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Three military vets put aside their brutal combat scars and regain their competitive edge on the ice

Raul Mercado lost two soldiers from his unit in a South Korean mudslide. The memory still haunts the 57-year-old Army veteran 17 years later.

Shrapnel from an explosive device in Afghanistan left 31-year-old David Cross with a devastating injury to his right leg. He knows he will lose that leg within the next two years.

And more than 40 years after the Vietnam War, Denis “Gunner” Steinmiller, 68, still deals with the traumatic stress from firefights during his two tours.

The three men, from different military eras, all face daily challenges, either serious physical injuries or lingering brain trauma – or both.

They also have something else in common. All three are key forwards on the Buffalo Sabres Sled Vets hockey team, informally known as the Buffalo Warriors. All 20 players on the roster, including two women, are being treated for service-related injuries at the local Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

In sled hockey, players sit on aluminum sleds atop long metal blades cutting into the ice. The sport provides all three men with a chance to play competitive sports again, to compete on a level playing rink, they suggested during a lengthy interview at the Northtown Center in Amherst.

The rink also becomes their refuge, a place to escape, an arena where they don’t have to explain to anyone the effects of their military wounds. And it’s a place where they can regain that camaraderie, teamwork and competitive spirit from their military days.

“When we’re out there on the ice, for that hour or hour and a half, we don’t think about anything outside that rink,” said Mercado, a former Army sergeant who spent 22 years on active duty. “We’re there with our brothers and sisters. We forget about our problems, especially for those of us with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

“This is my new unit,” he added.

In a sense, these guys are trading their old battlefield bonds for teamwork on the ice.

“For me, it’s the brotherhood of being out there together, and you can depend on your brother,” Steinmiller said. “Unless you’ve been there, in a combat zone where your life depends on the guy next to you, it’s hard to explain.”

Even with a bum leg, Cross has played competitive baseball since his injury. But his baseball teammates don’t know his story, and he doesn’t feel like sharing it with them.

“Here,” he said of his sled-hockey teammates, “I don’t need to explain it to them. They already know. That’s what makes it so comfortable.”

Extreme competitors

Sled hockey, just like its stand-up counterpart, is a fast-paced, hard-hitting game. If you want to get these three guys going – and smiling – ask them about the physical part of the game. They relish talking about the “T-bone” hits, the smash-mouth nature of the game and the unforgiving hardness of the lower rink boards.

And it’s clear that they’re fiercely competitive, even without battlefield risks.

“I can relate it to a firefight in Vietnam,” said Steinmiller, who lives up to his “Gunner” nickname. “We got overrun, so we lost. People got killed. That really affects you. When I’m on the ice, it feels the same. I hate to lose.”

Interviewed before taking the ice, the three guys – Steinmiller and Mercado play on the same line, while Cross is a winger on the other line – were almost giddy about their game the night before. They played the Central New York Flyers, helping that team dedicate its new rink in Skaneateles.

The Buffalo Warriors weren’t too upset about spoiling the occasion. They spanked the Central New Yorkers, their old nemeses, 5-1.

“They were not happy,” Steinmiller said, a huge grin on his face.

The veterans’ sled hockey team, in addition to two local vets’ stand-up teams, provides these players with something they have missed since their military days.

“I hope we’re recognizing our veterans and the sacrifices they’ve made, but I think what all of them are looking for is purpose,” said Norm Page, board member of the Buffalo Warriors. “This sport has given them a sense of purpose, of teamwork, of self-esteem, of camaraderie – all the things they had when they were serving. The sport gives it all back to them again.”

And it doesn’t matter how old they are now.

“I honestly see them as a bunch of kids, some of them in their 50s, 60s and 70s,” added Page, the national sled hockey representative for USA Hockey. “I see the kid in them again.”

“How can you not embrace that?”

Tough start

The Buffalo Warriors sled team didn’t get off to a rousing start.

Four years ago, in September 2011, Page approached Pamela Kaznowski, the Buffalo VA’s recreation therapy supervisor, saying it was long overdue to start a sled team.

“I know there are wounded heroes we can help by getting them on the ice,” Page remembered saying.

He and Kaznowski arranged a Sunday morning clinic at Riverside Rink. About 15 veterans signed up for an 8 a.m. practice, so Page had that many sleds lined up at the rink.

By 7:45 a.m., not a single vet had arrived. At 8 a.m., still nothing. The same at 8:15 a.m.

“Not one soul showed up,” Page said, recalling how disappointed and upset he and Kaznowski were.

But they kept at it, encouraging and prodding the veterans. The next month, 12 or 13 players attended the first clinic. And then Cliff Benson, chief development officer for the Sabres, jumped in to help the team. The Buffalo Sabres Foundation, the Sabres Alumni and National Fuel provided hefty financial commitments.

Six months after the first clinic, the program sent more than two dozen veterans on a pair of teams – one stand-up, the other sled – to a tournament in Dallas.

The new team struggled. Sled hockey is not easy at first. No matter how athletic the player, it’s difficult to master all the different arm and hand movements. Each player carries two cutoff stick blades, using the metal teeth on one end to dig into the ice and skate, while using the blade end to stickhandle and shoot.

Their inexperience, combined with having quite a few older players, left the Warriors at the wrong end of 6-0 and 5-1 scores. But they rebounded nicely under coach Tom Rabent, a senior recreation therapist at the VA, and their recent win over Central New York raised their season record to 12-3.

Players on the Buffalo team face a variety of challenges, including PTSD, addictions, spinal-cord injuries and severe leg and back problems.

“It’s an honor just to be around these guys,” the 57-year-old Rabent said. “I didn’t serve, but I feel like I serve them. I never will understand what they went through. I don’t think you can understand a war unless you experience it. But you can listen.”

Around-the-clock pain

Cross, the Amherst man who served three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, won’t ever forget the date: Oct. 27, 2009.

That’s when the improvised explosive device hit him, leaving him with shrapnel in his leg.

“In about a year or a year and a half, I’m losing my leg, and I’m prepared for that,” he said. “It seems like I get around OK, but I’m in pain 24/7.”

Although Cross played a lot of sports growing up in California, hockey wasn’t one of them. Cross was seeing a VA counselor who mentioned the sled-hockey team. So he went to one of the games, walked up to Rabent and told the coach, “I’d like to play.”

Cross can walk in a room, see groups of people sitting at two different tables and know which group is made up of veterans. He can just tell.

That sense of a common, if unspoken, bond extends to the ice.

“Being on a team where everybody understands everything that I’m going through, some have been through worse,” Cross said. “Here, I feel like another guy on the team. It took me a year to learn how to walk again. So for me to be able to come out and play sports, even though it’s on a sled, it’s fantastic for me now.

“It tells me that life goes on.”

The Cold War soldier

Mercado, a drill sergeant whose service included tours in Belgium, Germany and Korea, lives with two serious injuries from that career, one physical, the other traumatic, from the mudslide.

The first was an accident in 1991, as he and seven others were unloading a huge generator that slid off a truck. The mishap left him with degenerative disc and lumbar problems, so he now uses a cane.

The Orchard Park resident played stand-up hockey for years, before a fall at home a couple years ago left him with fractured ribs and forced him off his skates. His wife, Saundra, remembers how heartbroken he was, until he got on the sled.

“It means everything to him,” she said. “It gives him the emotional and spiritual support of the military, which a lot of veterans lose when they come home. This program has been an absolute godsend to him.”

These veterans never lose that military bond, no matter how long they’ve been out of uniform.

“You can take the soldier out of the uniform, but you can’t take that camaraderie away,” Mercado said. “No matter what branch they were in, you can’t take away that bond.”

He readily admits that he still struggles with PTSD, following the deaths of two soldiers in the 1998 South Korean mudslide.

“I still have those nightmares,” he said. “I’m one of several on the team who have hidden injuries.”

The Gunner

Steinmiller is a colorful guy, with his gray hair grown long in the back, his youthful appearance for his age and his candor in talking about the anger he’s held inside him.

The Pendleton resident served two tours in Vietnam, starting in the late 1960s, sandwiched around a stint in Germany. He will never forget how he was treated in returning to the United States.

“I had to come back twice to people calling us names and spitting at us,” he said. “I had a lot of anger inside me. It hurts that nobody was greeting us. I still can’t get over it.”

Anniversary dates of traumatic events from his Vietnam days also hurt. Playing sled hockey with other veterans helps.

“It gets my mind in a good place, but I’m still trying to get over the anger I had for all those years,” he said. “I used to isolate a lot, not be around other people. This has taken me out of my shell.”

During the group interview, Steinmiller stopped to thank Page and Rabent for everything they’ve done for him and his teammates.

“I can’t tell you what it means to me,” he said. “I wish we could repay you.”

Page immediately replied, “You already have.”