War veterans find happiness in softball team

War veterans find happiness in softball team

Published Jan. 13, 2012 11:41 a.m. ET

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — They risked their lives on the battlefield, coming home from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan missing a hand, an arm, a leg — and bearing the invisible emotional wounds of warfare.

Now they have found new life on the ball field, buoyed by the spirit of competition and a new-found camaraderie that sustains them.

A group of young men, bonded by the love of a game they thought they would never play again, gathered beneath a blue-gray sky this week at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in the shadow of a place where dreams come true.

The Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team, a 10-month-old team made up of injured vets from all branches of the service, held a brisk practice session Wednesday — with players smacking balls deep into the gap, chasing down high flies on the run, fielding hard grounders and firing to first base.

The fact that they did so missing a limb seemed almost inconsequential in the steady flow of baseball motion — with state-of-the-art prosthetic legs powering players in fluid strides, agile moves and impressive speed you might not have thought possible. For others, sheer willpower has allowed them to make solid contact at the plate — or deft plays on defense — without the benefit of two hands or two arms.

This is their new mission, playing a sport at a high level to prove something to themselves about overcoming — and prove something to the world about the power of perseverance in the face of adversity.

That mission has taken them during the past year to softball diamonds across the United States, facing one able-bodied squad after the next — including an exhibition Friday and Saturday in Plant City against the Fellowship of Christian Athlete All-Star team featuring Olympic softball stars including Jennie Finch and Dot Richardson.

Whether they win or lose isn’t the point — though make no mistake, they’re out to win. It’s about sending a message that you can still be in the game no matter what hardship life holds.

It’s a message that resonates wherever they go, playing charity games against teams of first responders, local police departments, other military units, you name it. Along the way, the unique team has been featured in the media from "CBS Evening News" to HBO. And on this particular morning, the squad has drawn the support of two major league baseball stars and nearby Florida residents: Johnny Damon and A.J. Pierzynski.

Damon and Pierzynski heard the team was in town and showed up to spend some time talking and practicing with the players. It was hard to tell who was more excited to meet whom — the young veterans getting a chance to hobnob with two marquee names of game or the pro athletes getting a chance thank a group of men who paid a high price in service to their country.

“It brings a whole new perspective to everything,” Pierzynski said. “You see these guys out here missing arms and legs, and it hasn’t slowed them down one bit. To see them out here throwing and running and get to watch them hit is awesome. That’s the great part — to see them having fun at something they love doing.”

Damon, a key contributor on the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays, instantly changed his plans when he heard the team was in town for a practice. His father served in Vietnam, and Damon grew up knowing how hard it was for his dad and other Vietnam vets after returning home from war. As a ballplayer, he became actively involved in supporting the troops and is in his seventh year serving as a spokesman for the Wounded Warrior Project.

He took the field — and knocked a few balls deep over the right field fence — only a matter of hours before news broke that the Rays had signed slugger Luke Scott, effectively ending the likely Hall of Famer’s dream of staying with Tampa Bay. But on this morning, Damon’s only focus was the warriors and their quest to play ball.

“It’s good to come out here and see the great progress they’re making getting back into the real world,” he said. “You can tell some of them were pretty good athletes before — and they still are. It’s incredible to see the spirit that they have, to see the smiles on their faces.”

Soon after, Damon stood in left field shagging fly balls and chatting with a handful of players. At the plate, Matt Kinsey, who served in the Army during Operation Enduring Freedom and lost a leg below the knee, crushed a ball tossed by team manager Dave Van Sleet over Damon’s head — and beyond the fence.

“That one’s going in my memoir,” joked Kinsey, 26, as he headed for the bench.

Everywhere you looked, there was memoir material — stories of sacrifice and courage, of life-changing horrors, and of a determination to carry on.

Brian Urrela, a native of St. Louis, enlisted in the Army after seeing the gripping, graphic movie about World War II, "Saving Private Ryan."

“Seeing what those guys did for our country and the things they went through, it made it like it wasn’t even an option,” Urrela, 26, said. “I had to do it for them. I mean, it’s not just them. It’s Vietnam. It’s everything. Guys have been doing it for a long time, and I fully believe our country is where it’s at because of them.”

Urrela had two days of his tour left as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom on Oct. 22, 2006. “We were taking the new guys around our area of operations, showing them around,” he said. “And we got hit by two IEDs while we were in our vehicle.”

He describes the details of the trauma that changed his life matter-of-factly.

“It came in through my femur and ripped my leg apart,” he said. “I actually remember everything. I passed out after it happened and woke up five minutes later.”

Urrela was transferred from one base hospital to the next, from Iraq to Germany and eventually to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. A grueling period followed when he grappled with what had happened.

“You fight your own demons; every one of us has,” he said. “There are guys out there who feel sorry for themselves and let it get to them. We just choose not to do that.”

Urrela underwent 36 surgeries before finally, three years later, making the wrenching decision to let doctors amputate his mangled right leg below the knee rather than try to save it any longer.

But that step ultimately opened a new door in his life, allowing him to be fitted with a modern, top-tier prosthetic leg. Soon enough, Urrela was moving with familiar ease — and finding he could become active once again.

“When you’re at Walter Reed going through physical therapy, you see these guys and what they’re capable of doing with prosthetics,” he said. “Guys like me going through limb salvage view that, struggling with our limb that’s pretty much useless. I tell people, I didn’t sleep for a week trying to decide whether to cut off my leg or not. And once the decision was made, it was just like a weight was lifted off my shoulders.”

Playing for the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball team has done the same.

“You get to travel the country,” the catcher and first baseman said. “I get to be with these guys, who are like my family now. We get to inspire . . . we have a lot of kids with amputations who come out and watch us play. And just to have them see what they’re capable of after injury is a big part of it. It’s definitely been life-changing.”

The team isn’t a full-time pursuit for the players. The schedule usually features about two exhibitions per month, allowing members to pursue their college education and work at new careers. But the games  — and the awareness they raise every step of the way — have become a focal point in their lives.

Josh Wege lost both legs beneath his knees in an explosion while on patrol with his Marine unit in Afghanistan in 2008.

“I made it about six months, and we rolled over an IED in a light armored vehicle, and it was just enough of an explosion to punch a hole and take my legs with it,” he said. “I remember checking my hands, and they were all good. But then I couldn’t feel my feet.”

Wege was 5-foot-7 prior to the devastating injury, but he was pleased when the prosthetic legs he eventually received added an extra two inches of height — making him closer in size to his 6-foot-plus brother.

Still, he struggled emotionally after leaving the hospital, realizing he had to learn to care for himself and start over. “We call it finding you new normal,” he said.

That included mastering his mobility on new prosthetic legs, something Wege has done with great results. He recently competed in a track and field event, winning a military Winter Games 100-meter dash and beating competitors who had one prosthetic leg. Wege, 22, is amazingly nimble at first base, and also a strong hitter on the squad. But his pursuits extend beyond the diamond.

“I can do anything I used to, including driving a stick-shift car,” he said. “I’ve even picked up some new hobbies, like snowboarding. But my new normal wouldn’t be complete without this team. Without it, I’d be missing something.”

Van Sleet, the team’s manager, started the team in March 2011. He worked in the Department of Veterans Affairs, with more than 30 years specializing in prosthetics — and the same amount of time playing softball recreationally.

“I saw what was coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and I was very aware of all the rehab events that all that the V.A. and country has,” he said. “But when I talked to the guys, a lot of them played high school and college sports. And they never thought they’d be on a team, let alone a competitive team, again. . . . These guys all signed up after 9/11, and they went to war and suffered serious injuries. Literally, these guys didn’t think they were going to live, or even walk.”

But after their extensive rehabilitation, Van Sleet took a group to play softball at a tournament. At first, his players instinctively hung with their own branch of service.

“We got there and the Marines are on one side and the Army is on the other side, and we’re about half and half,” he said. “But after that day, forget what service, forget what type of amputation. It changed their lives. And what really changed their lives was if someone was wearing a higher-tech prosthesis, the other guy would say, ‘I wish I knew about that one.’ And they increased their physical ability.”

After the initial competition, the veterans asked Van Sleet if there would be more. He told them he didn’t think so because there was no funding. But he knew something important had happened on the field. “So I put my own money into it and my own time, and it just took off,” he said.

The Louisville Slugger Company has since lent a hand in a major way, contributing some $35,000 in high-end softball bats, equipment and apparel — free of charge. Softball shoe manufacturer Boombah has signed on to make the team’s cleats. Sterling Athletics makes a custom WWAST softball. Van Sleet's club has entered into an MLB partnership with the Washington Nationals, wearing the franchise's caps and jerseys in competitions. And leading prosthetic manufacturer, Ossur, signed on with the team this week and already has plans to improve on what the players are using.

Van Sleet has been able to keep a steady slate of games on the schedule.

“There are a lot of people who want us for the wrong reason — we’re a draw, a commodity,” he said. “But I don’t want them to be put up on pedestals. I don’t want them to be taken advantage of. It’s got to be community-related, military, town — a good cause. And that’s the only thing we’ll do.”

If Van Sleet senses the competition could be stacked against his guys, he’ll split the teams — putting some of his players on the opponent’s team and vice versa. That way his players don’t get embarrassed by a lopsided result, and the crowds still get their money’s worth.

But there’s no way to put a price on what competing again means to Van Sleet’s players — kids who lost a part of themselves on distant battlefields, but have gotten it back on their field of dreams.

When: 6 p.m. Friday, Noon and 3 p.m. Saturday, WWAST vs. FCA Softball All-Stars
Where: Plant City Softball Stadium; 1810 East Park Road, Plant City, Fla., 33563
Admission: $5 Friday, $10 Saturday.
For More Info: Call 352-516-4556 or 618-615-1110.
On the Web:www.woundedwarrioramputeesoftballteam.org