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Sled hockey therapeutic for injury-recovering soldiers

PARK CITY — Soldiers recovering from combat injuries and other wounds found adaptive skiing and sled hockey an effective component in their recovery.

That conclusion is exactly what the National Ability Center in Park City and the U.S. Paralympics organization had in mind as they hosted recovering soldiers who are part of the Community Based Warrior Transition Unit at Camp Williams.

"It's just energetic and you really challenge yourself," Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Cousan said of his first experience with sled hockey. "It's a blast."

Cousan is recovering from a shoulder injury he relates to back-to-back deployments in Iraq and then Afghanistan. He is one of 23 Army Reserve and Army National Guard soldiers from six western states who converged on Park City this week for a transition unit "muster."

Keeping soldiers in the community where they live is a primary objective of the transition unit, said Maj. Scott Reading, the unit's executive officer. "But occasionally we like to bring them all together. It's always great to re-engage them face to face."

Most of the transition unit members have orthopedic injuries. Getting them all together has a complementary objective, Reading said. "These activities are to restore the mind."

Cousan sees the value in getting a group of injured soldiers together. "You see other people in the same situation you are and doing things you thought you couldn't do — and people that are worse off than you doing things you thought you couldn't do. It just rebuilds your inner core."

Spc. James Crabb, a Guard member from Kansas, suffered multiple injuries in 2007 from what has become the trademark threat for service members in Iraq and Afghanistan: an improvised explosive device, or IED.

"This is one of the best musters we have ever had. It's a chance not so much to focus on administrative stuff but gives us a chance to really push our limits and see where our limits are," he said. The camaraderie with the other soldiers facilitates "a lot of healing," he said. "Anything we do, you gotta have your brothers with you, and knowing someone else is going through exactly what you're going through."

Members of the group also talk to each other about what happened to them instead of repressing the feelings they typically "push down," Crabb said. "Just letting it out is a real cleansing."

Paralympics had their origins in Great Britain after World War II, created specifically to benefit wounded veterans. So by being involved with Camp Williams' transition unit, "We're really getting back to our roots," said Kallie Quinn, manager of the Paralympic Division's Emerging Sports Program. "We saw the need there to get people physically active again."

At the same time, the U.S. Paralympic Division of the U.S. Olympic Committee is looking for opportunities to be competitive, so the organization is looking for military personnel who are already athletic but now have disabilities. "One of our missions is to win medals," Quinn said.

The National Ability Center also provides a setting that is therapeutic without being clinical. Sled hockey, horseback riding or rock wall climbing on the outskirts of Park City versus therapy in a clinic — there is no comparison, said Gail Loveland, the National Ability Center's executive director. Soldiers' family members were also invited to the muster, and nine soldiers have family members with them. Loveland said the setting has also helped strengthen family relationships.

Many soldiers remain in military service after finishing treatment for their injuries, Reading said. Others transition out after a review by a medical board.

Crabb said he is "close to being boarded out of here. I'm probably going back to school and am in the process of choosing a new career."

e-mail: sfidel@desnews.com