Under enemy fire south of Baghdad, both of his legs mutilated by an IED (improvised explosive device), Mark Little remained focused and on task.
“Just kept firing,’’ recalled the ex-Army captain, convinced that his combat training was instrumental in saving his life. “I was lucid. Fired at the enemy. No legs. Threw a tourniquet on both legs — I took care of one, while our medic tied the other — and then crawled back to the Humvee and got out of there.’’
Among many other things, Little is a hockey player these days, as he was through high school in Virginia and for the years leading up to that wretched day in September 2007 when the IED blew off both of his legs below the knee. Now age 30, he is a left winger and captain of the USA Warriors hockey squad that will play April 9 at the Tsongas Center in Lowell.
The Warriors, all of them war-scarred military vets, will face a starry collection of Team USA Olympians, including the likes of the Fusco brothers (Mark and Scott), Tom Poti, Brian Leetch, Tara Mounsey, Courtney Kennedy, and many others. Admission is $8, roughly the change you might drop at the McDonald’s fly-thru window, and in that comparison I hope I’ve served up enough red-white-and-blue guilt for you to give up the fries that night to support a bunch of men and women who’ve sacrificed far more.
“We’re all pretty excited about this,’’ said Little, who lives in Fairfax, Va., near where most of the Warrior players make their homes. “A couple of us were in Boston [earlier this month] for a Bruins game. The team was great to us. We were on [NESN]. Wherever we went, we could feel the genuine interest and care in the building, the kind we don’t see all that often, to be honest. We left there truly amazed and gratified.’’
There are some 60 USA Warrior hockey players in all, men and women split up across the club’s “standing’’ and “sled’’ squads. Little, with prosthetics on both legs, plays for the standing squad that will face off in Lowell. One of the Warriors’ sled team members, Paul Schaus (Buffalo), last weekend won a gold medal with the USA team at the Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.
“We haven’t seen him in a while,’’ said Little. “A really good guy . . . we’re happy for him.’’
Some of the Warriors go as far back as the Vietnam era. But most of them, age range late 20s to early 30s, returned home battered and broken from service in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no average or typical case, but many are like Little, whose stay at Walter Reed lasted some 4½ months before he was discharged and sent off to assemble the life jigsaw puzzle he brought home from Iraq.
“Let’s see, I got blown up Sept. 7,’’ he recalled, “and I was snowboarding on Dec. 23. Seven months later, I was playing hockey . . . only because I didn’t know there was a team, or I would have been there sooner.’’
The Warriors have an open-enrollment policy.
“You get hurt in the service?’’ said Little, reciting from an imaginary Warriors charter. “You like to play hockey? OK, good, you’re in.’’
If only all leagues, all sports, with players of all abilities, were so welcoming. The Warriors are a reminder to us all that teams, who typically preach inclusion, are often the domain of only the most fit, able, cool, talented. Yet war has taught those lessons for centuries, and like our vanquished enemies, we choose to forget them when they are no longer standing right in front of us.
Unfortunately, noted Little, the player supply line seems endless. Even with US actions around the world winding down, a steady stream of the war-wounded arrives at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Md. New stick-carrying recruits don’t find their way to Warrior practices every week, but they come aplenty, and the good news these days is that the Warrior program now has enough players and interest to play an average of two games a month, a near sixfold increase since the program’s inception in 2006.
What the Warriors most like of the playing experience, said Little, is the dual sense of liberation and teamwork it brings them. On skates, he said, movement and speed come easier for the physically challenged. In a team concept, the players reconnect with their military roots and training, relying on each other during games in ways similar to the battlefield. There is independence of movement, and interdependence of team.
“The battlefield can be sand or ice,’’ he said. “Doesn’t matter. It’s still a battlefield. You’re united against your opponent.’’
The Warriors, grateful for a lead sponsor here in Bill Kelly of Kelly Financial Services, will appear at The Edge in Bedford on April 8 to tune up for the next night’s festivities in Lowell. Prior to the standing team’s puck drop against the Olympians at Tsongas, the sled team will hold an intersquad exhibition at 6:30. For ticket info, visit www.americanheroeshockeychallenge.com. Proceeds on April 9 also will benefit the Travis Roy Foundation and One Fund Boston.
Not on display either night, however, will be what Little has learned to be the best part of the USA Warrior hockey program. The games are great, as is being part of a team again, with all its interdependent dynamics and camaraderie. But the best part, said the retired lieutenant, the one with the two Purple Hearts and pair of artificial legs, is being in the rink when a new player arrives.
All of them walk through the arena doors with something not right, something missing, something broken, a limb torn off, an eye lost, a mind wrenched, a soul destroyed. Hurt abounds, some of it painfully obvious, some painfully hidden.
“The real joy is seeing those new guys and gals,’’ said Little, about to finish up his master’s degree in forensic psychology at George Washington University. “The first few days, most of them are like Bambies on ice, slipping and falling . . . no clue. A month later, they’re playing a game. I’ve seen it over and over.
“That’s what we’re doing. It’s what we care about.’’
April 9. Tsongas doors open around 1800 hours. The USA Warriors’ doors never close.