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Hockey soothes wounds of troubled Minn. vets

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- Jeremiah Lord first noticed the pair of bare legs sticking out from behind a trash bin in an alley in Bosnia.

As the 19-year-old Minnesota National Guardsman walked toward them, he saw three men standing over a naked woman. They appeared to be preparing to rape her.

Lord stopped them, brutally.

Eight years later, the actions he took that day still haunt him. The experience, stacked on top of a painful childhood and alcohol abuse led him to a motel in East St. Paul in late August. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and burdened by a lifetime of anguish, he holed up for days and thought about killing himself.

"I had no faith left in me," Lord said.

That's when a group of stateside soldiers swooped in.

The Minnesota Warriors -- a Vadnais Heights hockey team of disabled veterans -- have been fighting for him ever since. Lord joined the team, and now less than three months later, the 27-year-old credits the Warriors with helping to save his life.

"I didn't think anyone in the world cared about me. Now I have 20 brothers who would do anything for me," Lord said.

His brothers include men as young as 20 and as old as the mid-60s. They come from across the state.

There is Tom Johnson, a 62-year-old diagnosed with prostate cancer resulting from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. He says his teammates "inspire him and make him feel alive."

And there's Jeremy Smith, a 30-year-old Iraq veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury and skates on an artificial ankle. Moments after hobbling off the ice because of an injury at a recent practice, he was itching to get back out there.

Team captain Andy Qualy, another Iraq vet, suffered a fractured skull when his military vehicle was hit. His nose and lower leg were shattered, too. He plays with a metal rod in his leg.

One year ago, when the Minnesota Warriors started, there were only four of them.

"At first, I questioned if there would be enough veterans here interested in playing hockey," Qualy said. "The answer has been a resounding yes."

The 30-player team is only the second of its kind in the country. The first -- the USA Warriors Ice Hockey Program -- was formed in 2008 out of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., said team founder and director Drew Hill.

"It's the best group therapy in the world, because everyone else around you knows what you've been through, and they are just as injured as you are," Hill said.

"But if you want to score a goal, you have to figure out how to break out of that war shell and work together."

Qualy, with the help of Hill and a few others, started the Minnesota team last November. It's based out of the Vadnais Heights Sports Center.

Players practice twice a week and play games about once a month, team president Heidi Pierson said.

Structure is important for the players. Some struggle with alcoholism. About 85 percent are diagnosed with PTSD and major depressive disorder, Pierson said.

The team serves a function similar to the VFW or American Legion, but with ice and hockey sticks. It gets players exercising, forces them out of isolation and recreates a sense of camaraderie and belonging that many had been missing since leaving the military, Qualy said.

"They have so much more energy and confidence now," Qualy said. "They're having fun."

It's also about helping each other.

"We're not a mental health service, but we've all been there, so we know how to connect our guys with services," Qualy said. "We have to look out for each other. That's what it boils down to."

Lord needed that help.

He lived with his mother in St. Paul until he was 10. He watched her abused by men she was in relationships with. He was sexually abused by one and emotionally abused by his mother, he said. Eventually, he moved in with his father in Pine City.

That's when he found hockey.

At first, Lord scooted around the ice, balancing himself with a chair. By his junior and senior years of high school, he was playing first line on the varsity team.

"That's where everything went away for me," he said of the sport. "I was not worried about nothing on the ice. It made me feel like I had a purpose."

While his home life was an environment filled with heavy drinking and abuse, the hockey rink was a refuge.

He was a senior when he joined the military. He walked up to a recruiter visiting his school to grab a pencil. Shortly after, he found himself enlisting with the Minnesota National Guard.

"I'd never even thought about it before, and all the sudden I was signing up," Lord said.

After basic training, the private first class was assigned to the NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia after the country's civil war. His unit arrived in July 2003. Its primary duty was removing weapons from people's homes.

Sometimes, people resisted, and the troops had to get aggressive.

"You had to zip-tie their hands behind their back and throw them to the ground," he said.

But one encounter seared into his memory. It came in that alley in Bijeljina, Bosnia, about six months after he arrived in the country. He was assigned to patrol the space in between his unit's vehicle and a municipal building.

He was alone when he saw the civilian men raping the woman.

"I completely lost it," he said.

He pulled the men off the naked woman and beat them with his fists and the butt of his rifle until they stopped moving. Then, hearing his name called over his radio, he helped the woman up and ran back to his unit, he said.

He didn't tell anyone about the encounter for years.

"I was scared of what would happen," Lord said. "I believe I had to protect that woman, but who was I to decide whether those men lived or died. ... Maybe I didn't have to go that far. ...That's haunted me for years."

The haunting came in nightmares and vivid hallucinations. He had trouble sleeping. Sometimes, while talking to someone, he imagined figures rushing toward him.

"It was horrible," Lord said. "I couldn't make it go away."

The troubles followed him when he returned to Pine City in March 2004.

After his honorable discharge in 2010, he started drinking heavily -- and trying to escape. He moved to Mississippi, Florida and Illinois, and hopped all over Minnesota. He picked up construction jobs along the way.

"I had a really tough time figuring out where I fit in," Lord said. "My whole life I basically lived with the mentality that the world would be better off without me; leaving reaffirmed that. If nobody complained when I left, I didn't matter."

Over the past eight years, he has had four DUI's, rolled his car, flatlined in a hospital after binge drinking, been in and out of treatment and landed in jail for two months.

There were some good moments in between.

He had a son, Daimien Thomas Lord, on Oct 30, 2006. His "little man" is the most important thing in his life, he said. He enrolled in St. Paul Community College and got his own apartment on St. Paul's east side.

But then he started hanging out with the wrong people, Lord said. He lost his apartment, dropped out of school and ran out of money.

That's when he holed up in a Super 8 Motel in St. Paul with a gun.

"I felt like I was out of options," he said.

On Sept. 2, he had the gun loaded in his hand when he said he heard a Facebook message come through on his computer. A few days earlier, his aunt, Denise Hanson, had introduced him to a member of the Warriors staff. That Facebook message was from the woman, telling Lord it had been great to meet him.

Lord confided in her, and she encouraged him to reach out to his aunt again. He did.

Hours later, Hanson arranged for the Warriors' marketing manager to meet him at the motel and bring him to her place, where he is now living. Later that day, two players went with him to the Minneapolis VA Medical Center to connect with psychiatric services.

"I keep telling people that that is going to be the moment I revert back to for the rest of my life," Lord said. "That was my new beginning."

Lord has since completed a PTSD program through the VA's Psychiatry Partial Hospitalization department, where he was diagnosed with PTSD and depression, according to his treatment coordinator, Kim Pavlik.

There he opened up about his childhood and what he did in Bosnia.

"He was crying for treatment," Pavlik said.

Since Sept. 2, he has yet to miss a Warriors practice or a game. Even when he is not playing hockey, he is in touch with at least one team member almost daily, he said. They give him rides, run errands together or just hang out.

"To be playing again is unreal. ... I feel like I am an important part of something," Lord said. "These guys accept me, no questions asked. ... I've never had that before.

His Warriors family gushes about him.

"He has just exploded as a human being," Smith said. "It's an honor to play with him."

"He was completely broken when he got here. ... Now, I don't know anybody who shines like Jeremiah," Pierson said.

Qualy said Lord is a leader on the team -- both for his playing ability and for his commitment to his recovery. He hasn't drank in a month and a half, is regularly seeing a psychiatrist and therapist, and plans to return to school in January to become a counselor.

His aunt, Hanson, said she has been warning him about the "day after Christmas," when the high from all his positive changes wears off.

Lord said he has had a couple of those days. His nightmares continue. He's struggling to find the right balance of medication to treat his mental illness, and there are times he still feels like isolating himself or running away.

But this time he says he won't.

"I've got the team, I've got my aunt. ... I have never been more confident in my life," he said. "I finally believe I'm here for a reason, a pretty significant one. I'm not going back."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.