- Associated Press - Saturday, May 28, 2016

YORK, Pa. (AP) - The York Polar Bears were all over the ice.

Some pushed one leg in front of the other, rigid little robots just trying to stay upright. Others waved their sticks at pucks, sometimes hitting them, sometimes whiffing. A small boy melted into tears each time his father gently placed the helmet cage over his head.

All of it swirled around Rich Garrison, the leader of this most unusual hockey team. He knelt at the ice’s edge, determined to get a 9-year-old ready for practice. He summoned for an extra jersey. He pushed hockey pants and socks over the boy’s skates. He kept switching helmets to find one that fit.

Finally, Garrison called everyone together for a “shooting” drill in the middle of the rink in the York City Ice Arena. Mostly, the older kids took turns inching up to the puck and trying to push it toward a net.

To think how far they’ve come …

They range from ages 5 to 16 and play on one of the only sports teams in York County specifically for disabled children. The idea came from Garrison, 54, after he was disabled from overseas duty with the U.S. Army.

He deals with his most serious battle scars on the inside, and the hockey team seems to energize him each Monday. Certainly, it has been a vast undertaking. When the kids showed up in early March, most had never skated. Some have Down syndrome, autism and social anxiety disorder, others are partially blind or deaf.

At first, they balanced themselves on the ice by holding onto chairs or sleds made of PVC pipe or even their mentors from the York Devils’ youth program. Some cried. All of them fell down. And yet most everyone returned for the next practice and the one after that.

At home, they slept with their hockey gear and sticks by their beds and chattered about their new friends. It was as if their lives were shifting. It didn’t matter how slowly they moved or what they looked like, because they were learning a sport with others like them, and they were gaining confidence and trust.

They were part of their very first team.

All of them, it seemed, finding some salvation along the way.

Rich Garrison first joined the Army out of high school.

That’s where he learned to jump out of planes and where he met his wife, Vickie. After leaving the military, they began raising their three children, he became a Baltimore City firefighter and life settled.

Then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Garrison said he felt compelled to re-enlist to protect his family and country, and eventually ended up on the front lines in Iraq. He was 45 by then, old enough to be the father of most everyone in his unit and in just as good of shape.

He served three tours in Iraq and another in special operations in Afghanistan. He recently described his litany of military injuries with a nonchalance, almost a detachment, because those were understood risks, simply enough.

He is proud of his military career but described returning home a shattered man in 2012.

While overseas, he broke his foot, ripped his knee and tore his shoulder. He suffered a spinal injury, which keeps him from turning his neck to the right. He has trouble hearing.

At least those injuries are clearly defined.

However, he doesn’t know the number of IED explosions that rocked the military vehicles he was riding in, often giving him concussions. He was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with Valor for his part in holding off the enemy while injured.

And yet he believes some of the most insidious effects of war were not directly related to combat. Rather, he said, they were the heavy metals like mercury and lead leaking out of the sand and soil; toxic fumes from giant burn pits that incinerated everything from plastics and garbage to dead animals and human waste; and raw sewage flowing into the streets of the villages.

The military ruled him disabled from a mix of those factors, including “environmental hazards” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Garrison said he still chose to return after each tour.

“They were my brothers, so I’m staying with them. That’s what it is. When you go to war, you go to war for your country, but when you’re in war, then it’s about the guy next to you. That’s your brother. And that’s how everybody feels. You fight to keep the guy next to you alive.

“People in the military think entirely different than the people out here. … The fear of death, after you’re there so long, it goes away.”

Even when he returned permanently to North Codorus Township, where he moved his family in 1998, the war was still eating him alive a little at a time.

He talks of how the horrors he witnessed in combat, combined with traumatic brain injuries, have damaged his mind and nerves.

He couldn’t be a firefighter anymore. He said he became further isolated from friends and family members.

Even worse, he believes the fatigue, headaches and ever-worsening digestive issues were caused from the toxins that infiltrated his body through wounds and from breathing in microscopic dust particles. He said his stomach has all but shut down.

He’s dropped from a steady 200 pounds in the Army to about 150 and said he is nourished by medicines and supplements. He sips on water, sodas and coffee.

He said regular doctor visits have provided few answers. He was buoyed recently by, of all things, tests revealing that his mercury levels are high. That, he said, may help him qualify to undergo experimental medical treatment.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has begun creating facilities such as the Toxic Embedded Fragment Surveillance Center in Baltimore because of the growing number of disabled soldiers like Garrison. Shrapnel, or fragments from IEDs, bombs, mines and shells, may contain potentially dangerous depleted uranium.

“It’s just a nightmare. It’s like an octopus with eight tentacles and you’re trying to battle them all at the same time.”

He’s hesitant to talk about all of this because of the lasting trauma. His drive to live each day comes from the support of his family and his faith.

And from, strangely enough, ice hockey.

He finds the energy somewhere to pack a bag of equipment and drive nearly 90 minutes to Rockville, Md., each week.

He never knows how much he will be able to skate once he arrives, though. Exhaustion washes over without warning and nearly immobilizes him.

There, in a cramped locker room one evening last month, a few adult players laughed and told stories as a fellow war vet attached his two prosthetic legs and skates. Most of Garrison’s USA Warriors teammates are disabled from internal or psychological wounds.

“It helps because they’ve all been through the same thing. It helps with a brotherhood that I cannot find out here, nowhere,” Garrison said, motioning to the world around him as he drove to practice. “You don’t have to answer a million questions. You don’t have to have legs missing, because they know you’re suffering.”

Garrison heard of the USA Warriors team three years ago through former Chicago Blackhawks assistant equipment manager Clint Reif and his outreach work at Walter Reed Military Hospital. But Garrison barely knew how to skate and had never paid attention to the sport. He had only watched his 5-year-old grandson fly around the ice on his youth team.

Something clicked, though. He learned to skate well enough to play on the Warriors, and it was during one of their tournaments when he saw a team of disabled children.

He said he knew exactly what he must do.

He and wife Vickie began researching how to start a hockey team for kids like that in York. They found immense support at the York City Ice Arena, particularly through the Devils.

The Garrisons wanted to provide a team atmosphere different than Special Olympics. They wanted a smaller group of players in a more defined age group. There would be uniforms and eventually games against other teams.

Maybe it could offer a similar outlet or even therapy to what he found with the USA Warriors.

“Most of the time (the parents) are smiling more than the kids are,” said Vickie Garrison, who is team secretary, treasurer and overall organizer. “It’s the most amazing experience for parents who never thought their kid would be on a team. They don’t have to fight for their kid to get a turn or explain after a game why they didn’t play.”

Rich Garrison has embraced this team as a mission. He describes Monday nights with the kids as a freedom from the rest of his week.

“You don’t know how much pain he’s in because of the stuff he’s going through. He would never tell you, he never will voice it,” said Josh Olver, a special education teacher whose 12-year-old son, Caleb, is a mentor to the Polar Bears. “He’s a giving person. You meet him once and you can tell that.”

Hockey has become ongoing rehabilitation to work the war out of him.

“I believe my task is this team and this task is not done yet. Who knows what happens then?”

Little Myles Miller needed help.

It wasn’t easy stopping for a runny nose on the biggest night yet to be a Polar Bear. Everyone was in their new blue and white uniforms. More family and friends than ever watched.

Garrison skated over to retrieve some tissues from Myles’ stepmom and then figured how to wipe his nose through his helmet cage. Everyone smiled at the scene. Then, just as quickly, the coach and the kid with autism went back to hockey.

They were more of a team than ever.

They gathered close and yelled “York” and “Polar Bears” in unison before stepping on the ice and before leaving it. They shot at the net again, this time with supporters pounding on the glass and snapping photos while their names were announced over the PA system.

At the end, the players skated by themselves from one end of the rink to the other in a race of sorts. Some wobbled and fell. But no one needed help.

That, alone, amazed Garrison and the other coaches.

“Hockey is the vessel, but we’re watching them build self-esteem, watching them build balance, build coordination,” he said. “We’re actually watching them do that …”

Like Vivienne Giblin, the smallest bundle of bravery. She’s 5 years old but weighs only about 35 pounds. She’s totally blind in her left eye, legally blind in her right and also has lung issues. She’s shorter than a hockey stick.

But she’s a different girl since finding hockey.

“We take her rock climbing and she goes right up the wall. We take her swimming and she jumps off the side. It’s given her a lot of confidence,” said her mother, Loren Hall. “Her jumping has gotten better. Her physical skills have gotten better.”

And that is exactly the kind of response Garrison was hoping for. He looks forward to tutoring the team’s first goalie and then to their first game, maybe in early fall.

He cracked a joke about hoping to be around to see it. So far, this sport and this team have driven him to a place in his life he couldn’t imagine even two years ago.

“It helps everything,” he said. “I look forward to Mondays because I know we’re going to do something that will make them happy.”

Sidebar:

Meet the coach

Who: Rich Garrison, 54

Home: North Codorus Township

Family: Wife, Vickie; children, Tiffany Ann, 31, Richard, 27, Karlie, 16

Occupation: retired Baltimore City firefighter

Military background: Staff sergeant in the U.S. Army Special Forces. Served two separate stints, the second when he re-enlisted after 9/11. Three tours of active duty in Iraq and another in Afghanistan. Awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star With Valor

Disabled: From injuries to his shoulders, knee, spine and brain, in part from IEDs. Also suffering digestive issues from “environmental hazards,” which might include exposure to heavy metals and toxic fumes.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/22kvSOH

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Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com

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