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U.S. wounded warriors root on Team USA

Wednesday, 02.24.2010 / 9:27 AM / All-Access Vancouver

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

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U.S. wounded warriors root on Team USA
Team USA has a special group of supporters rooting them to Olympic success, American servicemen and women in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Each time the United States Olympic hockey team takes the ice, players are not only representing their country, but an American war hero wounded in battle.

Making it all happen is a volunteer group called Operation Homefront, which has paired each of the 23 players on Team USA with service members wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"Operation Homefront began supporting Team USA Hockey for one reason -- to help the players understand they're not playing for the Stanley Cup, but their country," Carly Samuelson, Operation Homefront director of development and special events, told NHL.com. "Introducing them to our wounded warriors help make the point that it takes courage, sacrifice, and teamwork to wear the jersey of their country."

Some of the soldiers participating in the program have served overseas for three years, while others have been overseas for 20. No matter the number, all of these courageous and decorated soldiers have one common bond -- they were wounded in battle while fighting for our freedom.

U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. John Stanz represents Buffalo Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. Born in Jamestown, N.Y., and now residing in Hamburg, Stanz has been a Sabres fan his entire life. He sent Miller a Marine unit hat that says, "Miller Time," a Marine challenge coin bearing Stanz' name, a bullet bracelet similar to the one Stanz wears and a letter of inspiration.
 
"I remember playing street hockey outside with my brother and friends and we'd always call ourselves the Sabres," Stanz, 28, told NHL.com. "We eventually learned how to roller blade so the games got more intense."

The street games may have been intense, but nothing compared to what Stanz faced in the line of duty in Afghanistan last August when his vehicle became the target of an IED (improvised explosive device).

"The doctors told me that I'll never remember the actual point when it blew up. And anything before that will be give or take," Stanz said.

After finally being revived following a five-week medically induced coma, Stanz learned he suffered multiple face fractures, a broken right hand and left foot, dislocated right knee, pneumonia and brain trauma.

"The last thing I remember was being beside my buddy when he was shot and standing right over my right shoulder," said Stanz, twice the recipient of the Purple Heart. "He got shot down through his back and it came out his leg. I helped put a tourniquet on the wound. My parents later told me that that event happened a week prior to my vehicle blowing up."

Stanz, who admits he'd like to return to duty once healthy enough, has been following the Olympics and, in particular, Miller.

"The game against the Canadians was one of the best games I've ever seen," he said. "I feel honored to be representing Ryan and I hope I get an opportunity to meet him after the Olympics. It would be one of the most awesome things to happen to me.

"I view myself as such a small part of the overall freedom that everyone has. The first thing that goes through my mind when I'm watching the Games is, 'Go USA.' Really, I'm no hero, I'm just doing what anyone in my situation would do."

Specialist Aaron Cahill, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan and was part of the relief effort following Hurricane Ike in Texas in September 2008, is sponsoring Los Angeles Kings forward Dustin Brown. Cahill had an Operation Freedom coin, an Army National Guard uniform patch and a letter delivered to Brown prior to the start of the Olympic Games.

"My unit was doing detainee operations; holding high-valued detainees for the U.S. government," Cahill said. "We had to make sure they didn't kill each other or themselves. You'd work 14-16 hours a day and there were a few times we would do 20-hour shifts."

It was July 2, 2009, when Cahill's team was on patrol gathering intelligence on the Taliban when a private security agent notified them of IED's in nearby rock piles. His team located the homemade bombs. But one detonated.

"My truck was blown up at around 10 a.m. and that's the middle of the night here in the States," Cahill said. "When the truck was hit, if we didn't show the cohesiveness and teamwork we did, we'd have gotten rolled up pretty bad and suffered some deaths.

"I'll never forget the date because we were planning a big fireworks celebration on the Fourth of July," he continued. "But I didn't have the opportunity to participate because my hearing and eyesight were still really sensitive. I wasn't in the hospital, but I had throbbing headaches."

The explosion has left Cahill, the 25-year-old father of two daughters, with lower back and knee injuries and memory loss.

"Our preparation, in a sense, is a lot like playing sports," Cahill said. "It's all about practice. In the National Guard, we train three months before deploying. We train for the worst possible thing. When we trained for Iraq, we trained in El Paso, Texas, in 115-degree weather to simulate the environment."

"When I returned home from overseas, I kind of expected to come back to a Vietnamese-style protest, but I was surprised and happy with the overwhelming support for us and those who had fallen," Stanz admitted. "I've been shocked and happy about how everyone has supported us."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale