Sep 19, 2013, 11:28 AM EDT
United States Marine Josh Wege was in the middle of physical therapy in 2010, a year after losing both of his legs from the knee down in Afghanistan, when a man walked by handing out information for a softball team. A group of fellow amputees in the military were being assembled for a charity squad, and they were looking for veterans with athletic backgrounds.
Wege played baseball growing up in Wisconsin and could use a pick-me-up. He was beginning his new life as a bilateral amputee and missed the camaraderie of his fellow troops.
Now, three years later, he can’t say enough about his experience with the Wounded Warrior amputee softball team, and how it’s helped him adapt to living with prosthetics.
“It’s hard not to enjoy this kind of team. It’s almost like being in the military again. You have that camaraderie, number one. You immediately have something in common with the guy next to you. He was in combat, got injured,” Wege said.
“We got a second chance to be athletes. Not everybody gets that and we’re not going to take that for granted. In retrospect, that’s the biggest life lesson I’ve received, to not take anything for granted.”
The Washington Nationals partnered with the WWAST in 2011 and have brought the team to D.C. to play a group of celebrities each of the last three years. But since they started, they’ve had to split the team of veterans up. They were just too good.
“We have a very, very good team,” Wege said.
They started out with talent, as 20 veterans joined the team’s creator David Van Sleet for a training camp in 2011, but since the club has gained popularity and new amputees have joined. They are all competitive by nature and don’t give up that edge just because they play with actors and local celebrities.
“When we step between the lines we’re there to win,” Wege said. “A lot of the guys you wouldn’t be able to tell we’re injured at all.”
“I don’t want to play against my teammates, but once we step in between the lines they are the enemy.”
Though they may go at it on the baseball diamond, the companionship off the field has been one of Wege’s favorite parts of the experience. They all come from similar backgrounds and deal with similar physical challenges.
“We kind of learn tips and how to get through life. That’s what we’re doing, that’s what our goal was when we first started. We just wanted to get our lives back,” he said.
“A lot of people call us an inspiration, but that’s just the drive that our military has. That’s the resilience that we still carry on in the game of softball.”
That competitiveness is what he hopes translates to those in the crowd, that they can still hold their own on a baseball field.
“The thing this team gives the nation is a comeback story. That’s what we are. We step on the field and we give our all, even through amputations,” he said.
“For us, the day starts earlier that most people. We don’t put on a pair of shoes. We put on a pair of prosthetics. We have to literally strap something to us to make us be able to go out and just walk around, not just go play softball.”
This year the Nationals selected a group of celebrities including Luke Russert, players’ wives such as Jen LaRoche and Chelsey Desmond, and Brian Dietzen from NCIS.
Dietzen, who plays on the NCIS softball team in L.A. against teams such as How I Met Your Mother and Desperate Housewives, became friends with Mark and Judy Lerner when they visited the set of his show. They invited him to participate and it was an invitation he jumped at.
“No matter where you live in America, we live with certain freedoms and those things aren’t just given to us,” he said. “The least that we can do is support them. Make them feel not only at home, but make them feel like the heroes that they are.”
The Nationals hosted the game on Sunday after the big league team’s 11-2 win over the Phillies. Their involvement is just another example of a dedicated relationship to those in the military. Each game they honor the troops by bringing veterans in and having the crowd salute them with a standing ovation.
Van Sleet is appreciative of the Nats and how they’ve helped the program.
“It’s just a perfect marriage,” he said. “It’s Washington, D.C., Walter Reed is in their backyard. A lot of guys come from Walter Reed to the games. Most of our guys went through Walter Reed. Having a professional baseball team behind you in support is just unbelievable.”
Wege, who as a part of the team wears a Nationals jersey when he plays, can’t say enough about the support the Nats have provided he and his teammates over the past three years.
“You gotta love the support. You gotta appreciate it. Me being in the military, I definitely do. I’m not one of those guys to go out and say ‘hey you have to thank me.’ You just gotta appreciate it,” he said.
“For a major league club like this to take the time out of their day to recognize the guys that are defending us and are that buffer between us and terrorism, threats against the U.S. It speaks words to what they’re all about. I think at the core this organization is great to us. We’re part of the family, we’re part of the Nats organization. I’ll always proud to wear that ‘W.’”
The Wounded Warrior amputee softball team is a non-profit organization, but accepts donations for travel expenses as they tour the United States around the year. For more information visit www.thewwast.org.
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