A veteran's sled hockey salvation
Rain spattered the pavement early on a cold Saturday morning in January as Ralph DeQuebec rolled into the parking lot at IceWorks Skating Complex in Aston, Pa. The assistant captain of the USA Warriors made his way to a cramped locker room to join the other players who were arriving. Inside, DeQuebec popped his right leg off and then his left—a constant reminder of his fateful third deployment in Afghanistan.
DeQuebec’s team was about to take the ice for a Northeast Sled Hockey League game. As puck drop neared, the players went over their game plan for their opponent, a physical, puck-moving team from Philadelphia. While he listened, the disabled Marine reached into a pocket of his bag, pulled out a container so he and finished his pregame routine by caking his sticks in white wax.
A lot has happened during the last three-plus years since the June 2012 accident that changed DeQuebec’s life. In some ways, things are still evolving and won’t stop anytime soon. However, one thing is clear to him.
“I can’t see myself as a victim,” he says. “A victim of war.”
DeQuebec joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2002 at age 19. He started as an Aviation Ordinance Technician tasked with munitions inventory at the Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif. Then he decided that he wanted to go into battle. In 2005, he spent seven months at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida learning explosive ordinance disposal. During the next five years, he logged two deployments in the Middle East. During his time in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 5' 10" Marine with olive skin and dark hair grew increasingly familiar with the realities of war. He learned the distinct, yet indescribable smell of burned flesh. He attended his first flag ceremony for a comrade killed in action, and he was nearly killed himself in his first firefight with the Taliban.
His third deployment—seven months in Afghanistan—came in 2012. During a mission his first month back, an enemy combatant disguised as a translator with the coalition forces pulled an M16 on DeQuebec’s team. DeQuebec survived. His teammate, JP, didn’t.
“They say training will save your life,” says DeQuebec, the team’s leader. “In that event, that was something that you just don’t train for. You don’t train for someone that’s supposed to be within your element to turn a weapon on you and shoot you.”
Gunnery sergeant DeQuebec felt like he’d let everyone down. Although he was responsible for the disposal of improvised explosive devices and other ordinance, his top priority was to bring everyone back to camp safely. After delivering JP’s eulogy, he tried to get his own life back to normal as he coped with the loss. Several weeks later, DeQuebec was sent on a new mission. It would be his last.
Attached to the First Marine Special Operations Battalion on a secret four-night operation, DeQuebec and his team were tasked with establishing a village stability point that would allow Marines to come in and set up. It was June 21. Night three. Shurakay, Helmand Province. Enemy fire was coming in from a building about 150-200 meters away from the US-Afghan compound that DeQuebec and his team were occupying. It was up to him and about 20 other American and Afghan fighters to approach the enemy compound and blow up an odd-looking nearby bridge in hopes of thwarting possible supply shipments to the Taliban.
When DeQuebec and his men were 100 meters of so away from their makeshift base, news came over the radio. A roadside bomb had been spotted. DeQuebec and a teammate broke off and started making their way toward the area where the device was said to be. Getting closer, DeQuebec told his teammate to take up as safe a position as possible. Then things got dicey.
DeQuebec couldn’t locate the exact spot that had been cited by the call about the bomb, and he realized he was nearing a choke point that spanned roughly 10 feet between the river, the bridge and the enemy compound. He dropped to his hands and knees and started his search, knowing a choke point was an ideal location for a bomb. A little while later, he was about to scrap his original mission—the bridge appeared to be made of metal, and taking it out would require additional explosives—but before he could get on the radio to make the call to abort, DeQuebec saw through his night vision goggles that an Afghan coalition member was walking toward him. He knew the man had to stop walking immediately because the Marines hadn’t officially cleared the area, so he got up on one knee and stuck out his hand.
“Before I could finish the word ‘stop,’ he stepped on an IED,” DeQuebec says.
The blast sent DeQuebec flying sideways through dust and smoke at a speed Marines call “Mach oh, my God” and landed in a crater after smacking into one of the compound’s walls. Hunched over but conscious, he started screaming that he had been hit. His night vision goggles were gone, and he couldn’t make out much in front of him except for billows of smoke in the moonlight. A teammate carefully maneuvered toward him, knowing that there could be additional bombs in the area. Meanwhile, DeQuebec continued to lose more and more blood. One of his legs was gone, the other was still attached, but his foot was missing. Those weren't his only worries. The barrel of his M4 rifle had pierced his left arm and mangled it.
The teammate picked DeQuebec up out of the crater and dragged him 50 meters or so to a safe spot in an open field where a Navy corpsman performed treatment. The then-30-year-old Marine was weakening. Breathing was difficult and he was starting to fade in and out of consciousness. A medivac copter arrived approximately 20 minutes after the explosion to rush him away. Once he knew he had been loaded onto the aircraft, DeQuebec thought, “OK, I made it.” Then he passed out.
Family filled DeQuebec’s room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., a few weeks after the incident. This is his first memory since the night of the explosion.
Hooked up to machines, heavily bandaged and sedated in his hospital bed, he realized he was alive. DeQuebec looked down, saw that both of his legs were missing above the knee, and wondered what else had happened to his body. He learned that he had suffered a mild traumatic brain injury, partial amputation of his left pinky finger—a part of his right thumb would later be removed—and lacerations on both arms. One of his testicles had ruptured and the other had atrophied. He couldn’t eat solid food and his weight dropped from 190 to 150. His wounds were compounded by pneumonia he contracted while undergoing at least 30 surgeries at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany before he returned to the United States.
Daily therapy began with one-hour physical sessions focused on stretching, strength work and desensitizing DeQuebec’s legs. Occupational therapy consisted of making things out of Legos or putting puzzles together so he could work on his manual dexterity. In late August, he received his prosthetic legs. In October, he flew out to Germany for a surprise reunion with his fellow Marines who had just completed the seven-month deployment that DeQuebec had been on with them when he was wounded. His walking was limited during the trip, but that was fine by him. He had achieved one of his first goals in recovery: Seeing his brothers-in-arms.
But DeQuebec’s good emotional condition started to fade around November after he returned to Walter Reed. His number of visitors and phone calls dwindled and he was recovering more slowly than the other patients.
“That played a lot of tricks in my mind,” he explains. “It’s almost debilitating to do all the right things and see everyone else excel at a faster rate than you. Not only is your recovery stagnant, but now it almost seems like you’re falling behind.”
Each week was a mixed bag of highs and lows. Some days DeQuebec would wake up and look forward to what was going to happen. He’d be able to look at himself in the mirror and like what he saw staring back at him. Bad days were far more frequent. He’d awaken without a sense of purpose, feeling useless and unmotivated to go to therapy. Instead, he’d want to spend time eating whatever he wanted even when he knew that certain foods could harm his recovery.
“Those were the crushing days,” he says. “Those days were devastating.”
DeQuebec kept what he was going through largely to himself. When people texted and asked how he was doing, his reply was a cookie-cutter "doing well.” As a Marine, he had been taught to overcome adversity. He was a sergeant. A leader. He didn’t want people feeling sorry for him and nosing around in his life.
What DeQuebec didn’t know was that the testosterone treatment intended to boost his decreased supply due to the injuries to his testicles wasn’t working. His level hadn’t improved and his remaining testicle began to shut down. That contributed to his depression and lack of energy.
At first, Katie DeQuebec thought her soon-to-be husband’s depression was normal given everything that he was going through. But then she realized around Thanksgiving that something was wrong.
“He just wasn’t himself at all,” Katie, 29, says. “He would just be sitting there and start crying, but not saying anything about why he was crying.”
Katie had met Ralph at explosive ordinance disposal school in 2005, when she was learning to be a technician for the Air Force. This was the first time she had ever seen DeQuebec cry.
Doctors hemmed and hawed about what was going on. Nobody knew that the testosterone treatment had failed. Not one to ask for help, DeQuebec downplayed the need to see a specialist. That changed around Christmas after Katie couldn’t get a good answer from him about why he broke down one day in the shower. He finally started treatment but it took doctors months to find the right one.
The first time DeQuebec heard about sled hockey was when he was in the gym one day in April 2013. Another wounded soldier came over and floated the idea of playing it. Not knowing what the sport was, DeQuebec shrugged off the idea. It wouldn’t be long until the topic came up again. This time, it happened on the way home from therapy. An Army soldier made the pitch to DeQuebec, who said he’d think it over, but that answer wasn’t good enough for the solider, who went to Katie and then DeQuebec’s younger sister who was staying at Walter Reed in the couple’s spare bedroom. The soldier talked to all three when they were together.
“Now it’s to the point where my wife and my sister are like, ‘Jesus Christ, Ralph, you need to go out there and play sled hockey already so we can just get this guy off our back,” DeQuebec says.
So, he gave in.
Sled hockey, a now internationally played sport, was created more than 50 years ago in Sweden. Each team ices five skaters and a goalie. All are strapped onto sleds that have two blades underneath. The forwards and defensemen use two small sticks to pass and shoot. Each stick has a pick in the butt end so the skaters can maneuver more easily on the ice. Goalies are equipped with a stick that has a pick, a glove with picks on its backside, and a blocker. Skaters’ helmets are fully caged. Goalies wear masks.
At Walter Reed, sled hockey is conducted by USA Warriors, a volunteer non-profit organization for combat-wounded and disabled veterans that began independently in 2008. Originally, the hockey program was for players who could stand and skate but the organization eventually added sled hockey and in 2012 it started working with Walter Reed to offer sled clinics as a form of recreational therapy.
DeQuebec’s first attempt was at a local rink in Rockville, Md., in June 2013, roughly a year after the explosion in Afghanistan. As he took the ice, he wondered what he was getting himself into. He spent the session mostly trying unsuccessfully to keep his borrowed sled upright in the neutral zone while he worked on skating and passing the puck. Other players zoomed around in the offensive zone, delivering checks and firing shots toward the net. DeQuebec eventually joined them.
“Man, I’m like fresh meat to these guys,” he thought. “They’re going to kill me.”
USA Warriors frequently hosts first-timers like DeQuebec. Getting them to come back can be difficult. “For every two or three players we get to come out and give it a try, maybe one will come back,” says Lori Mezzanotte, the organization’s president and the sled team’s manager. “We’ve lost some just because they go back to their rooms and sit back and play video games and can’t get themselves out of their funk.”
DeQuebec showed up the next week and was offered private lessons in addition to team practices. Slowly, he started picking up the basics and played in his first exhibition game that August before the team turned competitive by joining its first league. By then, DeQuebec had a rough understanding of what it meant to be offside and how shift changes were conducted, but the concept of positioning himself correctly on the ice was still foreign.
On his first shift, the puck squirted toward the boards after a teammate broke up a two-on-one breakaway. That sent one of the opposing team’s big bodies bolting through the neutral zone, determined to corral the loose puck. DeQuebec had other ideas and raced in from the other side of the ice, arriving a moment or two behind his opponent.
“I literally throw my whole body into this guy,” DeQuebec says.
It was a full-on train wreck. The opposing player slammed into the boards. DeQuebec fell over. Both players’ sticks went flying. The puck traveled deeper into the corner.
DeQuebec waited for the whistle. It never came.
“Holy s---,” the former high school football player says. “I just tried to kill this guy, and there was no penalty. And since then, I’ve been hooked.”
It wasn’t long until DeQuebec started immersing himself in the sport. He bought NHL 14 for his Xbox so he could learn more about hockey’s rules and strategies. He also started watching games and spending time outside of practice working on becoming a better player. Soon after, the USA Warriors started their first season in the Northeast Sled Hockey League and DeQuebec—who had become a decent skater—traded in his spot on one of the team’s forward lines for one on defense.
Another of DeQuebec’s 70-plus surgeries was performed in March 2014. It was expected to keep him off the ice for several months because his body wouldn’t be able to handle contact, especially violent collisions. But he quickly continued to play, learning to alter his style in order to protect himself. Originally his game revolved around his physicality. He was a wrecking ball that delivered punishing hits. The non-contact order from his doctors gave him an important opportunity to learn how to take better advantage of time and space on the ice, to be patient with and without the puck, and play smarter defensively.
In June, DeQuebec took his newly acquired skills to the Sled Hockey Jamboree staged by USA Hockey. It was a big event. Jeff Sauer, the head coach for the national team, was there. Members of Sauer’s gold medal-winning Paralympic team had been invited, too. After DeQuebec showed up, though, his feelings of being overmatched, which he’d felt the very first time he took the ice, came back flooding back. “Guys were passing the puck better, they were handling the puck better, they were shooting the puck better,” he says. Still, Sauer liked what he saw.
After the Jamboree wrapped up, Team USA’s head coach took DeQuebec aside and asked him if he was going to attend tryouts for the national and national development teams. DeQuebec said he couldn’t. Another surgery was around the corner, and the tryouts would be too soon for him. As it turned out, his absence didn’t matter. Sauer awarded him a spot on the national development team anyway.
Eyeing a shot at making the top squad and potentially playing in the Paralympics, the players on the development team usually gather once a month for practices. Games are played against their Canadian counterparts. DeQuebec used the experience to continue honing his skills and by the time of Team USA’s tryouts in 2015, he was fully healthy and ready, earning a spot on the development squad for a second year.
When he first arrived at Walter Reed, DeQuebec had constantly thought about all the things he felt he’d no longer be able to do. Even with the new testosterone treatments, his negative thoughts persisted until he started playing sled hockey.
“I finally found something that I wanted to wake up for every day,” he says, adding that the sport has more or less taken over his life. “I really wanted to wake up and play.”
Wife Katie also notices the positive impact sled hockey has had on DeQuebec’s life.
“It brought out who he was before his injury,” she says, adding that it maybe even enhanced DeQuebec’s perfectionism as well as his leadership abilities. Just as important, it brought back the Marine with whom she first fell in love.
Playing on the USA Warriors has also provided DeQuebec with the sense of brotherhood and friendship he had lacked since he was wounded. While he has always been around people at Walter Reed, he says he basically kept to himself during his daily trips for therapy at its training center.
Then there is what the sport has done for him physically. Seeing other double amputees he has played with walk with prosthetics gave DeQuebec extra motivation. So he sat down with Bo Reichenbach—a teammate on the USA Warriors and National Development Team. At a development camp in early 2015, he asked Reichenbach what it would take to be able to walk like him. Reichenbach replied that DeQuebec would have to stop relying on a wheelchair and cane as much. About four weeks later, DeQuebec had, for the most part, done just that and by mid-2015 he was walking as well as his friend does.
DeQuebec is in his two-bedroom apartment in Rockville, Maryland on a frigid Monday in mid-January, just before Winter Storm Jonas and all its snow comes barreling through to bury the mid-Atlantic states. The blinds are drawn and he’s lying on his and Katie’s unmade bed wearing a long-sleeved shirt and pair of black shorts. A pillow props up what is left of his legs. Almost four years have come and gone since the explosion in Afghanistan and the Purple Heart recipient is still in therapy. In fact, his job as an active-duty Marine is now basically his recovery. Therapy sessions are twice a week and he uses them to work on specific walking situations such as going up or down steps without relying on a handrail.
DeQuebec plans to retire from the Marine Corps later this year. After that, he and Katie might move to Colorado where he could play for one of the country’s top sled teams. For nearly two years, it has been his goal to make Team USA’s national team and play in the 2018 Winter Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Another two years of tryouts stand in his way, and the right-handed defenseman needs to work on his ability to incorporate his left hand into his game.
If he doesn’t make the 2018 Paralympic Team, DeQuebec could try to crack the roster for the 2022 Winter Games, but that would put him in his late 30s, and by then who knows if he’ll have what it takes. Another option is becoming a coach and working with young athletes after he graduates from college.
“I definitely want to be able to influence someone and say that I helped someone along the way achieve their dream of being a paralympian,” he says.
Regardless of what lies ahead, one thing is clear. War nearly took Ralph DeQuebec's life, but it will never define it, and hockey has been his path to salvation.