The Unbreakable Horitius Jen Lee

Horitius Jen Lee and I sat down for a vegan lunch, a healthy meal for the Paralympic hockey sled champion. Jen, born Jen Yung Lee in Taiwan in 1986, moved to the San Francisco Bay area at the age of 8 along with his parents and two older sisters. His uncle decided the three children should have more American-sounding names, so he dubbed them Angela, Janice and Horitius (pronounced Ho-RAY-shee-us). He went by “Horitius” throughout his school years.

 

After graduating from high school, Jen enlisted in the Army. He was first stationed in Hawaii working as an aircraft mechanic on Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters, then he deployed to Iraq. As a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, Jen became eligible for U.S. citizenship and was sworn in following his deployment. 


In 2008, he transferred to Savannah, Georgia, with plans for a three-year tour of duty until one beautiful Saturday morning, when he and some friends decided to go for a motorcycle ride.

SAAF: Tell me about that day.


Jen: It was March 21, 2009. Me and four of my co-workers decided to go for a good, long ride. That morning, we took off, went down to Florida and parked around the Jacksonville area. It took about two hours – a very long, but nice, beautiful scenic ride.


We stopped for lunch. When we were getting ready to ride back, we all agreed we shouldn’t take the back roads because it was longer. Interstate 95 was quicker.

Not even 15 minutes into the ride, we got separated due to traffic. I was riding on my own just trying to wait for a good way to get out of the traffic jam. It was still a very heavy flow. We were still going at a good rate of speed.

I was in the right lane. Unfortunately, the lady in my left tried to change into my lane. There was an exit coming up maybe a mile; I think she was trying to exit. She didn’t see me and clipped me. I lost control of my motorcycle.

SAAF: Do you remember any of that?

Jen: Oh, for sure. I was conscious the whole time. I got ejected. Luckily, where the accident happened, there was a field of grass. Because of that, I didn’t roll around in cement. It could have been way worse. I was wearing all my motorcycle gear.

When everything stopped, I thought I was going to die. I checked myself. I knew I was still alive. Everything was good to go but as I stood up to check my motorcycle, I just collapsed. I realized my left leg was mangled: open fracture, bone sticking out, foot pointing the other way. I realized it was worse than I thought.

SAAF: This was still in Florida?

Jen: Yes, I did my surgery in Florida at Shands Hospital.

SAAF: How long were you in the hospital?

Jen: Maybe a month. When I saw my leg mangled like that, I knew I was going to lose my leg. They did everything they could to salvage it. But a week in, my foot started to smell, not like wearing shoes, but like dying. My sisters heard what happened and they flew in. Initially I was a BK. They couldn’t close my leg cleanly because of infection and dirt and debris still. I was getting tired of hospitals and going in and out of surgeries. That’s when my very experienced surgeon gave me a 1-on-1 talk: you’re young and tall. My knee was perfectly fine, but being an AK, you’ll recover faster, more skin to play with, and it will [prevent] risk of infection.  My sisters and Dad were very worried. In the end, it was up to me, but I feel like it was overall a family decision to amputate above the knee. So I did. I’m not going to lie. Part of that sucked. Your limb is cut even higher. It was a very scary and dark time.

SAAF:  Had you met other amputees at that time?

 

Jen: Nope. I was at a civilian hospital. They gave me the rundown of the kind of leg I might be expecting. But at the same time, in 2009, the only thing that was out there for the AK was the C-leg. But only certain people can get a C-leg. I didn’t know if the military would cover it or out of pocket, you’re looking at a $100k leg.

SAAF: What happened with your military service?

Jen: The first thing that popped into my head was, can I still serve? Because I wasn’t combat related, they had to do an internal investigation if your injury is considered line of duty or not. If it’s not, then it’s a discharge. But if it’s line of duty, then they will approve everything and cover your treatment 100%.

Fortunately for me, it was considered line of duty because they consider you’re a soldier 24/7. We were all responsible, wearing all our gear, not racing. This was just an accident. I was very fortunate.

But the base at Savannah was not a hospital base. With me missing a leg, they didn’t know what to do with me. So, for now, they gave me a resistance band and said work on your core. I had to drive back to Florida for treatment, and the first leg I got was a stick, metal leg, just for weight bearing. No knee joint or anything. There were a lot of frustrating things.

They had a little support group. I remember going there the first time. There were 3 people besides me. It was in a basement, and it was very sad, dark, no positive energy.

SAAF: How did you get out of the dark place?

 

Jen: I think the support system I have. I was dating my girlfriend (whom I later married). She was there with me every step of the way. I remember calling her after the accident. “Hey, I don’t think I’m going to be back in time for dinner.” Very casual. I got in an accident, I’m sitting here, my leg is mangled.

She’s the one who prepped everyone, called everyone, my parents, my sisters. I didn’t want my family to know.

SAAF: Why is that?

Jen: I just felt that I didn’t want them to worry. This is my struggle. I didn’t want them to be like, we have to make our way to you. So I thought “don’t tell.” But she said “I have to tell your family.”

SAAF: Had you been to a military support group?

Jen: Yes, the support group we had on base had people that were open but not about personal stuff. The guys were still tough, gung ho, macho, so even though we were down, we weren’t going to let this crap bring us down. So when I went to the civilian side support group and saw people crying and talking about their feelings, I wasn’t mentally prepared for it in a way. There was a big group the first time I was there. Holy cow. This is a totally different ball game, but I’m glad I was able to get involved with that. Some of our military veterans will never do that.

SAAF: After the accident, did you separate from the Army?

Jen: No, I was still in and I was going to fight to stay in. If you decide to do that, the Army is going to test you with hard physical tests; can you still run, can you do the physical endurance tests? I had to pass that and prove that.

If you can’t run, you can swim about a mile. You still had to qualify with your weapon. You have to wear full battle gear, 34-35 pounds, walking a long distance. I was passing everything. Then finally the criteria to stay in is, can you still do your job? The military said, technically you can’t. ‘He can’t climb helicopters; it’s going to be hard for him. His prosthetics are going to affect him. It’s electronic compartments that can electrocute him; being a mechanic, he has to ground himself. No metal.’ They were finding every excuse to [get rid of me].

But I was very lucky at that time because of the war on terrorism, there were a lot of wounded warriors who wanted to stay in. And a lot of them did go back to their units but they were put at a desk job.  

SAAF: When did you travel to San Antonio?

Jen: I got orders to go to SA in July 2009. Rehab, learn how to walk and run at the Center for the Intrepid. It took me a good 2 years. The rehab had a lot of therapeutic programs and part of those programs are lots of sports. Basketball, football, sitting volleyball. Rehabbing in San Antonio is why I have such a big profound love and respect for this city. This city gave me a different opportunity and hope.

SAAF: What sports did you do?

Jen: I played all of them, and I loved them. But I didn’t think of anything else but playing for fun. Sled hockey was one of the sports offered. They said, we have enough participants that we can join a league and play against other disabled kids. We were these gung ho military guys. We thought, ‘other disabled kids?’ We’re going to kick their asses; this is going to be too easy.

The first time, we traveled to St. Louis, we got our asses kicked. Remember, these kids are born disabled, or have been playing for more than 4-5 years.That, itself, gave us the motivation to get better. We put in more work, time and effort and established a core group of 5-6 of us who played this sport competitively. We lived and breathed sled hockey, and it gave me new drive. At one of the travel tournaments, we were noticed by a former Paralympic player, a scout looking for players to play on the national team.

They invited me to go try out for the national team in the summer of 2011. It was in Buffalo, NY. I made the team. I had enough skills and talent, I was young. I said ‘Holy Cow, this is crazy.’ I had only been playing for 6-7 months.

Circle back to the military; they said I couldn’t do my job. I didn’t know what to do. The sports program at the military base had a Paralympic program in Colorado Springs. I met [Paralympian] John Register and [Paralympic coach] Wendy Gumbert. They told me about an Army program called the Army World-class Athlete program that specifically recruits soldiers who have the high potential to make the Olympic and Paralympic teams. At that time, in Paralympics, they had an archer and a track and field guy, and that was it. The program was going on its second year but they didn’t make it until Winter 2014. That was [my chance]. So, I contacted them in Colorado Springs, and they got me approved. I could stay in the Army, reenlist and stay on active duty.

SAAF: So your active duty was working with this sports organization?

Jen: Yes, my MOS [military occupational specialty code] changed to that. My job was to focus on the sport. In 2014, at Sochi at the Paralympic games, we won Gold. It was a positive thing for them, too. The program has gotten bigger. I found my closure, and in 2015, I was medically retired from the Army.

SAAF: What came next?

Jen: At that time, I was finding peace and closure with the military. But my Mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and she passed away. She wasn’t able to attend the Paralympic games. Winning it was great, but I knew there was a big part of me, my Mom, that wasn’t there. With that going on, I wanted to take a year off.

SAAF: What did you do for work during that year?

Jen: I remember my Mom saying “Son, I’m very proud of your accomplishments. It doesn’t matter what you do, but you got to get your education. You have to get your degree.” So when she passed away, I felt like that was my calling. I got accepted at UT Austin.

I took a year off the national team but played recreationally. Because I was able to win a gold medal with my team mates while being active duty, it was an opportunity for me to speak about the experience. So, I went to school and got sent to speak by the USOC [and I did that for one and a half years.]

I got involved with a lot of organizations like Operation Comfort, Crossfit Games where I met Mona Patel (Seal Fit). I got the itch to make the team again.

SAAF: What did you study?

Jen: I studied kinesiology with a minor in education and graduated in 2018. I still had to grow and mature. I still needed to self-heal and be better because for the long time, I battled with anger issues.

SAAF: Anger about the accident?

Jen: That’s what I thought initially. But it was more like childhood. I didn’t grow up with a perfect family or a lot of money. In the 90s in Taiwan, teachers would beat or spank you. Coming to the states as an immigrant with ESL, you’re bound to be made fun of. These things built up like a fire.

SAAF: Did you have someone to talk to to help you realize this?

Jen: No, it was all on my own. I had to go through a lot of different outbursts and repeated broken relationships (my ex-wife). It came down to selfish anger, not able to accept who I was and seek help for it. It was not until the end of 2017 that I had to find a way to get help or eventually it was going to come down to a destructive path where some people go down and never come back.

SAAF: Did you have an epiphany one day?

Jen: I would say I had to go do something traumatic to make me realize this. Really a self-reflective year. I’m a Buddhist, but I didn’t really start learning about Buddhism until 2 years ago. I didn’t think I could sit still for meditation, but for the last 2 years, I’ve been meditating. I goes hand in hand with Buddhism. I’m happy that today I can express these issues. If it were years ago, I would not [have been able to express this]. I didn’t go through this [journey] by myself. There was all kinds of unexplained [help] that got me here talking to you.

SAAF: What fills your day now?

 

Jen: Mostly training and hockey. Me and my teammate, Steve Cash, are trying to start a sled hockey goalie training program. We realize that the pool of goaltenders is very small. There are so many great forwards and defensemen who want to score goals, but goalie wise, not so much. Once a year, they ask me to coach goalies in Buffalo: Sled hockey Development Camp for kids age 12-13.

SAAF: What’s it like to be a professional sled hockey player?

Jen: It’s a professional league: USA Sled Hockey. Our national team meets everywhere with a training camp in Charlotte. But we also travel to promote the sport in local communities and disabled communities. We compete internationally. We’re not [paid] like professional NHL players, but at the same time, where it started back in the 90s compared to now, they had to fundraise, get sponsorships, ask for donations, do car washes – a bunch of amputees offering car washes [laughs].

The guys who started this would love to be where we are today. We are getting recognition. We are seen on a level playing field. I got to go to Korea and Russia and see Putin and kick their butt in front of him. It’s not just USOC but now there is the USOPC, United States Olympic Paralympic Committee.

It’s something I could not have imagined in a million years. I lost my leg, now I’m going to become a Paralympic athlete? Can I even walk? Can I run? Those are things I was worried about. Can I be accepted into society? Can I still be in the military? These questions could have taken me a totally different way, down the rabbit hole. But this sport has brought me so many opportunities and connected me with so many people, genuinely good people and people who need help.

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