MELISSA BLOCK, host: One of the most popular sports in Ireland is the rough contact game of hurling. Now, the sport is gaining a following among some American soldiers. A group of National Guardsmen in New Hampshire formed a hurling team to stay in shape after Middle East deployments.
As Shannon Mullen reports, they're getting a lot more than exercise.
SHANNON MULLEN: Hurling, not to be confused with the winter sport of curling, is a combination of football, ice hockey and lacrosse.
(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING)
MULLEN: Picture guys in helmets with sticks. They use the flat end to whack a fist-sized ball up the field on the ground or in the air. There's checking, a lot of scrambling for the ball and sprinting and the pitch is even longer than a football field.
MULLEN: Celtic warriors brought this high contact field sport to Ireland thousands of years ago, but its physical intensity and fast pace still attract soldiers today.
Captain ROB BURNHAM: I've said that stepping off the pitch is something like stepping off the field of battle or coming off the mission.
MULLEN: National Guard Captain Rob Burnham is a member of the Barley House Wolves, a hurling club in Concord, New Hampshire. He says more than half of his teammates are combat veterans.
BURNHAM: It's something healthy. It's something physical that allows you to, you know, blow off some steam and something to look forward to that's different than being a member of, say, the VFW.
MULLEN: The team was founded in 2006 by National Guard soldiers from Charlie Company, 3rd of the 172nd Mountain Infantry based in New Hampshire. On their way home from a deployment to Iraq, they saw a hurling match on TV in an Irish airport.
Lieutenant Colonel RAY VALAS: We're like, what was that sport? Someone said, oh, that's hurling. And it just kind of called out to us.
MULLEN: Lieutenant Colonel Ray Valas is one of the team's founders. He says hurling seemed like a good way for his unit to keep in touch and stay in shape, but as the team grew to include other military branches, it started to mean something more.
VALAS: I recently had a guy that plays on the club that's played for a few years come up to me and said, hey, you know, I never mentioned this to you, but I just want to thank you for getting this club started. And I said, well, yeah, no sweat. He said, no, you don't understand. He said, after Afghanistan, I had a really rough time and this changed my life.
MULLEN: Sergeant First Class Roy Lowes deployed to Afghanistan in 2004 as a combat medic to help train Afghan soldiers. He says, because of the constant danger, he felt safe only with people he knew he could trust.
Sergeant First Class ROY LOWES: I wish there was a way I could just go, click, and switch it off, you know, as you take your uniform off, that you shed that, but you can't. I'm a lot better now. When I first got back, I couldn't stand in line in Wal-Mart for more than a couple minutes, then I had to leave.
MULLEN: Lowes says he was jumpy and aggressive for months. Then he heard about the Barley House Wolves.
LOWES: Some part of me really needed that small team environment. That player, who has the same jersey as I have, I know he's there. I know he has my back. I don't have to think about it. I don't have to second guess anything.
MULLEN: Lowes says now he gets stressed out when he can't make it to practice and his other teammates can relate. On a recent deployment to Kuwait, some of them missed hurling so much, they formed a new chapter of the Barley House Wolves on the base.
For NPR News, I'm Shannon Mullen.
BLOCK: And one final note on hurling. It is a men's sport, but there is a women's version called camogie and the Barley House Wolves say they're helping their female comrades in New Hampshire start a team of their own.