Story by Gary Sheftick on 03/13/2019WASHINGTON -- The buzz of the crowd had Sgt. 1st Class Michael Vaccaro on edge. Then a loud bang made him look around nervously.
He knew the noise came from a Zamboni machine, yet its exhaust made him think of the aftermath of a roadside bomb.
All his stress melted away immediately, however, as soon as he stepped out onto the ice.
"When I'm on the ice, no matter what happened before, everything dissipates," he said. "It's like a fresh start."
Vaccaro is one of the co-founders of the Capital Beltway Warriors, a hockey team of veterans with disabilities founded two years ago.
Veterans on the team open up to each other and talk about how they cope with injuries, stress and other issues, said retired Maj. David Dixon, another co-founder of the team.
"It's like a giant support group," he said, "or therapy on ice, as we like to call it."
Many of the players have some level of post-traumatic stress disorder from service in Iraq, Afghanistan or other hot spots, Dixon said. He personally survived four deployments to Iraq, where he was shot in the back and shaken up by three different improvised explosive devices.
Dixon and a number of the other veterans also coach youth hockey teams and a few of them help with a local blind hockey team, the Washington Wheelers.
"Giving back to the community often gives them a sense of purpose," Dixon said of the veterans, adding that it helps minimize depression and PTSD.
Dixon puts in more than 20 volunteer hours a week managing the Capital Beltway Warriors as president and executive director of the team. He helps solicit sponsors, run meetings, apply for grants, recruit players and schedule games.
His time on the ice as a player-coach is extra.
"In a sick kind of way, I enjoy all the hard work," he said. "You go from commanding troops to working in a cubicle," he said about retiring from the Army and beginning a civilian job.
He explained that managing the hockey team gives him a renewed sense of purpose.
"You find that niche in life that gives you purpose and whether it has a monetary award or not, that's what you're supposed to do," he said.
He helps make the games special for the warriors with lights, music, an announcer and filling the stands with veterans. Local chapters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion in northern Virginia help bring veterans from retirement homes to the games, Dixon said.
Vaccaro also spends several hours per week helping the Capital Beltway Warriors and other veteran hockey teams. He spends a week every year helping run the USA Hockey camp in Buffalo, New York, where they select the national sled hockey team.
He serves as a referee for blind hockey and sled hockey. He helps stand up other Warrior division hockey teams. In November, he spent a few days in Philadelphia helping the Flyers start a warrior team.
"This is my therapy," he said of the volunteer work. "This is what keeps me going."
SPREADING THE WORD
Just over two years ago, Vaccaro met up with Dixon who was interested in starting a Warrior hockey team in Virginia.
They met in the Pentagon food court in December 2016. "We sat down and started sketching stuff out on napkins," Dixon said.
They laid out plans for a team that would play in rinks across Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland.
They found players by word of mouth. They showed up at "stick and shoot" sessions and asked if anyone was a military veteran with a disability rating.
Now they have 76 veterans with disabilities on the team and they play other warrior clubs. A game in Ashburn Dec. 22 pitted the USA Warriors from Maryland against the Capital Beltway Warriors. The teams also play in annual tournaments.
There are now 16 warrior teams across the United States. The minimum requirement to play on one of the teams is a 10 percent VA disability. Some of the players are 100 percent disabled and play with prosthetics.
Some of the veterans, like Vaccaro, have been playing hockey since they were 3 years old. Dixon, however, did not pick up the sport until he was 40.
In 2006 and 2007, Vaccaro was an advisor to an Iraqi Army unit in Ramadi. He and two Marines were on patrol when they were pinned down by machine-gun fire. Then an insurgent fired a rocket-propelled grenade.
"It hit the wall in front of me and knocked me back. Next thing I remember, I heard this really loud ringing in my ears and there was a Marine dragging me back into the courtyard. They were calling for air support.
"We finished the patrol," Vaccaro said, explaining aerial medical evacuation was not available. A doctor patched him up, and a couple of days later, he was back out on patrol.
After his tour in Iraq, he came back to Virginia, where he had been a reservist with the 80th Training Division. But he had PTSD issues. He decided to go to Liberia in western Africa as a contractor to help put about 2,000 Liberian soldiers through basic training.
"I thought that would help, but I just ended up coming back with the same issues," he said. "That's another thing: You can't hide from this.
"Everybody handles PTSD in a different way. I tried the group therapy stuff and it just didn't work."
He received treatment and medication from Veterans Affairs, but the issues persisted. When he smelled fresh bread, for instance, it reminded him of the flatbread Iraqi soldiers baked every morning.
"That's a good smell," he said. But then his mind would continue to remember until he imagined the smell of an IED.
"You've got to face your fears. You've got to face your issues," he said. "I was trying to hide from it and hockey has helped me open up and talk about it."
About 10 years ago, he became involved in the first-of-its-kind USA Warrior hockey team stood up by a patient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland.
"When I'm on the ice, things slow down; things are different," Vaccaro said.
Both he and his family noticed the difference in him after playing hockey.
"It really helped me," he said. "The first thing I said to myself when I started realizing that is, 'I've got to get other veterans involved in this.'"
So he became the national representative for USA Hockey in its Warrior division to help stand up teams. He does that in his spare time when he is not working as a civilian employee for the Army Corps of Engineers or on duty as an Army Reserve NCO.
Dixon was coaching little league baseball when he was approached by his son's hockey coach, Bobby Hill.
"He said he really liked the way I worked with the kids and he could use my help on the ice coaching," Dixon recalled.
Dixon told him he did not skate, but Hill said he could take care of that. He got Dixon out on the ice and taught him the basics of hockey.
Dixon went to adult learn-to-play sessions Wednesday evenings at Ashburn Ice House. He participated in adult pick-up games after helping coach his son's youth team.
He eventually took over as head coach of the Ashburn "Honey Badgers" peewee hockey team.
In the meantime, however, he heard of the USA Warriors hockey team and the effects it was having on disabled veterans in Maryland. He thought it would be great to bring the same benefits to veterans in northern Virginia.
The warrior hockey program aims to provide purpose, education and camaraderie that veterans miss after they separate from the service, Dixon said.
The team creates an environment that in some ways simulates being back around a military unit, said Matt Holben, alternate team captain for the Capital Beltway Warriors.
"It feels good, because you're back with the guys, you're back with the unit," he said.
"We've got members with both physical and mental disability," he added. "It's hard for them to share their story, but when you talk to them, it's just that little bit of relief they get when they're in the locker room and on the team."
"We're helping each other," Vaccaro said. "And half of the guys don't even realize we're helping each other, but that's what we're doing."
The help is not limited to the rink either, Dixon said.
There is another part to the program that informs veterans of benefits available to them and helps with issues.
Anything from service dogs to getting help building a house, to loans, and more is available, Dixon said.
"We don't do it all ourselves. We reach out to other veterans service organizations to get the help and education these guys need," he said. "We have a whole network of VSOs that we can tap into."
Vaccaro summed it up: "It's veterans helping veterans."