Sgt. Jen Lee (right), injured in March 2009, hopes to make his Paralympic Winter Games debut in March in Sochi, Russia.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Staff Sergeant Jen Lee has had an unwavering desire to defend his country.
Lee was motivated by 9/11 to enlist in the United States Army nine years ago. Today, the soldier, who is a member of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, is as committed to serving his country as ever.
Always an athlete, Lee’s life took a different trajectory when he was involved in a motorcycle accident in March 2009 that resulted in the amputation of his left leg above the knee. He underwent rehabilitation at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, and began exploring adaptive sports as a form of physical therapy through the Center for the Intrepid.An active duty sergeant, Lee is set on competing for the United States at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in sled hockey.
It wasn’t until Lee discovered Operation Comfort, though, that he would realize his potential as an elite-level sled hockey player.
Operation Comfort is a nonprofit based out of Fort Sam Houston that aims to provide support to injured service members recovering at the BAMC. From family financial services and automotive training to sled hockey and swimming, the program aims to give back to veterans while helping them achieve new stability and success after injury.
Because Lee had competed in inline skating in high school, he was immediately drawn to sled hockey as an option for therapy. He never would have predicted at the start of his rehabilitation that he would rise up the competitive ranks so quickly.
“When you’re going through therapy, the last thing on your mind is to think that you’ll be a professional disabled athlete,” Lee said. “So I was doing all these sports because it helped me go through rehab, but I did not know I could be on a national team, at the national level, traveling around the world and playing against other countries.”
In 2009, Lee joined the San Antonio Rampage, a club sled hockey team made up solely of military veterans, as a goaltender. After just one year of competition, Lee was named to the 2010-11 U.S. National Sled Hockey Team.
Since then, Lee has helped the national team to a gold medal at the 2012 International Paralympic Committee Ice Sledge World Championship and a silver medal at the 2013 world championships. He Saw action in three games during the 2011 World Sledge Hockey Challenge, stopping all three shots he faced in the span, and helped Team USA win the 2012 event.
Sochi is his ultimate goal. In July, he was named to the preliminary roster for the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team, which will be finalized in December.
Jen was nominated to his first national team just after the U.S. Paralympic Team won gold at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games. This season, Jen said his No. 1 goal is to help Team USA defend that gold in Sochi.
Because of his experience in the military, Lee said he has developed skills in discipline and mental toughness that he has been able to carry over into his athletic career.
“The discipline definitely comes in handy,” Lee said. “Every time I want to say that I don’t like this sport, or it’s too hard, or ‘Who can really skate like this?’, I have plenty of reasons to give up, but the military teaches us, and me especially, not to quit.”
On the Rampage, Lee played alongside Rico Roman and Josh Sweeney, two fellow national team members who were wounded in Afghanistan. Competing with fellow veterans, he said, is unique because all team members share similar experiences both in their military experiences and in their injuries.
“It’s just something we share together,” Lee said. “Even though we can be injured in different ways, we all have something in common. We practice all the time together. In the end, during game time, we’re just putting everything out there to help each other win a game and have a good time. “
At the Games, which will be broadcast extensively for the first time on NBC and NBC Sports Network as well as streamed live at TeamUSA.org, Lee said he would like to “wow” people who are unfamiliar with Paralympic sports.
“My biggest motivation is just to surprise people that have never even heard about the sport or people who are totally blind to Paralympics in general,” Lee said. “It’s important for us to show them that this is not some easy sport or no-contact sport. That you can do anything, disabled or not. So even though I’m not an able-bodied person anymore, that’s just the biggest motivation for me.”
Lee is the only active-duty service member on the current national team. Through the World Class Athlete Program, the U.S. Army provides support for Lee to continue his service while competing at the elite international level in his sport. He remains on active duty through January 2015. At that point, he will decide whether or not to re-enlist or begin the transition into civilian life.
“I definitely have a big decision to make,” Lee said. “But I’ve never regretted it. I’ve loved every single minute of it.”