Healing Veterans Through Hockey

June 10, 2016 / By: Elizabeth Child
Andy Qualy, BSW '16 and incoming AEMP scholar, founder of Minnesota Warriors hockey program for disabled veterans
Andy Qualy BSW '16 and incoming AEMP Scholar

COVER STORY, Spring 2016 Perspectives newsletter

Student's hockey program for veternas has gained national attention
By: Elizabeth Child

U.S. Army veteran Andy Qualy BSW ’16 calls on his passion for ice hockey to help disabled veterans make the transition back to civilian life.  His brainchild, the Minnesota Warriors Hockey Program, began with four players in 2010 and now fields three teams with 70 veteran players. It has attracted the attention of NBC Sports and nearly every major local media outlet as a result of its success in bringing veterans of all eras together for support, exercise and most importantly, according to Qualy – fun.

Often it is the most traumatic events that motivate the most impactful outcomes.

Qualy was returning from a routine mission in Iraq in 2006 when his life irreversibly changed course. His vehicle was blown apart by a roadside bomb, shattering his nose and leg, and causing multiple head injuries. Healing from his physical injuries wasn’t the hardest part of his recovery, despite eight months of treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. No, the hardest part was being sent home instead of back to Iraq.

Qualy is close to his family, including younger brothers Dave and Kevin with whom he’d played hockey throughout childhood and who also joined the military. Even so, he found being away from the members of his infantry unit excruciating. “I wanted in the worst way to be there for them,” he says.

Since then, Qualy, who will be a scholar in the St. Kate’s-St. Thomas MSW Area of Emphasis Military Practice (AEMP) program next fall, has been helping veterans and their families through the transition to civilian life in the same way he helped himself – by lacing up a pair of hockey skates.

WARRIORS BEGINNINGS

Qualy couldn’t have known his love of hockey would be the impetus for something so transformative when he introduced his roommate, Drew Hill, to hockey at Walter Reed. The two went to Washington Capitals games to kill time during their long recoveries, and he soon found he could skate on his repaired leg – maybe not at his former level – but well.

Back in Minnesota, Qualy would hit the ice to forget the troubles he experienced reentering civilian life. If playing hockey could help him, he reasoned, it could help others, too.

With the support of USA Hockey’s Disabled Hockey Program, the Minnesota Warriors found a home in Vadnais Heights. It is no coincidence that the Minnesota Warriors program was modeled after one started in Washington, D.C. two years earlier – by Hill, Qualy’s roommate.

“I call it group therapy on steroids,” Qualy quips.

Among those who found long-awaited help from the Minnesota Warriors was Vietnam veteran Chris Price. “Within the first two minutes in the locker room, you knew your back was covered in a eartbeat,” said Price, quoted in the Star Tribune. “I hadn’t felt that since Vietnam.”

The players who belong to this unit are recovering from injuries that include amputations, head wounds, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression. Over the past six years the Warriors have included men and women, and veterans from different eras and different wars. Some of them had no hockey experience. Others, like Andy and his two brothers – also Warriors – had varsity chops.

This April, two Warriors teams took home winning trophies at the national USA Disabled Hockey Festival in Michigan. For Qualy, the victory was less about making goals and more about the power of sticking with a goal.

SCHOLARLY AMBITION

Next fall in the AEMP program, Qualy anticipates developing tools to support veterans in new ways. “Everything I’ve accomplished up until now is fueled by passion,” he says. “With the MSW I’m looking to take the next step and understand from a clinical standpoint how combat issues affect veterans, psychologically, spiritually and mentally.”

While he has already accomplished much, Qualy has a lot of unanswered questions about veteran issues – especially those affecting post-911 vets who often have been redeployed multiple times and suffer mental health challenges in record numbers.

AEMP Coordinator and Associate Professor Kari Fletcher points out that numerous research grant opportunities exist for students as a result of enormous national interest in veteran concerns. She says the program will give him ample opportunity to investigate his own theories. For instance, Qualy believes PTSD is far from the worst problem faced by post-911 vets. The worst problem, he believes, is the lack of purpose veterans feel in civilian society. He says that although challenging, PTSD can be treated, but regaining a sense of worth, a sense that you’re needed by someone else – that’s far more difficult.

“Our military is the greatest force to be reckoned with in the world. They have the process of tearing down a civilian and building him up into a soldier down to a science,” Qualy explains. But he argues that they don’t yet know how to reverse the process – nor have they seen that as their job up until recently. “We have a war machine built to execute on all cylinders. You are trained to do your job and not worry about anything else. But when you come home, it’s not like the movies,” he says. “You don’t just live happily ever after.”

In the army Qualy learned that his life didn’t matter – it’s the life of the guy next to you that matters, he says, and you watch out for your brothers first. So when you leave your unit and are sent home, you don’t know what to live for anymore. That, he contends, is why mental health issues are epidemic among veterans.

If it weren’t for the Minnesota Warriors and his education, Qualy doesn’t know where he’d be today. Having stepped back from a leadership role in the Warriors over the last couple years, he says the hockey program will still be part of his future – though he plans to take an advisory or administrative role. His next big goal? “I want to be a leader in the veterans community,” Qualy says. But he doesn’t speculate on what that will look like. He wants to keep the doors open, get a good education and then “see where I’m needed.” 

READ MORE from our Spring 2016 Perspectives newsletter with a feature focus on military social work»