Thom Hirsch is an American Red Cross volunteer in the Department of Rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. For almost six years, Hirsch, a lawyer by profession, has assisted the staff in Walter Reed’s Occupational Therapy clinic, helping wounded servicemen and women maneuver through various state laws and regulations to obtain their driver’s licenses and car plates. It is a critical step for many in regaining independence. But Hirsch’s volunteer work for the armed forces does not end there.
Hirsch is also the president of the USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program, an organization designed to give military veterans who have been injured the chance to play hockey in an environment suited to their needs. The hockey program works with the recreational therapists at Walter Reed to conduct monthly sled hockey clinics in which patients are permitted to participate once they have medical clearance. Many patients participating in the clinics then join the USA Warriors program.
Some of the ice hockey players Hirsch has come to know both in his Red Cross volunteer work and on the ice, particularly one seriously injured Marine who he helped obtain a temporary license plate and now plays on the sled team. While Hirsch has no military background, his dedication is inspiring.
“Especially for people not in the service, volunteering is a way to give back,” said Hirsch. “These guys have made a huge sacrifice, but they remain indomitable.”
USA WARRIORS The USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program, a strictly volunteer-run program based in Rockville, Maryland, has a standing team and sled team that takes to the ice year round, practicing once a week and playing a game about once a month. The program is largely funded by the Disabled American Veterans.
Sled hockey is a growing sport in the U.S. for people with disabilities and generally follows the same rules as ice hockey. The majority of the sled hockey players on the USA Warriors team are or have been Walter Reed patients. Playing in the USA Warriors Ice Hockey program provides the players with a team environment and a sense of camaraderie that many servicemen and women come to miss as they focus on rehabilitation at Walter Reed.
Since a lot of the players are new to ice hockey in general, they often do not have the puck handling skills or know the positioning at first. But they are determined to learn. The sled hockey players take the game seriously. They are competitive. And they are physical which fits the program’s slogan –“None Tougher.”
“The roster is always changing because the goal for the patients is to return home,” said Hirsch. With the support of the Fisher House, the program is able to fly in players for a game such as a female team member from Maine who plays on the sled team. Currently, the sled team has one woman playing and the standing team has three.
NEVER QUIT And while most of the players have never played hockey before, Goalie Bo Reichenbach, a Special Operations 2 Navy SEAL, grew up on the ice in Billings, Montana. Reichenbach, a double amputee, came to participate in the USA Warriors Ice Hockey program after playing in a clinic at Walter Reed where he is a patient. He has the puck handling and positioning skills, but still finds challenges.
“As a goalie, it’s getting used to the way the puck comes at you differently,” said Reichenbach.
In addition to the USA Warriors sled team, Reichenbach and another USA Warrior teammate also play on the U.S. National Development Sled Hockey Team, working toward the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team. They both have been playing hockey since they were quite young and when they take to the ice as sled players, it’s obvious that nothing will get in their way of competing and excelling.
“They (the players) just love to play hockey,” said Hirsch. “Something about being out there on the ice and chasing a rubber biscuit.”