Sgt. 1st Class Joe Bowser had a difficult decision to make in 2004 after serving in a transportation unit in Balad, Iraq. After a rocket was fired into his unit, shrapnel hit the calcaneus bone in his right heel forcing him to undergo roughly 14 operations before being offered a tough proposition by doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
"The doctor came in and gave me the option to either salvage the leg, be in pain the rest of my life and basically drag a leg I really couldn't operate, or I can have it amputated," said Bowser, who currently works as a staff assistant to Secretary of the Army John McHugh. "My first thought was I want to play hockey again, so I'm going to have it whacked off. I basically had it cut off so I could play hockey."
Finding a local hockey game wasn't easy at first, but by 2007 Bowser was named to the U.S. National Amputee Team. From there, he helped to spearhead the growth of the U.S.A. Warriors Ice Hockey team, a program designed to assist military veterans who have sustained injuries while serving abroad. For the growing number of veterans participating in the program, it provides a competitive outlet as well as a vital rehabilitation tool.
"Our biggest injuries are the ones you can't see. The TBI [Traumatic Brain Injury], the PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]. We've got some guys that skate with us on the U.S.A. Warriors ice hockey team that are in that situation," said the 53-year-old Bowser. "It's such a great opportunity to just be able to skate together and tell your war stories in the locker room. The first time I stepped on the ice after being wounded was the greatest feeling ever. I felt like I was normal again."
Bowser's contribution to his sport and fellow veterans hasn't gone unnoticed. In 2010, when the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks came to Washington to visit the president, Bowser was asked to organize a team trip to Walter Reed to visit wounded soldiers. For Bowser, who as a staff secretary to the U.S. Secretary of the Army helps in wounded soldier issues, it was a unique opportunity to combine his passions.
"I let [the Blackhawks] know what to expect. Those players are about the same age as the guys they're going to see, who don't have legs and arms," said Bowser. "If you have a question just ask it."
At the end of that day, Bowser couldn't help but have a little fun with the reigning Cup champions.
"By the way," he told them. "I'm a Red Wings fan."