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7Element: An Organization with a Mission for Veterans and First Responders

As he laced up his skates that day, he knew he wasn’t going to be the best on the ice—far from it. Throughout the course of the next hour, he would spend most of his time trying to make contact with the puck and focus on not falling too hard while the game buzzed on around him. Of course, he wasn’t out on the ice because he was a key contributor to the team or because they needed one more guy to make a team. He was out there because he was critical to the mission of 7Element.

You see, when a warrior returns to civilian life after serving in the armed forces, the adjustment can be quite difficult. 7Element seeks to help make that transition easier for veterans (and first responders) by giving them an athletic outlet among other like-minded individuals that have served in the military and share in the many experiences unique to military life.

For the combat veteran above (who has chosen to remain anonymous) the experience was transformative. It marked the first time since he left the military that he’d had the chance to be surrounded by a group of people who all share in the same experiences and helped him find a piece of that old life he could hold on to. Better yet, this skate session wasn’t just a one time deal; it happens every weekend, and that gives him something to look forward to. Knowing that each weekend you’ll have the chance to experience that camaraderie helps ease that transition back into civilian life.

In a nutshell, that’s the mission of 7Element.

I first heard about 7Element on social media. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but I knew it had something to do with veterans. It stayed near the back of my mind for a while until I ran into a colleague at the Ford Ice Center (Antioch), where we were having my son’s birthday party. After a brief conversation, I wanted to know more, so I had my colleague get me in touch with Tony Thomas, the co-founder of 7Element. I arranged to met him prior to a 7Element Sunday Skate session a week ago.

Tony is a contradiction—a giant of a man who appears very intimidating upon first glance, but seemed incredibly shy; that is, until I got him talking about the organization. He took me to one of the locker rooms that had been set up for the members. There were nameplates, professional-grade jerseys, refreshments, and a table full of stick tape, tape, stick wax, and everything else you’d need to get ready for a hockey game. I commented on how impressive the set-up was and then the conversation started.

I wanted to know how things began. Tony explained that there was a group of guys that got together to play some pick up games, but nothing official was really going on. As more and more people wanted to get involved, they eventually decided that they needed to make something official. As a result, they started 7Element, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. The organization is guided by their mission statement:

Our mission at 7Element is to provide a healthy mental outlet for our members, a sense of purpose to our members and to close the civilian/military divide. 7Element uses the power of sports to provide a place for members to feel as though they are needed and to provide a median to close the division between those who sacrifice for our communities and the people who live in those communities.

7Element plans to complete its mission by helping relieve the financial burden that is associated with many sports. Whether through league fees or by providing sporting equipment, 7Element is dedicated to getting our members involved in the sport of their choice.

Then, I wanted to know about the name: 7Element. Tony explained, “In the Army, the ‘7’ is the call sign for the most senior non-commissioned officer in a unit—the guy that makes the plan and sees it through to the finish. ‘Element’ refers to the unit. This organization is the group that gets things done for our guys—the 7Element.”

His answer not only explained things for me, but it also went a long way to demonstrate the divide between civilian and military life by providing a glimpse into a world that most civilians know nothing about.

The main focus of 7Element is hockey. Hockey is a sport with a pretty steep equipment cost.  I have two young children that play and once they outgrow the sets of equipment we got from our first round of Little Preds, our bank account is going to take a massive hit. The bigger the equipment, the bigger the price tag. (As I was writing this, I took a look at Amazon to get an idea of how much money it would cost me to get even a basic set of pads and skates. I was up to around $400 before I realized I’d have to get even more equipment to go on top of the pads so I wouldn’t just be out on the ice in some long johns and pads.) As a result, a huge focus of the organization is to cover the cost of equipping its members with all the gear they need in order to get out on the ice.

Of course, players of all skill levels are welcome and encouraged. 7Element focuses on keeping the cost of getting outfitted from becoming prohibitive for someone who wants to get involved.

But that raises the question: who can join 7Element? “Anyone on active duty or who has been discharged from the military can join, as well as all active first responders (police officers, firefighters, EMS) are free to join,” Thomas explains, “unless you were dishonorably discharged—we have to draw the line somewhere.” And membership is free; it costs absolutely nothing to join. Signing up is a very quick, simple, and painless process that shouldn’t take more than five minutes. (A link is included at the end of the article.)

7Element provides weekly ice for skaters. Along with weekly ice, 7Element skaters are able to skate at Bridgestone Arena, participate in local and regional tournaments, and participate in skills clinics. Aside from participating in Sunday Skate sessions, members are eligible for other benefits as well. You may have seen calls go out on social media for Predators fans with unused tickets to donate them to 7Element so the organization can put veterans in those seats.

Joining 7Element qualifies you for this benefit, even if you never lace up skates and take the ice. Thomas urges that 7Element is an organization for all veterans, not just those that want to skate on Sundays. I feel that this is an important point to make. I, personally, have seen people complain on social media that as a veteran, they should also be eligible for the tickets. The reality is that they are…the only catch is that you also have to be a member of 7Element, which is free and very simple to join.

The time was nearing for Tony and the rest of the 7Element crew to start getting ready for their game, but before I went to watch, he explained, “This is therapy—when you get out there with this group, having shared what we’ve all shared, there’s so much that just doesn’t have to be said, so much that we all understand because of the experiences we have in common. The camaraderie you experience when we all get together helps keep you connected to something that was (or still is) a huge part of your life and if looking forward to it every weekend is something that keeps you going all week long, then I think we’re completing our mission.”

After leaving the locker room, I made my way over behind the scorers’ table and got comfortable. What I saw about what you’d expect from a pick-up game with skaters of varying abilities. Yes, it was clear that there were some skaters that were new to hockey, if not to skating in general. But one of the members, who was sitting with me at the scorers’ table, told me that a lot of the newer skaters had taken great steps to improve their abilities in a short amount of time after getting involved. This makes a lot of sense; men and women coming from the military, which instills a strong sense of purpose and a team mentality, would surely take it upon themselves to improve for the benefit of this group. That should come as no surprise.

The veteran I mentioned at the beginning of this article looked much more comfortable in his third session with the group and had clearly been putting in a lot of ice time in between weekend events. I imagine finding something to strive for and a group to be accountable to goes a long way for someone trying to find their way back in the civilian world. And I think that’s the incredible thing about what was happening on the ice that day. Members weren’t tearing each other down or chastising them for being slow, they were building each other up. I heard words of encouragement, words of praise, and most importantly, a lot of laughter.

However, there were also a few standouts that were clearly veterans of not only of the military, but of hockey as well. One of these impressive skaters was Scott Fulsom. Fulsom spent the afternoon carving up the defense like your grandfather carved a Thanksgiving turkey. This was a trend for just about every shift he took. But by the end of the day, you never would have known how many goals he (or any skater) had scored, because no one was keeping score. The purpose of the afternoon session wasn’t about the score. It was about coming together as a group.

I caught up with Scott after the skate. Scott grew up in Buffalo, New York and played hockey all the way through high school. When he graduated, he went on to play for Niagara University for two years before joining the Army. Scott has been around 7Element since the planning stages and became a member as soon as it became an organization. I asked him how 7Element has impacted his life.

He replied, “Getting on the ice every week with other people that not only love the sport the way I do, but have been through the same things and have been in the same situations that military life put you in is very therapeutic—there’s a camaraderie very much like when I was still in the military that you don’t find in civilian life.”

I asked him if the impact was bigger than just hockey. He got very serious. “When you leave the military, it feels like you’ve lost an entire family. Because of that, there are a lot of issues. This organization and what happens with it on, and off, the ice has helped me and everybody else out there deal with those issues.” Scott went on to explain that more than hockey happens within the greater umbrella of 7Element and explained that everything from jobs and housing to therapists have been found using the unofficial network of connections within the organization.

He also enjoys the mentorship aspect of the hockey program. “It’s awesome to see them improve; it feels good knowing the program is working in those regards. Teaching another veteran, or a first responder, the best game on Earth and, in turn, hoping it helps them with things they may be dealing with internally, that’s a feeling that makes me proud to be a part of this family.”

Even though 7Element is a charitable organization, its members are no strangers to volunteering, as many of its members are involved in coaching youth hockey teams and teaching hockey lessons to skaters of all ages. As of press time, there are more than 10 members coaching or serving as referees in and around the greater Nashville area. With such widespread involvement, it’s easy to see that 7Element has an impact throughout the hockey community that goes beyond just its members.

In the aftermath of the tornadoes on March 3rd, 7Element members went out into the Nashville communities to lend a hand to those in need. Nashville Predators alumni Chris Mason and Hal Gill joined their cleanup efforts. It’s no secret that these veterans and first responders are passionate about the Nashville community.

7Element hasn’t been around for long, but the impact it has been able to make in a short period of time is profound. Of course, in order for the organization to further their mission, they need both members and donations. I also feel it’s important to note that the staff members are unpaid. Every cent goes directly into programs for 7Element members. Many of the members are willing to dig into their own pockets when necessary to get other members what they need. 7Element members take care of each other.

If you are on active duty in any branch of the military, a veteran, or a first responder (police, fire, or EMS) and are interested in joining, follow this link: www.7element.org/join. You must be able to prove your status with documentation.

If you are interested in making a tax-deductible financial donation to help further the mission of 7Element, follow this link: www.7element.org/donate

To donate equipment: operations@7element.org

If you would like to make a tax-deductible ticket donation, transfer your tickets to the following address: tickets@7element.org (for a tax form, just send a follow-up email to the same address).

To find out more about 7Element, check out the organization on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or at www.7element.org.

All photos courtesy of Rachel K.