Friday, May 13, 2011

Wounded Troops Return to the Ballfield

Members of the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team and a team of personnel from Walter Reed Army Medical Center listen to the national anthem before a game May 7 at the Forest Glen Annex in Silver Springs, Maryland.  [Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post]

By David Nakamura,
Washington Post
May 7, 2011

The soldiers and Marines on the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team display a sense of humor that helps put at ease fans who might otherwise feel awkward watching them.

The 20 men, most of whom have lost limbs on missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, nicknamed themselves the “Body Parts.” Three players with prosthetic legs volunteer to “take a knee” during a team photo. When a player missing his left arm reaches second base, an assistant coach yells that there is “a runner with legs in scoring position.”

“You won’t hear that on any other team,” says outfielder Brian Taylor, who lost his right leg below the knee.

This weekend, the Body Parts opened a national tour of exhibition games by routing a team from the FBI 35-10 on Friday night at George Mason University. On Saturday afternoon, they came back to earth a bit, losing to staffers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, 18-5, at the Forest Glen Annex. On Sunday, they will be in Annapolis to face a team of players from the U.S. Naval Academy’s sailing team.

Although the amputee squad is not looking for sympathy, Saturday’s final score was greeted with a shrug by the players and the crowd. The playing is the thing — the soldiers were all gifted high school athletes who thought they might never have a chance to compete again.
Soldiers and Marines who lost limbs on missions in
Iraq and Afghanistan prove that their athletic talent has
survived their injuries. [Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post]
Now, wearing prosthetic devices strapped to the stumps on their arms and legs, they are fielding, throwing and hitting once more.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Army Sgt. Matthew Kinsey, who stepped on a land mine while on night patrol in Afghanistan 11 months ago, blowing off his right foot. He is still going through rehabilitation at Walter Reed, but the rangy shortstop dived for a line drive up the middle Saturday, only to have the ball tick off his glove and dribble into center field for a single.

“It all settled back in pretty quickly,” Kinsey, a star high school player in Rockville, Ind., said of the old athletic rhythms. “I’ve played thousands of games so when I got back on the field, it felt natural.”

The team is the brainchild of David Van Sleet, a prosthetics manager for the U.S. Veterans Affairs Southwest Health Care Network who doubles as the team’s manager. Marrying his professional skills with his lifelong love of softball, Van Sleet put out a nationwide call for amputees to try out for the squad. He didn’t want a bunch of weekend warriors, but rather seasoned players who would be able to compete against fully able-bodied teams.

After culling the couple of hundred applicants, Van Sleet held tryouts in Arizona in March. The competition was intense. One player, who was wearing a prosthetic leg, broke his other leg while swinging hard at a pitch and landing awkwardly.

But Van Sleet pared the squad to the 20 best, including Greg Reynolds, who lost his left arm to the shoulder in a car accident after returning from Iraq, and Josh Wege, who lost both legs below the knee after the Humvee he was riding in struck a makeshift bomb in Iraq.

The pair embody the can-do spirit of the Body Parts. Wege, the only bilateral amputee, is such a good athlete that the Marines have recruited him for the Wounded Warrior Games in Colorado Springs. He will compete in the 100- and 200-yard dashes, basketball and volleyball.

“I didn’t want to be the anchor that holds this team down,” said Wege, who along with Kinsey recently completed a challenging obstacle course at West Point.

Forgoing the curved prosthetic running legs favored by some teammates for a standard walking pair, Wege pitched against the Walter Reed team Saturday and singled to center. He said he chose not to use the running legs because “I want to look as normal as possible.”

Reynolds did, too. With just one arm, he swings the bat across his chest as if he is back-handing a tennis ball. He went 3-for-4 in Friday’s game and doubled to right field on Saturday.

Reynolds and fellow outfielder Nate Lindsey, who lost his right arm below the elbow, compared their fielding techniques during practice. Reynolds caught the ball and then used an underhand scoop to throw it from the webbing to a teammate. Lindsey caught the ball and then flipped it in the air while dropping his glove, catching it again with his bare hand to make the relay throw.

“We’re all soldiers, and we’re all athletes, so when we step on the field we already have that common bond,” said Reynolds, who enlisted in the Army on Sept. 10, 2001, when he was 17.

Although the players profess to be thinking only about the competition while on the field, their relatives can’t help but consider the bigger picture. Watching his son Matthew take the field Friday night, Mark Kinsey said he was overcome with emotion.

“I shed a few tears,” he confessed. “I’m just happy to have him here.”

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