SOLIDARITY ON SKATES: Duluth Warriors offer way for servicemen to reconnect through hockey
DULUTH—When he left the Navy in 2007 after four years and three deployments, Nate Miller returned to his hometown of St. Cloud, Minn. Gathering intelligence, fortifying communities against the threat of attack and working as a survival specialist in Iraq and Afghanistan had taken its toll.
Re-entry into civilian life was no picnic, either.
Miller struggled to decompress, to slow down. He was used to moving at full speed, always with a purpose, while looking over his shoulder. Back in St. Cloud at his parents' home, Miller "felt like I left my brothers behind." He clung to habits of military life, often unwittingly.
Sitting down for meals was a chore. Miller had grown accustomed to shoveling food into his mouth on the fly.
Making his bed was a meticulous endeavor.
"I squared off my corners," Miller recalled. "It was so tight you could bounce a quarter off it."
And the questions. Stupid questions, he calls 'em, from well-intentioned friends who simply couldn't understand what he had gone through. Family began quizzing Miller. "What's next?" they'd ask him.
"It was like, 'Dang, give me a break here,' " he said, half-joking.
Eventually, Miller filled a backpack and set out for the Virgin Islands. He planned to stay a couple weeks, but in a story as old as man itself, he says, "I met this girl." He was there nearly a year, finally lured back around Christmastime 2008 by an aviation career fair at the Mall of America.
It was time, Miller reasoned.
He graduated from Lake Superior College in 2012 with an applied science degree in professional aviation. The 35-year-old is an engineer technician at Cirrus Aircraft and lives in Duluth with his sons, Tristan (14) and Charlie (2), and significant other, Leah.
Miller was fortunate. Not all veterans experience the same kind of success while trying to reclaim their identity as a civilian. There is a disconnect.
"When I got out of the military, the big thing for me was that sense of brotherhood that you don't really get when you're back in the civilian sector," Matt Caple, 32, said. "For some of us, we miss that."
At the Heritage Center in April 2016, Caple stumbled into a pure-Minnesota solution: hockey. He happened upon a flier for the Twin Cities-based Minnesota Warriors, a hockey program for "wounded, injured or otherwise disabled veterans." Caple and others went to work spinning off a Duluth affiliate.
They met with Jeff Dwyer, who had been placing fliers at rinks throughout the region. He lives in Silver Bay, Minn., with wife Elizabeth and their three children, but was skating with the metro club, which encouraged Dwyer to pursue expansion.
The process moved hastily, and the Duluth team is now in its second season.
A game, and so much more
The local Warriors have 42 players, ages 22-67. They come from across the Northland, and their talent levels run the gamut, from former prep and college standouts to novices who never had skated before. Not without wheels, anyway.
Men and women alike are welcome, so long as they have a service-connected disability.
For the Warriors, whose schedule consists of games in a Hermantown no-check league plus weekend tournaments around the state, winning isn't the modus operandi. But it's not frowned upon.
Caple, the squad's president and a big, broad-shouldered skater, called the Warriors "one cog in the wheel." They're part of a larger support system. Each organization fills a specific void.
"We're just trying to get veterans out of their homes, get 'em on the ice interacting with each other, bonding and doing the best things we can for one another and also in the community," said Caple, who served on a rapid-deployment satellite communications team in the Army for eight years. He's a systems operator at Minnesota Power and resides in Esko with his wife, Leah, and their son, 10-year-old Braeden.
Most of the Warriors are able-bodied. Their afflictions aren't easily identified, but rather lurk below the surface. Traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder. Invisible demons, but no less debilitating.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 11-20 percent of those who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom "have PTSD in a given year."
Three members of the Warriors currently are going through the VA's self-admitting PTSD suicide-prevention program, Caple said. The team pitches in to help the affected families—buying meals and presents, for example.
Against that backdrop, it's easy to understand why Miller calls the Warriors "hockey with a purpose."
"If you're just sitting around, it can lead to bad things—depression, addiction," the center and captain said. "But hockey fills that void."
That sentiment formed the impetus for Caple's venture. He knew there were others in the area, still healing, searching for fellowship among like-minded folks, ex-soldiers spending too much time alone with their thoughts.
Guys like John Paulick.
At 67, Paulick is the Warrior blessed with the most years. He's a throwback, too—a chain-smoking retiree whose Lakeside home still features a rotary phone. Upon completing his six-year stint in the Navy on Feb. 6, 1976, Paulick attended the Duluth Area Vocational Technical Institute. He worked for the city of Duluth for 19 years, as well as other odd jobs.
The 1969 Duluth East graduate retired in 2014. A golfer and avid UMD hockey fan, he learned of the Warriors when he encountered Dwyer at the Twin Ports VA Clinic. Paulick played hockey as a youngster growing up in the Woodland neighborhood. But it had been a while. He gave it a try and instantly found comfort in the company of others with military backgrounds.
Paulick doesn't mince words explaining his affinity for the team.
"I think it's the greatest thing that's ever happened to me in my life," he says.
Paulick eagerly awaits games and Wednesday night practices at Superior Ice Arena. When he joined the Warriors, he called Caple regularly to stay abreast of the schedule.
"He'd just light up every single time he'd be on the ice with us," Caple says. "It's almost given purpose to his life, in a sense."
The Warriors' season roughly mirrors that of a high school team, though they practice year-round. Assist to the Superior Amateur Hockey Association, which donates ice time, a boon for a nonprofit that doesn't charge players.
Visiting the 'Wall'
Paulick has benefited from the Warriors beyond the continuation of a hockey career that had been on hiatus since he was a teenager.
He was part of a Naval Construction Battalion—a Seabee—tasked with expanding an airstrip in the British Indian Ocean Territory. During summer there, temperatures climbed as high as 110 degrees, said Paulick, who was in the Navy from 1970-76, overlapping the end of the Vietnam War.
Forty years later, Paulick never had visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. That changed last Memorial Day Weekend when he and other Warriors, from both Duluth and the Twin Cities, played in a tournament in the nation's capital. Dwyer, a fellow Seabee, also was with the group.
The entire trip was paid for by the Warriors, with funding primarily from the Hendrickson Foundation, an outfit started by Larry Hendrickson, father of former NHLer Darby Hendrickson. It promotes hockey for the disabled, including those injured in the military.
Paulick spent about six hours at the memorial, reflecting. He says it was "very quiet, a lot of respect."
"It was the thrill of a lifetime," he said. "You can't believe how impressive it was. It made me feel proud to be an American.
"I thought it was the kindest thing anyone's ever done for me."
The hockey wasn't too shabby, either. The Warriors went 2-2.
"I got four assists in that tournament," Paulick said proudly.
Athletic locker rooms rarely are dignified dwellings, especially when occupied by males. One day's no-holds-barred wrestling gives way to the next day's farting contest. Hey, boys will be boys. And flatulence is funny. Little effort is made to be politically correct.
With the Warriors, there's a different vibe. Miller likened it to therapy.
"We look at each other in the locker room and know we can say anything," he said. "We can be open with each other and nobody is going to pass judgment."
There is a level of understanding, a mutual respect born of similar experiences. It's hard to find that elsewhere.
Miller, for example, can describe with raw emotion why he enlisted as a high school junior, via the Navy's delayed-entry program. He had walked into a teachers lounge at Talahi Elementary School in St. Cloud, where faculty members were glued to the TV in stunned silence as the events of 9/11 played out in real time. Not long after, Miller and a few friends were sitting in a local recruiter's office. Years later, he was trying to stave off Al Qaeda in the War on Terror.
Likewise, Dwyer can recall being connected with the first Marines that went into Iraq in 2003. The Seabees were there to construct advance-base facilities. They built bridges and fought their way to Baghdad. That makes sense when you consider the Seabees' no-frills motto: "We build. We fight."
Few people can fully appreciate the magnitude of such endeavors, the danger and uncertainty.
Fellow Warriors do. They've lived it themselves.
It's what makes this band of hockey-playing brothers so unique.
"Servicemen have the tightest bonds of all," the 51-year-old Dwyer said. "When I transitioned back to being a civilian, I didn't know what was coming."
Nor did he realize how much he would miss his "veteran family." Joining the Warriors prompted a reunion.
"It saved my sanity," Dwyer said.