Oct. 2, 2013
By Renee Peggs
"They didn't think they were gonna live. They didn't think they were ever gonna be able to walk. They didn't think they'd ever play a sport again. And now look at `em!"
Look at `em, indeed. The Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team. Some of our nation's bravest and most determined heroes. Soldiers and veterans, all having sustained severe injuries resulting in amputation while serving active duty tours for the United States Armed Forces.
A little less than three years ago, Army veteran David Van Sleet created and founded the WWAST as he saw other vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. His background in prosthetics and connection with the VA inspired him to inspire others. In his own words above, Van Sleet speaks the pride that he feels for his players and the hope that they have found through him.
His vision for the team - that life without a limb is limitless - is clearly borne out in the vitality and skill of each Wounded Warrior. I wasn't sure what to expect, but it was akin to watching the Harlem Globetrotters. Fun, funny. Except that these guys are all missing an arm. Or a leg. Or two. You just couldn't believe your eyes. Diving for the ball. Miraculous catches. The accuracy, the speed of the throwing.
And HOLY COW... the home runs.
They came, we saw, they conquered last Sunday at Melissa Cook Stadium. Wounded Warriors 22-15 over the Fighting Irish women's softball team in seven innings. Wounded Warriors 22-9 over Notre Dame celebrities, also in seven.
According to the WWAST web site, "Their armor now includes prosthetic legs and arms, along with extreme perseverance and attitude. Through extensive rehabilitation, they have become competitive athletes again."
Did the Irish lay down out of compassionate charity?
Mike Brey scoffs at the question, pre-game.
"No way, we're going for the W!" said Brey, head coach of the Irish men's basketball team, who was the starting pitcher for the celebrity team. "I think the umpires are all Irish Catholic. There's no gimmies."
But the Warriors owned the day in the Sunday afternoon exhibition games designed to raise awareness and support for their team, as they travel around the country with a purpose: to highlight the players' own ability to rise above any challenge, and to show other amputees and the general public that dreams are always within reach, no matter who you are or what you've gone through.
A dream came true for Zach Briseno, one of the newest additions to the Wounded Warrior team.
"I have always wanted to come to Notre Dame, always." His eyes light up and he's practically doing a jig. "The university itself has a lot of history and a lot of tradition to it and I'm just so glad to be able to experience all of this."
That included the Notre Dame football game against Oklahoma, which the Warriors attended together the day before their exhibition contests. Zach is from Texas. "I very, very much dislike Oklahoma."
But with a beautiful smile, he leans across the dugout fence and speaks words of love: for the Wounded Warriors, for the chance to travel and to play. "The softball team here [at Notre Dame] is great, we never get to play teams this good!"
Most of all, for the ability to keep smiling in spite of...
Briseno lost both his legs to an IED blast during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2007, while serving with the Marines. He was 22 at the time. "I almost lost my right arm, too, but they were able to save it."
Christopher Lillie, Army ROTC battalion commander and senior mechanical engineering major at ND, comments, "These guys, they're American heroes, they're role models for all of us."
Lillie, whose father is a 1985 graduate of Notre Dame and its Marine ROTC, was in attendance at the exhibition games with other members of his battalion. With respect and honor for the Wounded Warriors, he said, "[It's awesome] to see all the things they've done, and they're still back out here playing, and doing it really well, better than I could do right now."
Fellow Army ROTC member Patrick Crane, a freshman from Boston, agrees. "You hear it a lot but freedom really isn't free, so a lot of people are giving themselves up, especially the Wounded Warriors."
About his own decision to serve his country, Crane says, "My family has a history of military service that goes back to the Civil War. I want to be in a position to give myself for other people."
Irish hockey coach Jeff Jackson, who functioned as the coach for the celebrity softball team, explains why he felt so strongly about participating in the Wounded Warrior game. "I have a personal sense of responsibility to have a relationship with those that have protected us and kept our freedom strong, those people that represent our country and who paid the ultimate price."
Jackson's father is a World War II veteran, having served with the Army in the Pacific. "That slogan in our arena," says Jackson gravely, "God, Country, Notre Dame. It's extremely important that we are supporting our military and their families."
Celebrity team member Chuck Lennon, class of '61 and former executive director of the ND Alumni Association, said the experience gave him perspective. "When you have an ache or a pain in your arm or your back, it's nothing, compared to what these men and women went through for us, so I was proud to be a part of this."
The event was sprinkled with so much lightheartedness and hilarity that it was tempting to forget the reason we were all there. Brey received a (fake) "technical foul" because he (fake) rushed the mound after being (fake) hit by a pitch.
When the Irish softball team brought out 2013 BIG EAST Player of the Year Laura Winter to fast pitch to the Wounded Warriors, and held the Warriors scoreless in the fifth inning of the opening game, the crowd went nuts.
Warrior player Greg Reynolds, who lost his left arm and does not wear a prosthetic, challenged several of the Irish softball players to a push-up contest, which he won easily. My own six-year-old son was so inspired by this young man that he insisted on batting with only one arm when we played backyard baseball later that afternoon.
In a serious moment from the heart, Brey related what it meant to participate in the softball games with the Wounded Warriors. "Things like this further underscore and emphasize that we appreciate [all service men and women], and we know how much of a sacrifice it is and was. It's an honor and it's inspiring to be around you for a couple hours."
Even if the Irish teams couldn't pull off the wins, everyone who participated or spectated was a winner for having been a part of this exceptional event.
The Inspiring Story Of WWAST Player Josh Wege
By Renee Peggs
Imagine you're rolling through the sunshine, reflected off the hot sand, you're sweating in the heat, can't wait to peel off a few layers, maybe throw a few back later on, but right now you're on a mission, maybe occasionally punctuated by trading sarcastic remarks with your best buddies. Maybe you're on spring break in South Padre Island looking for that perfect campsite?
Bet you didn't picture yourself as a Marine in Afghanistan.
Josh Wege did.
Imagine you send your son off after high school graduation to go pursue his passion and fulfill his dream, he's done his homework, made the grade, and now the whole world is at his fingertips. You're so proud, he's doing what loves, maybe not as close to home as you would like, but he keeps you up to date. You get to visit him for the first time. Maybe he's in college a few hundred miles away.
Bet you didn't envision a military hospital where your son's legs have just been amputated.
Josh Wege's were.
Imagine you have the chance to change your whole attitude and outlook upon life, to re-learn how to do the simplest things from a totally different vantage point, to be grateful for every little step toward success and victory.
Josh Wege has.
A quiet, unassuming kid from Campbellsport, Wisconsin - "my story's pretty basic, actually," Josh is now a hero - for his hometown, for his comrades from Operation Enduring Freedom, for his family, for his country, and for the Wounded Warriors.
He joined the Marines straight out of high school, was excited about getting work experience and learning weapons handling tactics. "Plus you get to call yourself a Marine for the rest of your life, how cool is that?" Wege says of his decision to serve.
His convoy was moving through a regular patrol (is there such a thing?) that October day in 2009. While his friends from back home were probably struggling through freshman comp or celebrating the latest collegiate sporting event, Josh was protecting a border. His Humvee was the last to go through the checkpoint. The last tire set off the 200-pound IED that blew their vehicle to shreds.
"We almost made it through, but who knows what would have happened on the way back," Wege said. "It could have been catastrophic."
Wait, what? I'm sorry, I must have misunderstood...
"I'm so glad it was me and not someone else," he says of the bomb that took his legs, "because I knew I can handle it. I've got a great support system and my family has always been there."
Wege was 19 when he lost his legs, 19 when he thought he'd never walk again, or play any of a dozen sports that had been such a big part of his life for as long as he could remember.
"It was a little bit of a shock," he says modestly. "I went to Walter Reed for rehab, learned how to do everything again. My muscle memory was still there, all I had to do was figure out how to use the prosthetics."
Oh, right, of course.
"It took me a couple days, but I keep getting better every day."
And why not? That's exactly what the Wounded Warriors are all about: positive attitude, perseverance, and panache. This kid has `em in spades.
He also happens to be a heck of a ball player.
"My biggest life lesson is not to take anything for granted," Wege said. "I know what I had and I know what was taken from me, so I always count my blessings."
Maybe tonight, count yours. Maybe say a prayer for Josh and all the others who serve and sacrifice.
We love you, and we thank you.