Wounded US war veterans find new role competing in sledge hockey at Paralympics

Surging across the ice as chants of "Ro-ssi-ya! Ro-ssi-ya!" from raucous Russian fans filled the venue, Joshua Sweeney felt the rush of adrenaline he used to experience as a soldier.

Less than five years after stepping on an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Afghanistan, the retired U.S. Marine sergeant is serving his country again overseas — in the sporting arena.

The explosion that took away Sweeney's legs and left arm put the Texan on a new path — to the Paralympics and ice sledge hockey.

"It's all kind of the same — you are out there getting cheered against, getting guys battling, you are hitting, having fun," Sweeney said Tuesday after a surprise 2-1 U.S. loss to the Russians at the Sochi Winter Paralympics.

"You have to fight through the adversity to be the best team. Just like in the military they tell you stuff is going to happen and you have to fight through it."

It was an intense game Tuesday. More than 5,000 Russians roared on their team in the Shayba Arena, witnessing a sporting meeting of countries whose diplomatic tensions have moved back toward Cold War levels in recent weeks over the crisis in Ukraine.

The Americans, the reigning champions, lost for the first time since the 2006 Paralympics. Russia only formed its sledge hockey team in 2009. The U.S. and Russia could still meet in the final as they have both advanced to the semifinals.

The U.S. will play Canada in one semifinal, with Russia facing Norway in the other.

Sledge hockey, which debuted at the 1994 Winter Paralympics in Lillehammer, sees players with a lower-body physical impairment moving on double-blade sledges instead of skates.

"It kind of brings back that adrenaline rush from past times and it gives me a good release (from) things in life that happen," Sweeney said.

"Sled hockey has done so much for me in terms of teaching me a lot more about life after being injured, how to persevere through things you never thought would happen to you. It's been awesome and I don't know where I'd be today if it wasn't for sled hockey or sport."

When he was wounded and awaiting medical assistance in Afghanistan in 2009, Sweeney feared for his life. He survived and soon discovered a route back into the sport he loved.

"Before I was injured I didn't even know there was a Paralympics," said Sweeney, who played ice hockey in high school. "I knew that there were injured people who competed in sports but I didn't know it was this big.

"So, after being injured and realizing what I could potentially be involved with, I was very excited."

Sweeney wasn't the only military veteran battling the Russians on ice. Rico Roman lost his left leg after his vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb during the last month of his third and final tour of Iraq in February 2007.

"I asked to serve and I asked to go into harm's way," the retired army staff sergeant said. "I have no regrets. Never. Unfortunately accidents happen, but that's what got me here today.

"In the military we have that no quitting attitude. We have that attitude, you've got to keep driving on whatever the circumstances are — adapt and overcome."

The U.S. forward from Portland, Oregon, sees the accident as a "paper cut in my life."

"There's a lot more life to be lived," he said. "I thank God I'm alive. I'm still fortunate ... just be positive and look at the good things you can do.

"You might not be able to do them the same, you might do them a little differently but you are still doing them and breathing."

The U.S. team hopes to inspire other servicemen who might be struggling after life-changing injuries.

Paul Schaus had both legs amputated after being injured by an I.E.D. while serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan in 2009. Only while recovering in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center was Schaus introduced to ice sledge hockey.

"After I got hurt, the (2010) Paralympics were going on in Vancouver," the Buffalo, New York-native recalled. "After watching that, I really wanted to work hard to get onto the team and now I'm here it's a really good feeling.

"I hope some of the guys in the hospital are watching stuff like this and seeing where they can get after their injury. It's really good for those guys to have something to work for again, be physical again and enjoy the camaraderie of the team."

Purple Heart recipients Roman, Sweeney and Schaus hope to return home next week with new honors — Paralympic gold medals.


Rob Harris can be followed at www.twiter.com/RobHarris