Blount: Wounded veterans put their pain on ice

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 8, 2011 - 10:31 PM

A special hockey team is the catalyst for healing and sharing a bond unique to those touched by war's horrors.

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Minnesota Warriors Chris Price of White Bear

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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After returning from a year's service with the Army in Vietnam, Chris Price sat on a hilltop with several other veterans in Valley Forge, Pa., and pondered the future. While they listened to Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland speak at an antiwar rally, the men wondered how they would readjust to civilian life with the horrors of war still fresh in their minds.

"We all left kind of depressed, because we wanted to know how to get help," said Price, of White Bear Lake. "The [Veterans' Administration] had nothing for us at that time. There was no rehab. We needed help, but it wasn't going to happen."

It took four decades for Price to get the kind of support and healing he craved. His group meets once or twice a week at the Vadnais Sports Center, where they lace up their skates, tape their sticks and engage in a true Minnesota form of therapy: a hockey practice. Price, 64, is among 30 disabled military veterans playing for the Minnesota Warriors, a brotherhood on blades that sustains them in ways that civilian society cannot.

Price has diabetes caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Jason Steller, 39, damaged several vertebrae in his back and dislocated both shoulders when his vehicle was blown up by a land mine in Iraq. Other players sustained brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, shrapnel wounds and amputated limbs.

The Warriors held their first practice a year ago, when four guys in jeans took the ice. Friday, on Veterans' Day, they will play a group of local NHL alumni at the Chaska Community Center as part of a fundraising event. Through a game familiar to many of them and new to some, they have found strength, confidence and a sense of belonging that have enriched -- and sometimes saved -- their lives.

"I've played on many teams over the years, but they're just not the same," Price said. "Within the first two minutes in the locker room, you knew your back was covered in a heartbeat. I hadn't felt that since Vietnam. I wish this had been around 40 years ago, but it's a real blessing to have it now."

The Warriors sprang from the vision of Army veteran Andy Qualy and the efforts of an entire platoon of supporters. Qualy, 27, spent eight months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center recovering from injuries incurred in 2006 when his vehicle was destroyed by an explosive device in Iraq.

A Shakopee native, Qualy introduced his Walter Reed roommate Drew Hill to hockey. Hooked on the game, Hill founded the USA Warriors, a team for disabled veterans, in 2008. Two years later, Qualy teamed with Toni O'Brien, director of disabled hockey programs for Minnesota Hockey, to start a team in his home state.

The city of Vadnais Heights donated ice time at its new facility. It adapted a rink to accommodate wheelchairs and the sleds used by players who cannot stand. Donations paid for 20 sets of new pads, helmets and other gear, and volunteers put in the hours to get the program up and running.

Most of the Warriors come from the Army and Marines, but disabled veterans of all branches are welcome. The roster ranges in age from 21 to 67, with players traveling from as far as St. Cloud. A woman will be joining the team soon, and three sled-hockey players are combining with a civilian sled team until the Warriors have enough for a full roster.

The team requires no hockey experience, and players pay only for their sticks, skates and USA Hockey registration. From his own experience, Qualy knew the benefits could go far beyond recreation.

"When I came back from Walter Reed, I had a serious confidence issue," said Qualy, who sustained a brain injury and significant damage to his right leg in the explosion. "I didn't know if I could make it out here. I didn't see myself playing the game again because of the rods and pins in my leg.

"I was able to motivate myself to start playing again in a men's league, but there was something missing. I wasn't connecting with anyone, because they had no idea what I'd been through. This was an opportunity for me to step up in the veterans' community. This could meet some of their baseline needs: to exercise, to have a social outlet to get them out of the house, and to give them the confidence they can succeed in civilian life."

According to Qualy, being part of the team has given players more energy, enhanced their work and family relationships and widened their social networks. Price finds the physical exertion helpful in working through lingering emotional scars. Warriors president Heidi Pierson said some players were isolated or suicidal before joining the Warriors; as their lives have been changed, so have those of their teammates, who find purpose in guiding them to veterans' services or just lending a sympathetic ear.

Steller was a Navy lieutenant when he was injured in 1993, during his third tour in Iraq. He had been told he would never get out of a wheelchair, but he joined the Warriors eight months ago, participating again in a game he first tried at the age of 4.

"You have a bond in the military, and when you come back and work with other people, they don't get it," he said. "Here, you don't have to explain yourself to anyone. We all have something in common besides hockey, and we all have our ghosts that we carry. We're one big family that will always be there for each other, and that's nice."

Qualy's goal is to expand the program to Duluth and Fargo/Moorhead in the coming years. He's also looking forward to playing again with his brother Kevin, a Warriors teammate now deployed in Iraq.

"We want to make this accessible for as many disabled vets as possible," he said. "This is about more than hockey. To see the impact this has had on people, it's amazing."

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com

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