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Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team

Reflections on A Day Among Heroes:
Memorable, Inspirational & Humbling
The Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team

By Dave Cooper

March 24th began with special anticipation and enthusiasm. It would end in exhaustion and inspiration. Most of my day was spent in the presence of true American heroes: The Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team. And I feel truly blessed for that unique experience.

The Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team is an impressive, extremely cohesive unit of military veterans and active-duty soldiers who are both proud and gracious about their patriotic contributions to preserve our precious way of life – in peacetime and engaged in the ravages of war. They are also fierce, talented competitors between the chalk lines on the softball diamond.

Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team

Top-level athletic competition requires grit, determination and confidence. It also requires able-bodied contestants. The Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team personifies all these attributes. And more! However, when it comes to essential body parts, some are missing. Each member of this elite group of Armed Forces representatives has suffered severe injuries that have resulted in some form of physical amputation. Still, they are courageous and athletic enough to charge the field and play ball. Very well.

The WWAST is currently touring the USA playing exhibition softball games against representatives of various local police & fire departments, law enforcement agencies, celebrities, and others. Their most recent stop was March 24th in Chandler, Arizona, about 20 minutes east of Phoenix. The Warriors engaged in an adrenaline-laced battle with the Chandler Police Department, though falling 17-16. The game came down to a classic pressure-cooker finish with 2-outs in the ninth inning and runners on base poised to strike. It was a real thriller. The overwhelming expression buzzing at the game was the word: inspiring. It was rampant in describing the distinctive valor and human spirit exhibited by this team of military jocks.

I first learned about the Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team’s extraordinary story a few months ago; they were featured in a segment on HBO network’s program Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. I was thoroughly fascinated and impressed by what I witnessed. Although I am not a military veteran or an amputee, I had to become involved. Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball TeamSomehow. I have great reverence and appreciation for the intense commitment and sacrifice our military personnel gives. Every day. I am also a softball fanatic, now entering my 35th year of this glorious American pastime. Like other softball fanatics, it’s in my DNA.

I called David Van Sleet, founder, architect, and head coach of this remarkable collection of teammates. I explained that I would like to cover their Phoenix-area visit and share their story with our readers. I also asked about interviewing the players prior to their game – David said they would be working out earlier that day. I mentioned that I play ball and asked if I may participate – he said, “Bring your gear.” I felt welcomed and comfortable from the moment I first met David on the phone, and even more once I laced up my spikes and slapped leather with his crew on the ball field. And for just one afternoon, I vicariously experienced a special sensation. I was truly honored to be on the same field with these guys. Whether it’s flesh, titanium, or some other composite that is now part of their altered bodily makeup, I was awed by the grace and fluidity exhibited by these gifted athletes.

While on the practice field, I was also intrigued by another regular, integral component of their workout regime. In addition to batting practice and fielding drills, mental attitude also requires stimulation. Supplied by a nearby boom box, a steady serving of very loud, highly energized heavy metal music blared from the dugout. Punctuated with zeal and colorful, descriptive words not suitable for this piece, it was explained to me that bands like Metallica, Disturbed, Five Finger Death Punch and Slipknot stokes the primal behavior of the ravenous Warrior within. For nearly 3 ½ hours of practice, fueled by all these positive elements, the focus was on physical performance, mental preparation, innate joy of the game, and contagious team chemistry.

Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team

Funny thing about team sports: There is a lot of camaraderie and encouragement among teammates, also a lot of friendly teasing. And when a group of buddies share a common bond, like amputation, the verbal barbs are quite amusing. They are empathetic terms of endearment. You’ll hear a shot from a guy who’s missing a leg below the knee shouting at a one-armed outfielder tracking a fly ball to “use both hands.” They’ll ask a teammate, fitted with titanium limbs below both knees, whether his new shoes feel good, or on a chilly day if his feet are cold. They tease a player missing his hand saying it’s “only a paper cut.” And through it all, perseverance and resilience is ever-present. The fraternal caring and overwhelming fellowship shared among the Wounded Warriors is truly extraordinary.

The impetus of the Wounded Warriors’ program began just a few years ago. David van Sleet, an Army veteran, with 30-years of experience in prosthetics with Veteran’s Affairs envisioned a proactive outlet for athletes suffering from amputation. David is also a softball fanatic having played for more than three decades. The connection was magical. When discussing his dream- to-reality approach, David said he felt that advancement in prosthetics could benefit this new wave of physically challenged veterans in their desire to assimilate themselves into a life they knew before suffering a devastating injury. So, it was time to build a team.

Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team

Van Sleet also threw down another gauntlet to those wanting to join the Wounded Warriors’ squad. All their opponents would be able-bodied players, not fellow amputees. More than 200 replied to David’s invitation wanting the honor to be a Wounded Warrior. Their active roster consists of a regular core of about 15-20 rotating players. Since the team began its grueling twice-a-month tour of the USA, the Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team celebrated its one-year anniversary in early March where it all began at the University of Arizona.

Another Arizona connection regarding last week’s exhibition game came from the Phoenix Metro Area Local chapter of the American Postal Workers Union. The APWU welcomed the Wounded Warriors to the Valley by hosting a team “Breakfast for Champions.” It seems a secret weapon in the Warriors’ arsenal is lots of chocolate milk. At the breakfast, team members were presented with gift bags containing a variety of treats. They also received commemorative American flag pins with diamond inlays. A fitting tribute.

The national chapter of the APWU has been an integral supporter the Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team’s program since it began touring a year ago. A large banner was displayed at the breakfast saying: American Postal Workers Union Supports Our Troops. Many thanks, and a lifetime of gratitude, to the courageous men and women of our U.S. Military, for their selfless service and enormous sacrifice.

The dynamic of teamwork and unity is a defined characteristic residing within those resilient men and women who gallantly “sign up” to be a soldier. They possess remarkable virtues where no sacrifice is too gAPWU and WWASTreat for them to ensure that citizens of America, you and I, are able to enjoy a fulfilling, safe, and peaceful way of life.

Thanks to the all the guys that allowed me the opportunity to truly enjoy a blessed experience on the ball field. It was a day I will always remember and cherish as a hard-nosed soft baller, also as an American citizen who is profoundly grateful for the patriotism, commitment, and gallantry of all our military personnel. I also praise and appreciate those serving in our local communities performing duties as police, firefighters, first responders, and beyond.

Momentum and progress in WWAST’s program is burgeoning with tremendous support in cities throughout America. Learn more about The Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team, upcoming events, player profiles, advancements in prosthetic technology, how to get involved, and much more at their website. And to these heroes I send my warmest regards - Coop