From Helmand to Gold: A Marine’s Paralympic Journey

April 11, 2023Jayme Pastoric
2022 Paralympics

Medically retired Marine corporal Joseph “Joey” Woodke and his sled hockey teammates receive their gold medals at the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing, China. Photo courtesy of Joey Woodke.

The “Star-Spangled Banner” echoed through the stadium as the American flag lifted to the rafters. At the center of the ice, Joseph “Joey” Woodke and his 16 teammates, hands over their hearts, mouthed the familiar lyrics. Teary-eyed, Woodke glanced down, past the gold medal around his neck, at the stumps of his amputated legs resting on his hockey sled. It was slowly sinking in. He had finally achieved his dream.

As with many of his teammates, Woodke’s journey to the 2022 Paralympic Games in Beijing was long and arduous. It started a decade before, on the other side of the world, with an explosion that took his legs and abruptly ended his career as a Marine combat engineer. Then there was a year of painful rehab at a military hospital in Maryland, followed by many more years of adjusting to prosthetics and an uncomfortable new normal as a civilian.

Woodke embraced the suck as any Marine would, but his ambitions reached far beyond mere survival. In time, he would learn to embrace a new vision of his future, a vision that accounted for his injuries and was still worth fighting for. He would channel his pain to push himself further than he had ever gone, and transform once again into something powerful — a warrior, a champion, an American hero. 

Related: How the Marine Who Stunned the World in the 1964 Olympics Healed a Broken Soul

2022 Paralympics

Joey Woodke wears his gold medal in men’s sled hockey from the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing, China. Photo courtesy of Joey Woodke.

Before and After

Afghanistan’s Helmand province is a land of contrasts. Along the banks of the Helmand River, amid a landscape of lush green fields, rugged mountains, and desert plateaus, ancient customs and architecture converge with the machinations of modern warfare. It was there, in that land of opposites, that Woodke’s life was suddenly split in two — into a before and after.

March 29, 2011 was the date. As the sun broke over the horizon, members of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit started out on patrol. From their outpost, they proceeded down a hillside, unknowingly, toward a village occupied by Taliban fighters. Step after step, Woodke descended until one footfall was answered by a deafening explosion. He had stepped on a camouflaged improvised explosive device. In less than an instant, his legs were gone.

With tourniquets cinched on his thighs, Woodke was loaded onto a medevac helicopter. He drifted out of consciousness as the bird ascended over the valley and away from the firefight that had erupted in the chaotic moments after he stepped on the bomb. When his eyes finally opened again, he was in a hospital bed surrounded by doctors, nurses, and a Cobra pilot there to inform him that her helicopter crew had exacted vengeance on the insurgents who had ambushed his unit. 

“We got them,” Woodke recalls the pilot saying. “We got them all.”

Related: The Buffalo Soldier Olympian Whom Patton Called the ‘Best Goddamned Athlete I’ve Ever Seen’

Joey Woodke

Marine Cpl. Joey Woodke on deployment. Photo courtesy of Joey Woodke.

A New Normal

Woodke spent more than a year recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. During that time, he underwent several surgeries, followed by months of grueling rehabilitation. Eventually, with a set of prosthetic legs, he regained his ability to walk. He was medically retired from the Corps in the summer of 2012, at which point he returned home to his family’s farm in Port Hope, Michigan.

Despite his injuries, Woodke was determined to earn his keep. Every morning, he would wake up early — often before the sun — and spend the day on a modified tractor, delivering food to livestock and harvesting the fields. Even with the special equipment, the work was not particularly handicap-friendly. Nor did it bring him any closer to peace with the fact that he was disabled, and only 22. Yet he slogged his way through the daily grind because, in his mind, that was the prudent and responsible thing to do. 

Then one trip to Nashville, Tennessee, changed everything. He was in the capital city visiting a friend from Walter Reed, another disabled vet, who had taken up the sport of sled hockey, the adaptive version of ice hockey. Players sit only inches above the ice on sleek, metal sleds affixed with blades. The friend took Woodke to a community ice rink and showed him how the game was played. He was hooked immediately.  

Back in Michigan, Woodke modified a hand-me-down sled. He got into a routine of skating at the local sports complex between shifts on the farm. Then, after two years of training on his own, he went all in. He moved to Nashville and spent the next four years playing competitive hockey every day, sometimes twice a day. He eventually secured a spot on the roster of the Nashville Sled Preds, a top-tier travel team.

Woodke was playing for the Sled Preds when was invited to attend the U.S. Men’s National Team’s development camp — the first rung on the Paralympic ladder. On the final day of the week-long camp, the attendees were given an opportunity to try out for a spot on the national team. It was a long shot, but Woodke decided to go for it.

Joey Woodke

Joey Woodke suits up for the Warrior For Life team during the annual Capt. Brian Bourgeois Memorial Game.Photo courtesy of Joey Woodke.

Some time later, Woodke received a call. He had impressed the selectors. He made the team. And soon he was back in the familiar cycle of jet-setting around the globe, except now for international matches instead of military tours. 

Related: How a Navy SEAL Veteran’s Trauma Drives His Survival Instinct

A Different Animal

The 2022 Paralympic Winter Games just happened to coincide with a global pandemic. Coaches and players had to be fully vaccinated or undergo a 21-day quarantine upon arrival in Beijing. COVID-19 testing happened daily. Masks were required. Only a handful of spectators could attend each event.

On top of all that, the U.S. sled hockey team arrived in China as Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. At first, Russians and Belarusians were allowed to compete as neutral athletes under the Paralympic flag. Then other teams threatened to withdraw from the tournament in protest, so the athletes were banned. The world was on edge, and the tension was palpable on the ice in Beijing.

In the first period of Team USA’s first game — a preliminary matchup against Canada — Woodke sustained a brutal hit that sent him crashing into the boards. The impact separated his shoulder. “It was excruciating,” he later recalled. “I thought, I couldn’t play like this.” But, of course, Woodke had suffered worse. He shook it off, kept playing, and the team won 5-0.

An easy win against South Korea followed, with the Americans tallying nine goals and surrendering only one. The victory earned Team USA a bye, which sent them directly into the semifinal round. The game would be its first-ever matchup against China. Building on their momentum, the Americans thrashed the home team in an 11–0 win. Now, with a hat trick of wins under their belt, only the final match stood between them and the gold.

2022 Paralympics

The US Men’s Sled Hockey Team hold up their gold medals at the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing, China. Photo courtesy of Joey Woodke.

It would be a rematch: USA versus Canada. Even though Woodke and his teammates had already trounced the Canadians, the final would be a different animal. Ice hockey is to Canadians as baseball or football is to Americans. They would not go down without a fight. And it didn’t help that Woodke was still reeling from the hit he sustained during their first encounter.

Even with his injury, Woodke proved instrumental on the defensive line, keeping the Canadians far from the goal. Two minutes into the second period, with the Americans up 2–0, he intercepted a sloppy pass. With a quick bump, he delivered the puck to Brody Roybal, who slipped past three Canadians to score his second goal of the match.

By the final buzzer, the score was 5-0. A shutout. 

As the last note of the “Star-Spangled Banner” faded, Woodke and his teammates let out whoops and cheers. The 17 Americans skated a victory lap and crowded together for a photo, with index fingers held high — no. 1. Woodke was ecstatic. Once again he would be returning home from the other side of the world, a changed man, still without his legs but triumphant.

Related: Legendary Fighter Pilot Robin Olds Was an Ace in Two Wars

2022 Paralympics

Joey Woodke in his hometown of Port Hope, Michigan. Photo courtesy of Joey Woodke.

Paying It Forward

Even before that win in Beijing, Woodke’s experience on the ice had already driven him to another kind of service. Since 2020, he has played in the annual Cmdr. Brian Bourgeois Memorial Game at Virginia Beach. In addition to the game, hockey players, like Woodke, partner with the Warrior For Life Fund, a nonprofit that uses hockey to help active-duty service members, veterans, and their families cope with post-combat life.

So far, their efforts seem to have made an impact. Several WFLF athletes were invited to participate in the developmental sled camp that launched Woodke’s national team career.

“I think just getting out of your comfort zone and trying a sport — able-bodied or with a disability — and finding that community bond that most of us care about. It’s like you’re in the military,” Woodke said. “You kind of have that pack mentality. To find that again is so meaningful.”

Read Next: Black Rifle Founder Evan Hafer’s 5 Essential Books for Succeeding in Business

Jayme Pastoric
Jayme Pastoric

Jayme Pastoric is a contributing writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He holds a bachelor’s degree in photography and a master’s degree in strategic communications. He is eagerly awaiting his DD-214 as he wraps up a career with the Navy as a mass communication specialist. Pastoric has deployed numerous times with Naval Special Operations Forces, including a combat tour in Iraq with SEAL Team Two. He is one of a handful of Department of Defense underwater photographers and is a third-generation military artist. His work has appeared in national and international publications including Time Magazine and National Geographic. He bunkers down in Virginia Beach and prefers coffee with a whisper of heavy cream.

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