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Disabled Vet Starring For Rampage Sled Hockey Team
(D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images)
Chris Leverkuhn never imagined racing across the ice, hockey stick in hand. He never imagined passing a puck or knocking it into a net. He didn’t play hockey in high school. He played trumpet. And after he became an Army reservist and went to Iraq, he got blown into the air from a roadside bomb. The resulting wounds: second- and third-degree burns to his hands and face, a shattered right leg that doctors amputated above the knee.
Seven years after that explosion, Leverkuhn has become what he never would have believed -- a skilled passer, a star on ice. Leverkuhn plays forward for the Rampage sled hockey team, a squad of disabled veterans who compete on sleds instead of skates. He leads the Rampage in assists. The team recently captured the Midwest League Championship.
“It’s a good way for letting out any aggression you have,” Leverkuhn says. “It is full contact. It gives you something to pursue, gets you up and moving around off of a couch so you are not trying to sit back and coast through life.”
The Rampage sled hockey team does not coast. It bangs and sweats and racks up expenses. Equipment isn’t cheap. Ice time isn’t free. Traveling costs add up. The guys on the ice aren’t paid professionals. So you can imagine the joy when the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League (AHL) presented the sled hockey team with a check on Sunday for $36,079. “The support we’ve received from them,” Leverkuhn says, recalling previous financial gifts amounting to more than $100,000 since 2006, “has been incredible.”
The personal stories on this team are incredible, tales of heroism mixed with horror. Consider what happened to Leverkuhn: In January 2004, he and fellow reservist Luke First were delivering fuel to a fuel farm in Fallujah, Iraq. Their vehicle drove over a bomb. “It blew up underneath our truck,” Leverkuhn says. “Shortly after it blew, a rocket propelled grenade came and hit the side of the fuel tanker and jackknifed the truck, throwing me out from the force.”
Leverkuhn landed almost 30 feet from the truck, which became an exploding fireball. “I call it the God toss,” he says.
If not for the ejection, he’d likely be dead. The other reservist in the vehicle was not thrown. “He suffered third-degree burns to 97 percent of his body,” Leverkuhn says. “I believe he tried to exit the vehicle and ended up jumping through the fuel. He didn’t make it.”
The explosion mangled Leverkuhn’s right leg, shredding muscle, destroying bone. His co-driver, First, clung to life. They were flown to Germany, then to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. “I didn’t know what happened to him until we got back to the states,” Leverkuhn says. “He was put on life support. When I woke up, his parents were in the room. They told me what happened.”
First and Leverkuhn were from the Lafayette, Ind. area. They met in the reserves and served 10 months together in Iraq before they got hit. “I was 20 at the time,” Leverkuhn says. “He was 20.”
It was a triple blow: the loss of a fellow soldier, devastating injuries to his body, searing pain from the burns. Then came a wrenching decision. Doctors could perform multiple surgeries on his disfigured leg or they could amputate. Leverkuhn consulted with soldiers who’d agonized over the same choices. “Having them take it seemed like the better option, with as much bone and muscle as was missing,” he says. “They would have had to take a rib from me (to keep the leg). It seemed like they were going to cripple the rest of me to give me a semi, less crippled leg. I just told them to take it so I could move around and function in everyday life.”
Enter Operation Comfort, a local non-profit that helps wounded veterans recover through sports. Leverkuhn began riding on hand cycles and gained strength. A summer retreat took him to Idaho, and that’s when, reluctantly, he agreed to get on a hockey sled with fellow amputees. “Once we got on, we didn’t want to get off the ice,” he says. “We were having a blast.”
A couple of years later, Leverkuhn joined his first sled hockey team. He established himself as a fine forward, took a job with Operation Comfort, and fell in love with a beautiful woman from Canada. How did they meet?
“Online gaming,” he says. ”We were playing World of Warcraft. I was in San Antonio, she was in Vancouver. We talked for about a year and started going out. Then we got married.”
Young Army reservist gets blown out of a truck. Loses a leg. Rehabs in San Antonio. Discovers sled hockey. Falls in love online. Devotes himself to wounded veterans through Operation Comfort. If the guy ever wanted to write a book...
The next chapter unfolds on ice. Leverkuhn has tried out three times for the U.S. National Team. Three times he has been denied. “The season just ended and I need to relax and rest my muscles,” he says. “But I’ll probably try out again.”