Becoming a warrior.
When you first raise your hand and take the oath of enlistment, becoming a warrior, the last thing on your mind is the power of the words you just repeated.
“I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So, help me God.”
The words roll off the tongue and are spoken with pride and reverence. The duty is never seen as that. This is our job, our way of life.
Each day we serve, we know that we may be called upon to face hostile fire. For me, that day was December 24th, 1990. The day I reported to my second sea command, the USS Mobile Bay (CG-53).
I remember it like it was yesterday. How excited I was and how nervous many of my fellow shipmates were during the buildup for Desert Shield.
We spent the better part of a month in a minefield. The ship made a big deal about setting the mine watch and doing drills in which we hit a mine. Those of us that worked below the water line would hear things bounce off the side of the ship all the time.
I remember on a Mid-Watch about 2 am hearing a loud metallic thud going down the side of the ship, thinking this was it. The day after we left the Minefield two ships hit mines within minutes of each other.
Fast forward 30 years and that sound still haunts me. The feeling that I escaped when I should not have. The fear, the loneliness, the sadness, the anger, and 1000 other emotions bombard me on an almost daily basis.
I am not alone. Veterans from every era deal with the same pain I deal with every day. 22 of them make a dreary decision each day. That fact haunts so many.
There are countless groups devoted to the “22 until none” movement. Offering everything from retreats, to counseling, to housing and treatment.
USA Hockey decided to get involved and 5 years ago created the Warrior Hockey program.
In 2019 Nathan Laupp, the President and founding member, of ST Louis, Mo, enlisted the help of Steve Hejna and Ryan “Cookie” Cook also of St. Louis MO and created the St Louis Blues Warrior Hockey program.
Hejna and Cook joined me last week on the BlueNote Fan Report to talk about the program and how it has helped them and 91 other vets.
“We started in June of 2020 by September we had 50 members,” Hejna, the VP, told me. “I did not think we would get 50 till the end of .” The program has seen unprecedented growth.
Cook, the Secretary of the Program, connected with me via Facebook and we talk about the program and how I could help.
“getting the word out is the most important thing.” Cook proclaimed. “This is about the veterans and giving them a place. Giving them a team to belong to again.”
Jason Pilarski of St. Peters Mo, an Army vet with 2 different tours in Iraq. “I was part of the first invasion,” he told me. He served from 2001, graduating basic training on 9/11 until 2007.
Pilarski admitted to dealing with PTSD and adjusting to civilian life after he was medically retired. “my wife at the time had learned to run the household without me and we bumped heads when I was home every day.” He conferred to me. “After the military, I was not the same.”
That is true for almost everyone who has served. Even more so for those who served in a combat zone. While serving we are taught to be strong and to not seek help but to fix the problem ourselves.
Normally that is what we do. Many turn to drugs or alcohol. Some become violent. And those who can no longer find themselves choose the horrific exit and join the 22.
“This is not just about the hockey,” Hejna said. “this is about giving vets a place to go, to talk, and create relationships. We have ways to help vets, we are a family.”
Family is a word that gets thrown around a lot and many times it is in jest.
Not with this team of warriors.
I asked them about how they would handle a vet in distress? They all told me that it had already happened. During a recent practice, they noticed a member who had that look on his face. Eyes glossed over. The million-mile stare. The look that every Vet fears but has probably had or seen at least once.
To these hockey players and warriors, it was time to step in and act. That is just what they did. They found a Vet in distress and they went into automatic mode. “we were able to get him to open up to us” Pilarski told me coking back the emotion. “we were able to get him the help that he needed.”
I understood the emotion Pilarski (Ski to every vet out there) was feeling. Earlier in the interview, he told me he had tried to commit suicide when his life was falling apart.
That story is a familiar one to me. I had gotten that low just 3 years ago. The Bluenote Fan Report and my eagerness to become involved were sprouted from that moment. I used my love of Hockey and the St. Louis Blues as an outlet.
The Warrior Hockey Program is just that. An Outlet.
I asked about the Blues’ involvement and both men just beamed. They have done so much. They have donated equipment, ice time, and the Alumni. Rob “the Rammer” Ramage is one of the coaches.
Barret Jackman and Keith “Walt” Tkachuk have helped with the team. They have even skated with Blues Superfan Laila Anderson.
Every member of the team is so thankful for the opportunity they have been given.
Pilarski summed it up the best. “I was 280 pounds and had only 22% of my kidney working. The doctor told me I only had a few years left. I could barely skate when I first started and was not able to make it to the end of the ice without running out of breath.”
“I have lost 40Lb, my kidneys are up to 40% and the doctors tell me I have extended my life and the life of my kidneys by 10 years.” He joyously stated.
“This program and these wonderful people saved my life.”
USA Hockey and the St. Louis Blues have helped these former members of the military create a hockey program and a team. They gave them support and direction. Just like the military they also gave them training.
But there is one thing they all did themselves.
They created a family.
For more information about the program and how to join visit St Louis Blues Warrior Hockey (stlblueswarriorhockey.com).
Till next time Hockey FANS.
Guy “Hawaii Blues Fan” Bensing