Story by Tim Hipps, U.S. Army Installation Management Command
Army Sgt. Jen Lee’s resilient recovery from a motorcycle accident landed him a berth on Team USA‘s sled hockey team for the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Lee, a goalie in the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Paralympic Program, is the first active-duty soldier selected for a U.S. Paralympic winter sports team. He was honored July 29, as “Hero of the Day” by the U.S. Army Installation Management Command.
He also was one of three World Class Athlete Program, or WCAP, athletes featured on posters promoting the Army Strong B.A.N.D.S. campaign. Also featured were Paralympic hopefuls Staff Sgt. Steve Bosson for archery and Spc. Elizabeth Wasil for swimming.
Lee has come a long way since a day in March 2009, when he thought all his athletic aspirations came screeching to a halt on the asphalt of Interstate 95 north in Jacksonville, Fla. He was enjoying a Saturday afternoon “fun ride” with his platoon sergeant and three other squad leaders, headed back to Savannah, Ga., where he was stationed at Fort Stewart’s Hunter Army Airfield.
“I was in the right lane and there was a lady in the middle lane,” Lee recalled. “She just happened to change her lane, but didn’t see me. She tried to correct her vehicle, but it fishtailed and came back and hit me, and that was the end of it. I saw the car coming, but I just froze.”
Little did Lee know that one frozen moment eventually would lead him to the loftiest spot of his athletic life, protecting a net atop a frozen pond with his lightning-quick reflexes, as a goaltender for the Team USA Sled Hockey Team.
“I was definitely conscious, so I knew that I wasn’t dying,” Lee said of his life-altering accident. “But I knew right away, when I was still lying on the grass after the collision, I was going to lose at least below my knee.”
He was medically evacuated to a nearby hospital and eventually transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where he rehabilitated.
“In the beginning, it was very depressing,” said Lee, who described himself prior to the accident as being a “very energized, Hooah! Hooah! Energizer Bunny kind of soldier.”
“I did very well in physical training,” he said. “I ran six-minute miles and stuff like that. I also played a lot of basketball. So, obviously, when I lost my leg, I never pictured myself playing basketball or hockey or even walking again, or running. I definitely went through that stage.”
Lee also had to battle inner demons, because his was not a combat-related injury.
“Because it was an accident and it wasn’t from combat, I wasn’t able to relate it with soldiers,” he explained. “That made it really hard. It was definitely a very sad or kind of dark stage I had to go through, until I was transferred here to San Antonio.”
Nearly five months later, Lee received permanent change of station orders to report to Brooke Army Medical Center on Fort Sam Houston, and his spirit almost simultaneously responded.
“The first day I came here, I got on one of those public transportation that drives you around on base, and I saw three amputees, one of the them happened to be missing both legs, and they had smiles on their faces and were going on with their lives,” Lee recalled. “That’s when I knew that I would be OK.”
His next stop was the Center for the Intrepid, where he completed rehab in late 2010. During that stint, Lee dabbled with several rehabilitative options.
“One of them, obviously, happened to be sled hockey,” he said with a grin. “I had tried wheelchair basketball and different kinds of adaptive sports before sled hockey, but I knew this was going to be different, and I knew this was probably the sport I was going to fall in love with. And I did, again.”
Lee had played inline hockey in the San Francisco Bay Area as a freshman at Oceana High School in Pacifica, Calif., but thought those days were done. He graduated from Westmoor High in Daly City, Calif., where he played basketball, baseball, tennis and ran cross country and track.
“I told my wife, I haven’t even put on a skate or touched a puck since freshman year of high school,” he said. “I was definitely excited and nervous at the same time. As soon as I got on the ice, I was just like ‘wow!’”
He connected with Operation Comfort and began playing with the military veteran-laden San Antonio Rampage Sled Hockey Team in 2009 and by 2010 worked his way onto Team USA.
“I made that 2010 team, and next thing you know I found out that the WCAP has a program for Paralympians, as well,” Lee said, explaining the athletic support he received from the U.S. Army. “I got the letter of recommendation from my coaches, WCAP accepted me, and I’ve been in the program since last year.”
Lee since has played 16 to 25 games each year with the Rampage and another 20 to 25 games with the national squad. All told, he’s been getting ice time in about 35 to 45 games per year, roughly half a National Hockey League season.
Two of Lee’s San Antonio Rampage teammates, Army veteran Rico Roman and Marine Corps vet Josh Sweeney, also were selected for Team USA, which will compete in the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, scheduled for March 7 through March 16, in Sochi, Russia.
A ninth-year soldier, Lee, 27, was born in Tapei, Taiwan. He came to the United States at age 6 and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, which he calls “home of the heartbreak 49ers.” He hopes to make his own mark on Paralympic ice in 2014.
“I think a lot of my friends from back in high school in San Francisco will be saying, ‘Hey, you can be one of the first Paralympic representatives from our school,’” Lee said, who noted that he also has a lot of supporters in San Antonio. “Operation Comfort started me. There are so many people to name who want us to be there. To them, it’s like a big accomplishment as well.”
It’s safe to say Lee is well again, and ready and resilient about taking on the Paralympic sled hockey world.
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