Hennagir said.

Another sled-borne veteran, Army Spc. Mike Williams, 22, severely injured his right knee during a battle with insurgents in Taji, Iraq, on Dec. 28, 2007.

"We started to get into a firefight, and I jumped out of a truck with all my gear on. I went down. My knee collapsed; I tore all of the ligaments," recalled Williams, a Baltimore native who arrived at Walter Reed in January and expects to undergo another eight months of rehabilitation there.

The care provided at Walter Reed is "outstanding," Williams, a field artilleryman, said. "I'm taken care of with every need that I have; I've never had a problem with anybody there," he said.

Williams, who has played ice hockey before, immediately took to playing the game in a sled. "I'm learning how to play a different sport, but it's a lot of fun, though, once you get the hang of it," he said.

Williams and his brother, Josh, both joined the Army on Nov. 19, 2003. Williams said his brother is a light-wheeled-vehicle mechanic now stationed in South Korea. "We wanted to join the service to do our fair share," he said.

Williams observed that "tons of people just show their appreciation" for recovering servicemembers at Walter Reed. "They take us out to dinners, ball games, football games," he noted. "I couldn't thank everybody enough. It's great what they do for us."

Wounded warriors at Walter Reed enjoy a tight camaraderie, Williams said. "I've made a lot of friends," he said. "We make a lot of jokes and have a lot of good fun."

Williams said he's proud of his and other veterans' military service. "The more people we can get to volunteer (for military service), the safer we can keep our country," he said.

Joe Bowser, a 48-year-old retired Army Reserve noncommissioned officer who lost his lower right leg during an enemy rocket attack in Balad, Iraq, on April 12, 2004, was stickhandling and passing the puck along with other military veterans at the hockey clinic. Bowser, who lives near Baltimore, now wears a prosthetic leg and plays with a local USA Hockey-affiliated hockey team.

Other veterans participating in the clinic had suffered gunshot wounds, nerve damage and other injuries, explained Bowser, who was medically retired from the Army as a sergeant first class.

The ice hockey clinic gets the wounded veterans "out of the hospital," Bowser said, noting the veterans can get some exercise while having fun.

Army Spc. Jeff Lynch, 23, from Fayetteville, N.C., is at Walter Reed receiving care for complications that developed from injuries he suffered two years ago when an improvised explosive device detonated in Mosul, Iraq. Lynch was on his second Iraq tour when he was medically evacuated back to the United States in March 2007. He'd experienced an adverse reaction to his medication, developed blood clots in his lungs, and had problems with his stomach, pancreas and gall bladder.

"It's like three steps up, four steps back, but you can only take one day at a time, I guess," Lynch said of his recovery process.

"I think the best thing Walter Reed and the Army can do is to get the soldiers out of Walter Reed as much as they can," he said as he watched his fellow veterans enjoy themselves on the ice.

Lynch said he plans "to stay busy, get my stuff done and get back to my unit so that I can serve my country."

Retired Army Staff Sgt. Michael Cain, 28, a Berlin, Wis., native, said he was driving a truck in Iraq on Aug. 7, 2003, when a pair of buried landmines detonated underneath his vehicle. He lost his right leg in the explosion and suffered other severe injuries to his left leg, hip, jaw and thumb. He also was shot in the back of the head and in the back, he said.

Cain was medically retired from the Army on Dec. 7, 2004. He's now in the process of moving to Laurel from Wisconsin. He heard about the wounded warrior ice hockey clinic from a friend. "I'm glad I'm here; this is fun," he said as he prepared to chase the puck in his sled.

Cain said he played ice hockey in Wisconsin during his younger days. "I'm going to try to get into the sled-hockey league," he said.

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