WASHINGTON — Nearly five years after losing his left leg, index finger and thumb in combat, retired Army Sgt. Kevin Gatson is still a warrior, but his field of battle has changed.
It once was Afghanistan. Now it is a hockey rink.
Gatson, a member of the Army for over 17 years, is a member USA Warriors, an ice hockey team made up of disabled veterans. Gaston and his teammates play a game called sled hockey, in which players sit on a sled instead of skating.
Like regular hockey players, they wear shoulder pads, helmets and face masks. But instead of a long hockey stick, each carried two shorter versions, one in each hand. At one end of each stick is a version of a regular ice hockey blade.
At the other are metal “picks” that bite into the ice and allow players to propel themselves across the ice with surprising speed.
The team has been around for six years, and offers players a chance to forget about their wounds and injuries for a while. The team is funded by donations and travels the Northeast playing other teams of players with various disabilities.
There are several adaptive sports teams designed to help disabled veterans, in particular, with coping and recovery. The teams provide an outlet and an environment that helps veterans make a smooth transition into life outside of the war zone.
"I personally did not need the team for coping purposes,” said Gatson, who lives in Bethesda, Md. "My injuries never really bothered me. I came from a good family and I have faith in God. I knew that I was still alive, and that's all that really mattered to me.
“But I can definitely see how it can be that for others.” many disabled, returning veterans are not as fortunate.
Many struggle with depression, PTSD and adapting back into society. Sports programs for disabled veterans include basketball, baseball, skiing, sailing and golf. One private program, Warfighters Sports, says it has enrolled 8,200 veterans.
The Department of Veterans Administrations has a broad array of winter and spring programs for veterans. To learn more, click here.
Gatson, was on patrol with his unit in Afghanistan in 2010 when a bomb the military calls an improvised explosive device, or IED, exploded, severely injuring him and other members of his team.
Doctors amputated his left leg, and his right was also in jeopardy.
“They wanted to amputate my right leg too, but I told them I was keeping it, and I still have it,” Gatson said.
After several surgeries, a frame-like device known as an external fixator was placed on his right leg to stabilize the bones, thus allowing Gatson to retain his leg. Although he was able to keep his leg, he lost his ability to play sports, because doctors said that the risk of further injury to his leg was too high.
“There were several sports teams I wanted to try, but I kept getting told no because of the frame,” he explained.
After a year with the frame, Gatson was told about a hockey clinic where other disabled veterans learned to play hockey. That brought Gatson to the ice hockey program.
Hockey was the first team to allow Gatson to participate, but it was far from the Mississippi native’s go-to sport.
“When I first heard about the clinic, it wasn’t something I was into,” he said. “but I thought I’d give it a shot. Once I tried it, I found it to be something I liked.” he said.
Many like Gatson, crave a team environment. Gatson joined the hockey team because to him, it provided an environment similar to that of a military unit.
"You're a part of a team when you're in the military and in the rink it's the same thing. There's a mission and you need a team to accomplish that mission, or else you probably won't succeed."