HDM: Wounded soldier Qualy: ‘Hockey is my rehab’
Once the repairs were complete, Andrew Qualy’s brothers could give him hell.
They told him his new nose looked good. "They did you a favor," they chortled, referring to the surgeons that sewed up Qualy’s once-caved-in face.
The Shakopee native laughs about it now: "I was like, ‘You know what? You’re right.’"
Early in the morning of Aug. 2, 2006, Qualy and several of his U.S. Army unit mates sat in four camouflage Humvees as they rolled along a dirt road south of Baghdad, Iraq, returning from what Qualy describes as a "very routine" mission. Traveling about 40 mph, the convoy was hit.
Qualy’s vehicle, containing him and two other soldiers (both of whom also survived), rolled several times before being reduced to smithereens. Qualy had been thrown out the door and lay unconscious beside the road, blood seeping out of the back of his head and shrapnel sticking out of different parts of his body.
His nose was shattered. So was his right leg from the knee down. He suffered multiple open head wounds.
After talking with other survivors of the blast and looking at pictures of the wreckage — there wasn’t much left to see — Qualy still isn’t sure how he survived that day in the desert.
"Everybody thought I was dead," he said.
Today, Qualy hardly resembles a grizzled war veteran. His long, blond hair now reaches his shoulders, and his face is marked with a stubbly beard that would never pass an Army inspection.
He looks like a hockey player.
Thousands of Americans possess stories similar to those of Qualy, who served three years in the Army as an infantryman and spent the rest of his active duty with the Minnesota National Guard.
Only a select few, though, replace their assault rifles with composite sticks and bullets with black rubber pucks.
Qualy is one of them.
The oldest of three boys, Qualy usually had a hockey stick in his hands while growing up in Shakopee. Their father Steve erected a makeshift rink in the front yard, and, like countless other Minnesotans, the Qualy boys learned to skate not long after they learned to walk.
Qualy ended up becoming pretty skilled, too, playing bantam earlier than most of his peers and being asked to join Shakopee High School’s program while he was still in eighth grade. Four prep letters and a handful of interested juniors and college coaches came along, but Qualy decided to go a different route.
"Ultimately, it just wasn’t in the cards," Qualy said. "When you get past high school . . . you are being evaluated based on your ability level, nothing more than can you put butts in seats, are people gonna want to pay to watch you play?’
"At that level, hockey, for me, it just wasn’t fun anymore."
When terrorists attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, Qualy was a senior in high school. A pro-war, retaliation-based sentiment swept the country, he remembers.
"I think a lot of people were willing for us to go in there and kick somebody’s ass," Qualy said.
He wasn’t out for blood. But he wasn’t sure where else to go.
So off to Fort Benning, Ga., for basic training Qualy went in 2003. In March 2006, he was deployed to Iraq.
He and the members of his battalion grew extraordinarily close. About 95 percent of the time, they carried out basic transportation missions and kept an eye on American desert outposts.
As sectarian violence heated up in Baghdad during April 2006, Qualy and his fellow soldiers began catching more fire starting in May. By July, he was overcome with a sense of impending doom, enough to email his dad and detail his wishes should he be injured or killed.
"It was just the strangest damn thing you ever saw," Qualy said. "I knew something was gonna happen."
He ended up being correct.
Qualy has no recollection of the medivac helicopter flight that transported him to safety that August morning. "One minute, we’re rolling down the road; the next thing I know, I’m waking up in a field hospital."
His nose was reconstructed, and a long metal rod was inserted into his leg. Qualy was sent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., near Washington D.C. for more operations and eight months of rehabilitation.
Those were dark days.
"I didn’t want to be there," Qualy said. "All I wanted to do was be with my unit."
He also had to regain much of his sight, hearing and cognitive abilities and certain fragments of his memory. For weeks, he vomited often, and the scar tissue in his leg caused him severe pain.
Even today, it flares up on him every once in a while.
After two weeks in the hospital, Qualy was sent to an outpatient center on the Walter Reed campus. He continued his rehab there, consulting daily with a case manager and badgering her about when he could get back to Iraq.
He shared a living quarters with a soldier named Drew Hill, who had been wounded in action in Afghanistan.
And Drew Hill wasn’t into hockey. Not right away.
Qualy eventually convinced his roommate to attend a Washington Capitals game with him in October 2006. Hill became instantly hooked on the sport, and the two attended several more games.
The following February, Qualy found out he was in too bad of shape to be sent back to the battlefield. So he returned to Shakopee and joined the Guard in order to fulfill his active-duty obligations.
Those were even darker days, at first.
"Going (back to the states) sucked," Qualy said. "I didn’t want to be home. Going back to Walter Reed sucked, because I didn’t want to be there. Everything just sucked. And going back (to Shakopee) sucked even more. I didn’t care. I didn’t want to be here."
Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder set in after a while. Qualy began drinking heavily, began consuming alcohol frequently, and in large quantities.
"I remember thinking ‘What the (expletive) am I gonna do now?’" Qualy said.
Hill, meanwhile, had the notion to turn his new favorite game into a coping mechanism. So he rounded up a group of disabled veterans like himself, and they started playing hockey.
Every so often, Qualy would return to the nation’s capital and take in what his roommate had started. One day in 2009, he saw a veteran with two prosthetic legs gliding up and down the ice.
His heart was moved.
"He was out there skating, standing up on these prosthetics," Qualy said. "I had never seen that before. When I saw that, I was just like ‘there’s no reason why we’re not doing this in Minnesota.’"
So while Qualy carried out his National Guard duties and worked closely with the Army’s Yellow Ribbon reintegration program — which consisted of traveling around the state and country and sharing his story with other men and women injured in action — he also began skating again, first at the urging of his youngest brother Kevin.
Then, like Hill, he started recruiting fellow veterans to join him.
The effort started off small, with four former soldiers getting together at Vadnais Heights Sports Center sliding the puck around for a few hours every so often. The group Hill began, though, had become a full-fledged hockey program dubbed the USA Warriors. So Qualy adopted the name, and soon the Minnesota Warriors experienced similar growth.
First, a board of directors was formed. Then the group began receiving some local media coverage. Soon, more and more veterans emerged from the woodwork. USA Hockey, Minnesota Disabled Hockey and the Hendrickson Foundation for Disabled Athletes jumped on board. Military hockey charity Defending the Blue Line began providing equipment.
Four years after its 2010 inception, the organization features about 45 wounded, injured or otherwise disabled military veterans from all over Minnesota divided into two teams. Warriors Green is for the more intermediately skilled players and competes in Minnesota’s Adult Hockey Association, while Warriors White — for which Qualy serves as team captain — travels the region and country playing exhibitions and tournaments in support of veterans’ awareness and raising money to help expand the program. Comprised of men and women from the Vietnam, Gulf War and modern-day war eras, the group practices in Vadnais Heights several times a week and also offers sled hockey for players with severe lower-extremity injuries.
Every Warriors player went through some kind of physical and/or mental trauma as during his or her military service. Hockey provides an outlet for moving past those obstacles, Qualy said.
"The benefit, it obviously goes way past anything that we’re doing on the rink," Qualy said. "Their level of motivation goes up to not only be in the program but more active in general, maybe eat a little bit healthier. So then the long-term effect of that is some of the issues off the ice that they deal with are actually improving because of those things, so it kind of turns into this snowball effect."
For Qualy, it gave him a purpose again.
Saturday, the organization will take center stage in Elk River as part of Hockey Day Minnesota 2014. Between the day’s first two high school games at The Handke Pit, the Warriors’ white team will take on local adult team the Elk River Rink Rats a short scrimmage.
Hockey is my rehab
Qualy hopes that such exposure combined with continued backing from donors can drive the club’s growth. His wish is to start a similar program in Duluth within the next two or three years.
With as much as hockey helped him overcome his war-derived demons, Qualy can’t help but try and spread the movement to as many Minnesotan veterans as possible.
"Hockey is my rehab," he said.
That includes the Qualy family’s middle son Dave, who also joined the Army, was wounded in Iraq and plays goalie for the Warriors’ white team. Kevin followed in his two older brothers’ footsteps and was one of the last American fighters deployed to Iraq; he, too, joins the team for a skate now and then.
Today, Andrew Qualy is in his junior year of undergraduate studies at the University of St. Thomas. He majors in social work, interns at Catholic Charities and plans to make a career out of mentoring former military men and women that went through trials similar to his.
When he skates for the Warriors, he wears a face shield. One busted-up nose — and body, and psyche — was enough.
Follow Phil Ervin on Twitter