Wounded Warriors inspire beyond the battlefield

The Wounded Warriors are not just competitive on the softball field -- they inspire.

There is the initial questioning by the opponents and the fans: Can these guys really play?

It happens just about every time they travel the country and play in a new city. The Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team features a group of veterans who were athletes in high school, and some even played in college.

It's just that they have a prosthetic limb, and that's what we see in the first inning. By the second inning, the story is different. These guys are not just very good — they inspire.

"The last thing we want is for anyone to feel sorry for us," said Todd Reed, a Phoenix policeman. "We'd rather get our ass kicked than have you miss a ball on purpose."

There are times when an infielder will boot a routine grounder in the first inning. And there are times when Reed will gently tell the infielder that he is a better player than that. The Wounded Warriors want to enjoy the game, and that means having a competitive game.

And, more often than not, the Wounded Warriors win. They are 70-35 since the team was created in 2011, touring the country to play a city's police or fire department all-star team. Or any other team that they can fit in their busy schedule, including celebrity teams or retired pro athletes.

"The competition has been very good," Reed said. "The majority of our games are very competitive."

While the sport helps them, it's a chance to help others, too. Almost every trip, the Wounded Warriors try to find a boy or girl who wears a prosthetic device. And they make that day all about them.

"We take photos with them," Reed said. "They can be our bat boy or bat girl. They can hang out with us. That's been some of the most fulfilling parts of the weekends.

"We had a kid in New York that didn't want to wear shorts because of his leg. But after he hung out with us for a while, he told his mom that he wanted to wear shorts."

Moments like that make us realize that the Wounded Warriors are playing a softball game but their impact can't be measured in wins and losses.

* * * * *

Saul Bosquez's tour in Iraq was a quiet one. It was March 2007, and he had been sent over as part of the "surge." The next five months went well, he said, and it was a good start to his first tour of duty.

Even Aug. 1, 2007, the day that changed the rest of his life, had been very normal. Bosquez was part of a four-vehicle convoy returning to his base in Baghdad. 

And then there was an explosion. An improvised explosive device (IED) had gone off.

"I don't know if you've ever been in a car accident," Bosquez said. "It felt like I got hit by a truck."

He began to check himself, his legs, arms and face. Everything is still attached, Bosquez said to himself. His left leg wasn't severed but he was in severe pain. He soon realized that his left foot was bleeding severely.

"I didn't see my toes," Bosquez said.

There were surgeries in Iraq, surgeries in Germany and surgeries in the United States. There were more surgeries than he cares to remember — or can remember. He thinks it's somewhere in the twenties.

Bosquez talked with surgeons in the United States and the consensus was that he would have to amputate about 6-7 inches below the knee. But he would soon be fitted for a prosthetic. He would be walking in a month and running in a few months.

"It wasn't as bad as some other guys," said Bosquez, who received a Purple Heart and Combat Action Badge for his service.

* * * * *

Bosquez had played baseball, football and swam while growing up in Adrian, Mich. He was good enough to earn a baseball scholarship to Eastern Michigan out of high school, but he wasn't ready for college. He always knew the military was where he would end up, so he enlisted in the Army.

After the accident, Bosquez wanted to stay in the military but opted instead to work as a government contractor before he decided to go back to school at Southern New Hampshire and is pursuing a degree in sports management.

In March 2011, he heard about a slow-pitch softball team that was being formed by David Van Sleet, who was working with the University of Arizona after it had received a congressional grant to form a sports camp for veterans with disabilities.

Van Sleet was an Army veteran. He had worked in prosthetics for decades. He had worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs. And he had coached softball. After some discussion about what sport was the right choice, Van Sleet pitched an idea: a slow-pitch softball team made up of wounded veterans.

Hundreds of veterans heard about the team and reached out to Van Sleet, who held a tryout and narrowed the team down to 20.

After the camp was over, there were two problems. The money from the grant was exhausted. And the players were having fun. How could they continue together as a team?

Van Sleet and his family had an idea. David lives in Estero, Fla., just a few miles from the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University. And his parents, Jack and Polly, are just a few more miles south in Bonita Springs, Fla.

Together, they organized a golf tournament in April as a fundraiser in Bonita Springs at Highland Woods Golf & Country Club, where Jack and Polly live. They raised $7,000, enough to cover airfare, hotels and meals for a series of games in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC.

"And the rest is history," Van Sleet said.

That $7,000 was the spark in turning a one-time camp into a full-fledged traveling softball team. The Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team was born. 

They played an FBI team, a Navy team and then a third game at Walter Reed Hospital, where many of the veterans had gone to receive treatment or have surgery after being wounded.

The Washington Post covered one of the games, and that story began a snowball of coverage from national media outlets in the coming months. 

And all of a sudden, money began to pour in from corporate sponsors.

* * * * *

In the past few years, players have rubbed elbows with countless sports celebrities. They have hung out with the Washington Nationals, a sponsor of the softball team, at spring training and at Nationals Park.

And there was last year's MLB All-Star Game in Kansas City, where many of the players participated in a celebrity softball game with such former major league stars as Dave Winfield and Bo Jackson.

"That's probably the biggest thrill of my sports career," Bosquez said. "My locker is in between Bo Jackson and Rickey Henderson."

Those moments are special to Bosquez. But perhaps even more are the moments that he can share with his friends, his extended family, when they play softball across the country.

The men have a disability, but they are as active — and often more active — than many of us. It truly hasn't prevented them from doing what they want in life. All of them work or go to school. And on weekends, they fly around the country to play games.

In May, they were in Oklahoma, New York and North Carolina. Next weekend, there will be games in Maryland, including one against current NFL players. In June, there are trips to New York, New Jersey and Vermont. But one highlight for them is a week-long camp in Orlando where players will work with children who have had a limb amputated.

"For us to be able to give back to kids is special," Bosquez said. "It's great to see them when they're out with us. They're able to relax."

The softball team has helped the wounded veterans heal — and not just physically. We see that they have lost a limb but we don't see the emotional scars.

Many of them have suffered from varying degrees of post-traumatic stress disorder. But the time spent on the road, talking about their common experiences, helps them talk through the emotional pain.

"The biggest thing that bonds this team is the camaraderie," Reed said. "We've all served in the military, but we've all lost a body part. The first trip I made with them, it felt very comfortable."

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