It was 2007. The Soldiers were six months into their deployment to Iraq. The “Golden Dragons” of 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division had just celebrated Christmas away from their loved ones.
The unit had been busy leading offensive missions and dismounted patrols in the region of Sadr al-Yusufiya, and Sgt. Rico Roman sat in the lead Humvee during a convoy mission. Everything seemed routine until an improvised explosive device detonated under the vehicle.
Roman looked down. Something was wrong with his legs.
Seven years later, after a lot of hard work, determination and fighting spirit, Roman has found another way to represent the country he loves. He traded the combat boots, machine gun and camouflage for an adaptive sled, hockey sticks and a uniform of red, white and blue at the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
Roman joined the Army in 2001, three months before 9/11, a decision influenced by two of his uncles who served in the military – one in Vietnam and the other during WWII.
“It’s not like they ever told me war stories or anything like that, I just thought they were great characters in my life,” Roman said. “I thought because they joined, only good things could come of it.”
After graduating from advanced individual training, Roman reported to the 10th Mountain Division (LI) in Fort Drum, N.Y., where he was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment. While serving with the unit, he deployed to Kosovo and served three tours in Iraq.
His last journey to Iraq would be his final overseas deployment with the Army.
“I just didn’t see the IED that particular day; sometimes you see it or you get a feeling, but we didn’t get any of that,” Roman said. “There were three other vehicles. I didn’t have to be in the lead vehicle. I chose to be (there) that day.
“I was a leader, and I wanted to lead from the front,” he continued. “(The explosion) lifted my vehicle up and slammed it on the passenger side – the side I was on. I knew right away that there was something wrong with my legs because they felt very heavy.”
After the explosion, Roman tried to make his way toward the turret, but his gear got caught. His Soldiers helped him exit the vehicle. As the medics began administering care to Roman and the other wounded, all he could think of was when the next bomb would go off.
“When you’re hurt, you’re still thinking,” Roman explained. “It’s a nasty tactic, but when IEDs blow up, your buddies come to help you, and they blow another one up while everyone is dismounted. That was constantly on my mind when I was there. I was terrified for my buddies.
“My guys … put a tourniquet on my leg, and when I looked down, I could see the bones sticking out of my leg,” he continued.
Once Roman and his Soldiers returned to their base, he was immediately taken to the aid station. As the medical professionals began working on him, he grabbed one of the enlisted leaders nearby and instructed them to keep his Soldiers away.
“There was a loft above the aid station,” Roman said. “I remember telling (him) ‘please don’t let any of my guys on that loft see me like this.’ I didn’t want them to see me like that. I didn’t want them to see me hurt or to mess them up.
“There’s a certain mentality being in the infantry, and I didn’t want anybody to worry about me or feel bad for me,” he added. “Even when I was back in (Washington), D.C., all I kept thinking about was whether the guys were OK. I was always worried about my brothers.”
The road to recovery
Roman sustained injuries to both of his legs.
“I didn’t really understand how disabled I was going to be,” he said. “I thought they would patch my leg up and I was going to be running and playing basketball.”
His medical care providers never told him about the limitations he might face, and it took a while for Roman to realize his body would never be the same. He continued his rehabilitation, and later that year, he was able to welcome home his Soldiers when they redeployed to Fort Drum.
“I got to visit them and reunite with a lot of the guys that were with me,” Roman said. “I got to welcome them home, and they got to see that, yes, I got banged up, but I was up and I was getting around.”
After a year of therapy at the Complex Wound and Limb Salvage Center in what was then Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Roman could walk on his own two feet. However, he was still plagued with severe pain in his left leg.
He was faced with a tough decision – to keep his leg or have it amputated.
“I was very unique in the sense that I got to choose whether or not to keep my leg,” Roman said. “It was definitely a very tough decision.
“I said numerous prayers, I spoke with my family – my wife, my children and my mom and brothers. I also went to the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio and spoke with other veterans who were amputees and really got to learn what their ups and downs were and … some of the challenges I would face,” he continued. “I said a prayer and … opted for the amputation.”
Even though he was able to make the decision, Roman said he realized he was at the beginning of another physically and mentally challenging journey.
“It was really tough having to start all over,” he noted. “I had just done a year of rehab (at Walter Reed) just to get back up on my leg that they saved. Then just saying ‘this isn’t working’ was tough.”
After more therapy and a period of uncertainty, Roman got involved with Operation Comfort while he was going through rehabilitation and therapy at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, just outside San Antonio. The organization provides many programs for veterans in the area.
Roman found his niche in adaptive sports, starting with hand cycling.
“I got to do a 150-mile bike ride with them,” he said. “That was great because I could focus on other things. I can’t run six miles like I used to, but I can get on this bike with three wheels and pedal 150 miles. It definitely takes your mind off of things.”
Hand cycling didn’t just benefit his body – it helped rehabilitate his mind and his soul.
“I got to meet a lot of other guys going through a lot of the same things I was going through,” Roman explained. “Whether they were already out of the Army and were coming back to have fun, or they were in the process of deciding whether to stay in or get out. Some, like me, were brand new and didn’t know what we wanted to do. It does more than just sports. It’s almost like counseling if you think about it.”
Roman eventually made the decision to medically retire as a staff sergeant.
In 2009, Roman was asked to join a local sled hockey team, the San Antonio Rampage.
“I had never watched hockey or played it,” he said. “They really had to twist my arm to try the sport. I was playing wheelchair basketball and hand cycling, swimming. Hockey was never a passion of mine and was never a sport I grew up playing or watching. I didn’t want anything to do with it.”
Reluctantly, he agreed to try it out – a decision that would eventually help him bring home Paralympic gold.
“Out of all of the adaptive sports that I’ve tried, it’s definitely the most challenging,” Roman said. “It requires so much core and upper body strength and endurance. It’s very physical. You’re … you’re getting hit and delivering hits. It’s like football on ice.”
After joining the Rampage, Roman went on to compete at the national and international levels. He played with the Dallas Stars sled hockey team and is a three-time member of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team. He then earned a spot on the 2014 U.S. Paralympic team that would represent the country in Russia.
He would be one of four veterans on the sled hockey team, and one of 18 U.S. military veterans competing in the Paralympic Games.
Roman’s wife, son and daughter also made the trek to Russia to cheer on Team USA.
“My son is 10 and my daughter is 12, so they knew exactly what was going on, and they got to see the whole thing,” he explained. “They saw in the preliminary games that we lost to Russia. That was the first game they got to see. I could see (the disappointment) in my son’s face. He was like ‘what just happened?’”
The Paralympic sled hockey team felt a lot of pressure competing in Russia, which is internationally known to be a powerhouse on the ice, Roman explained.
“The women’s and the men’s Olympic (hockey) teams did such a great job out there, and they didn’t win the gold medal,” he said. “I felt like we had a sense of pressure on our backs to bring the gold medal home.
“That’s the reason we’re going – to compete and win first place,” Roman continued. “You don’t go to the Olympics to come in second.”
The team was expecting some animosity from the home crowd in the stands, but Roman said he and his teammates were surprised at the warm welcome they received from the 7,000 fans.
On March 15, the U.S. team got a second chance against Russia and won, 1-0.
“My Family got to see us win,” Roman said. “It was unreal to be able to share that with them.
“The crowd was cheering both ways,” he added. “I’ll never forget that game. The gold medal is just one part of it; it’s the team that I’ll never forget.”
When the two teams shook hands at the end of the game, Roman remembers seeing one of the Russian players from a documentary he had watched the night before.
“(The player) had been in the service, and he was injured (while serving) with the Russian army fighting in Chechnya,” he said. “He came to me and said ‘good job, Soldier.’ So, to me, that meant a great deal of respect, and (it was) an honor that he knew I was a Soldier and I knew he was a Soldier.”
Roman said he was overwhelmed by the energy that filled the stadium when the gold medal was placed around his neck.
“It makes you want to cry. To win and to see your flag raised up above the other flags – above Canada and Russia – and sing the national anthem with my family there to see it all. It was great.”
Pay it forward
Looking back on his decision to try sled hockey five years ago, Roman said he never would have imagined it would have taken him so far.
In addition to being a member of the U.S. Paralympic sled hockey team, Roman has earned multiple gold and silver medals at other national and international competitions, according to the U.S. Olympic Committee.
“I’m so happy that I was invited and that I at least gave it a try, because none of this would have happened if I wouldn’t have just tried it out,” he said. “Now, I do the same thing – I go by the Center for the Intrepid, and I tell the guys that once they’re better, to come out and try sled hockey.”
Roman admits that the wounded warriors he speaks to have the same apprehension toward the game that he did.
“They tell me the same thing I said, ‘No, that’s OK’ or “No thank you’ or ‘I don’t know anything about hockey,’” he said, laughing. “I’m like, ‘I’m still learning and I got a gold medal! Just come out and try it out.’”
Although Roman is living a full life, has a loving family and can proudly wear a circle of gold around his neck, he said he never expected the hard road it would take to get him there. Even after multiple deployments and being critically wounded in combat, Roman said he doesn’t regret his decision to join the Army.
“I enjoyed serving my country,” he said. “I would never take back any of the stuff that happened – even getting hurt. It’s part of life. You could get hurt back at home. You never know.
“I chose to join the Army, I chose to join the infantry, and I chose to serve my country,” Roman continued. “Those are all choices that I made. I would never regret serving with the brothers that I have served with.”