Raymond Kusch intends to do the impossible, and while that might seem a tall order, Kusch is not a man whose perseverance and dedication you should doubt.
A sergeant in the U.S. Army who served combat tours with the Third Infantry Division in both Iraq and Afghanistan from 2009-12, Kusch is a gritty, determined winger for the Michigan Warriors who makes up for what he lacks with a never say die determination.
The first thing that you notice Kusch is lacking is his left leg. On a night time patrol in Helmand Province in Afghanistan in 2012, Kusch scaled a wall, When Kusch landed on the other side of the wall, he stepped right on a pressure plate and his leg was blown off.
It’s for people like Kusch that Josh Krajewski founded the Michigan Warriors hockey team, a club comprised entirely of wounded war veterans.
A U.S. Army Specialist who served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2005-09, Krajewski, whose wounds included a back injury and tinnitus of the ear, as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, sought an outlet to make him feel normal again once he got home from war, as well as something that offered the same sort of mutual bonding he’d shared with fellow soldiers in the military.
He found it on the ice.
“I really needed some kind of outlet for my PTSD, the anxiety of being home and being out of the service,” Krajewski explained. “So I picked up ice hockey and immediately fell in love with the game. It’s hard not to.”
Krajewski was surprised to discover that there was no wounded warriors hockey program in Michigan, so he reached out to teams in other states for advice and launched a club in Michigan. Slowly, players began showing up for ice time – about a dozen regulars at first, but soon, it blossomed. Now, they sign up five or six new players a month, and there are ice times available for wounded veterans in Detroit, Saginaw, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids.
The long-range plan is to get 10 centers up and running, allowing them the organize their own veterans hockey league.
Several of the skaters, including Krajewski and Kusch, had never played the game before.
“After I lost my leg I tried skating and I was like Bambi on ice,” Kusch said. “I was stuck to the boards. It was painful, because my stump was going wrong with my prosthetic. It was just a terrible experience.
“That was one of the few things that I’d written off, that as an amputee I’d never be able to do.”
Kusch works at the Student Veterans Resource Center at University of Michigan-Flint. He got to talking about the Detroit Red Wings with a fellow employee, and soon was invited out to skate with the Warriors.
“At first, it was the same thing,” Kusch said. “Bambi on ice. I was scared. They had a couple of professional coaches and they really built up my confidence.
“Within five-10 minutes they had me off of the supports and I was skating around, chasing a puck. I was addicted from there. Now I go to as many skates as I can. Every day I’m building my confidence, seeing myself get better and better. There’s nothing more satisfying than taking something I had written off, saying I’d never be able to do, and now thinking not only can I do it, but I can do it well.”
The players on the Warriors roster describe their weekly ice time as 60-minute therapy sessions.
“The moment that someone new walks into the locker room, they’re a brother to us. We take him in as family,” Krajewski said.
Only a couple of the players knew each other while in the service but they instantly bond in the locker room through their shared life experience, experiences they’d much rather not share with those they love the most.
“You don’t want your family to feel the negative things that you’re feeling,” Jason Gomez said.
A Sergeant in the U.S. Army who served three tours to Baghdad, Gomez was wounded when an improvised explosive device detonated under the vehicle he was riding in. Thrown off the vehicle by the concussion of the explosion, Gomez landed on his tailbone, crushing several vertebrae and leaving him with partial paralysis of the right leg.
“It’s not that you shut your family out,” Gomez added. “You withdraw, you’re more quiet. You don’t want to hurt them with what’s hurting you.”
When Krajewski encouraged Gomez to come out and suit up, he was initially reluctant.
“I pondered it,” Gomez recalled. “I was dealing with depression, survivor’s guilt, PTSD, physical injuries.You’re listening to what you’re being told that you’ll never be able to do this again, that you’ll never be able to do that again.
“Listening to Josh, my wife (Theresa) finally said, ‘You need to try it.’ And I did.”
He’s never looked back.
“This has done nothing but bring families together,” Gomez said. “It helps bring back that camaraderie of the brotherhood/sisterhood. It’s bringing in the veterans to feel part of a team movement again, to feel that camaraderie and to once again have the confidence to get back out.”
As hard as it might seem to think that people with the bravery and courage to serve in the military, stand in harm’s way and face up to the horrors of combat would be in need of a shot of courage, that’s exactly what these men insist playing hockey together has injected into their bloodstream.
The bond of chasing a puck together around the ice has once more instilled within them the ability to get out there and live life again, to pursue their dreams and turn them into reality.
“You don’t realize it but before long, you’re doing things in the public that you never done before when you’ve got out of the military,” Gomez said. “People have come out of that shell.
“I sat around depressed for years, thinking it was all over. You have a sense of self pride again.”
For Kusch, the difference in his approach to things since he took up hockey a scant six weeks ago is like night and day.
“I’ve played football, baseball – I’ve played it all – and there is just no other sport like this,” Kusch said. “The exhilaration, the rush and the fact that I’m doing it with my brothers from combat arms, there’s a camaraderie here that I’ve never experienced before.
“I couldn’t imagine myself getting the courage to go out for a beer league. Being an amputee, there’s a mental barrier there. Man, I don’t want to mess these guys up. These guys don’t care about that. Even when I mess up, getting the camaraderie from my guys saying ‘You did alright,’ there’s nothing like it.”
Buoyed by their belief in him, Kusch is making the impossible happen.
“I’m skating backwards, I’m doing crossovers, I’m doing one-legged stops,” he said. “I can’t stop on my prosthetic – yet.”
He puts a hard emphasis on that last word.
“I’ve talked to other amputee skaters and they say it’s difficult if not impossible but my goal is to change that,” Kusch said.