Wounded Warrior softball team tours Maine
Each one remembers the date.
Wege, then a 19-year-old U.S. Marine, was dazed and disoriented. He patted his chest and checked his arms for injuries.
“I didn’t even know I was hurt at first,” he recalled.
Then he lifted his legs.
“They were gone. Just shredded below the knees.”
That date? It has a surprisingly uplifting name.
“It’s your ‘alive day,’” said Rick Wilk, who lost his leg on Nov. 5, 2010, when he was hit by a drunk driver while on duty at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. “You celebrate it like your birthday.”
That’s because even though these men lost limbs serving their country, they know it could have been much worse. And that’s the perspective they try to convey as members of the traveling Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team.
In the team’s farthest trip northeast in its three-plus-year existence, the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team played against a Togus VA team in Augusta and a Maine National Guard team in Old Orchard Beach.
“Softball is just an avenue to show that life without limbs is limitless,” said David Van Sleet, the team’s founder and manager.
Van Sleet is a U.S. Army veteran and longtime adult league softball coach with three decades of experience fabricating prosthetic limbs for the Department of Veterans Affairs and private sector.
“When I saw what was coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, the lightbulb went off,” he recalled.
Van Sleet formed the team in March 2011, and the first game was played two months later. Within the team’s first three months, it was featured by Sports Illustrated, ESPN and HBO.
It was such a sought-after touring team that its schedule was booked up years in advance. Local organizer Michael Edgecomb said he had to contact Van Sleet in August 2012 in order to bring the team to Maine.
Players on the approximately 25-player roster range from age 23 to 53. Two are from the Air Force, one is from the Navy, and the rest are from the Army or Marines. Four of the players have lost upper extremities, two each have lost their right foot, and the rest lost at least one leg from the knee down — three players lost both.
The team’s games raise money to cover its expenses, as well as to fund its annual weeklong softball camp for child amputees, which took place in Orlando and Louisville in its first two years, respectively.
The manager said when his players arrive in a new location, the routine is always the same.
“[The fans] see these guys arrive at the field, and see that they’re amputees, and they’re concerned for them because they know how it happened — war,” Van Sleet said. “They sort of feel sorry for them at first.”
Through the warm-ups, that turns to something such as encouragement — “They start to say, ‘Well, good for them for doing something that makes them happy,” he said.
“By the second inning, they forget they’re amputees.”
Wege, 24, was one of the first players Van Sleet recruited. In 2013, with two prosthetic legs, the Florida resident went 2-for-2 with a double and home run in Major League Baseball’s annual All-Star Legends & Celebrity Softball Game in New York City. He beat out Hall of Fame players Rickey Henderson, Ozzie Smith and Frank Thomas, among others, to claim the game’s Most Valuable Player award.
Wilk was at home in Texas watching on television.
“I thought my life was over at the time,” he recalled. “I didn’t know any other amputees. I was living at home.”
But when he saw Wege thriving against former major leaguers and big name celebrities, he was inspired, and began researching Wege’s everyday team, the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team.
“I said, ‘I want to do that.’”
This year, Wilk joined the team. Like Wege, he’s inspiring others by taking the field. Wilk said he played a pick-up game in Houston, and a woman in her early-20s approached him afterward.
She said she broke her foot and was dropped from a dream modeling gig because of the injury, and she told Wilk she was so disappointed she even contemplated suicide.
“But she saw me out there playing softball missing a leg, and she realized that a broken foot maybe wasn’t so bad,” he recalled. “The type of impact we can have just by taking the field is really amazing.”