what I learned from the army and marines

Photo by James Cassimus

The coach of the Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team sat across from me on the bus. He was silent, seemingly lost in thought when he suddenly jerked his head up, leaned over to the seat behind him, and asked one of his players if he knew where Lee was. Receiving a negative response, he shook his head, saying to no one in particular, “This is not how we do things.”

Two members of the WWAST offered to track Lee down and exited the steps to begin their search mission. I listened to the conversations swirling around behind me. I had been on this bus before. I rode it 20-30 times a year through four years of high school. I had ridden it in college. Every bus with a group of guys waiting to run onto a field or court is the same: tons of one-minute discussions that end when one of the participants (a) makes a crack at the other’s expense, or (b) seeks out the opinion of a third-party, also on the bus, to confirm the veracity of a crack made at the other’s expense. In either case, the official signal that the conversation has ended is a burst of short laughter, quickly replaced by the commencement of another one-minute discussion.

The coach, Dave Van Sleet, started the WWAST while still working full-time for the Veterans Administration. An Army veteran, Van Sleet is an intense guy, a fact you discover as soon as you talk to him for more than two minutes. His eyes burn through the thin rectangular glasses on his face, and sit underneath the baseball cap he’s perpetually wearing, save for the odd moment when he pulls it off to reveal a head shaved to the skin. Quick both to smile and to shout out an order, Van Sleet always appears to be pushing forward, driving towards an end point that’s clear in his own mind.

He recently retired from the V.A. after 30 years so that he could focus all his considerable energy on this softball team. His efforts have not gone unnoticed – this past November, he received the V.A.’s Olin E. Teague Award. Deputy Secretary of the V.A., W. Scott Gould, presented it to him, saying:

In the past couple of years, VA senior leaders, led by Secretary Shinseki, have collaborated on identifying VA’s core values. After much debate, we came up with five: Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, Excellence. Each of these words is deeply meaningful for the work we do, and when you take the first letter of each word, you get the acronym “I CARE”—which very neatly sums up what VA is all about.

What says “I CARE” better than David’s leadership of the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team? And what could be more in keeping with Chairman Teague’s life-long concern to improve the lives of wounded Veterans?

It’s with a start that I realize I’m now the target of Van Sleet’s attention: “So where are you playing tonight?”, he asks.

“Catcher and first base is what I’ve been told,” I reply, slightly nervous to be in his cross hairs.

“You play a lot?”

“Never play softball. Last time I played baseball was in college, so this should be an interesting experience,” I say.

The recon team members  jump back on the bus, reporting to Van Sleet that they have located their missing teammate in the lobby. When Lee, a tall above-knee amputee,  joins the rest of us a few minutes later to take a seat two rows in front of Van Sleet and across the aisle, I wonder whether he has chosen that particular location because it’s free, or so he doesn’t have to see his coach. Given Van Sleet’s look and the quick shake of his head upon Lee’s arrival, I decide that either way, Lee chose his seat wisely.

The game is still ninety minutes and 18 miles away. I can already feel the adrenaline racing through me.

*   *   *

As someone who is missing a limb, you’ll have to take my word for it that when you’re part of an amputee gathering, there’s a connection driven by shared experience. I noticed this the first time I found myself at the Amputee Coalition’s National Conference in 2002. As I drove up in an airport van and saw a bunch of guys lounging outside the front of the hotel with prosthetic legs, I told my wife that I felt the urge to jump out of the vehicle, arms spread wide, shouting, “My people!”

At that event, my people had come to a hotel in Anaheim to share. They sat and told their stories. They expressed their fears and weaknesses. Tears were shed. It resembled the first 30 minutes of Fight Club, with the Narrator (Ed Norton) trying to connect to his fellow man by attending an ever-expanding list of support group meetings.

The softball game against the WWAST was not, it was clear, going to be that kind of event.

Photo by James Cassimus

This time, “my people” wore camouflage jerseys. They were big. They were strong. They had all lost their limbs in a foreign country, far from their families and homes. Even though I had lost my leg in a traumatic accident, I was pretty sure that we were not going to be sitting in a circle, holding hands, and weeping at any point that evening. (Unless it was me sobbing at my own softball incompetence.)

Van Sleet had set the tone that morning: “We’re here to have fun. [Long pause] But my guys like to win.” The members of the WWAST had coyly grinned while standing in a row behind him on the stage, and laughter had spread through the audience. That, in a nutshell, captures the essence of the WWAST: they’ll have fun, but they’ll also try to kick your ass.

I remind Van Sleet of his comment as the bus rolls towards Cathedral City, California, a town perched just west of the desert that extends from California to Arizona. He nods excitedly, and we end up talking for most of the 30 minutes until we arrive at the complex where the game will occur.

We get off the bus and I immediately feel small. Once I stand next to them up close, the WWAST guys are, for the most part, big human beings. I quickly walk away so that I can surround myself with more normally proportioned people. One of my teammates says to me, “Dave, maybe they’ll recruit you to their side during the game.”

“Let me see what the score is in about the 4th inning and then I’ll figure out which dugout I want to go to,” I shoot back. While we may have a chance of winning this softball game, I have little illusion about which side would win something that really mattered.

I warm up, getting a feel for the unfamiliar size and weight of a neon green softball. I swing a bat in the cage and determine that I can load my prosthetic leg without toppling over. I feel like I did before every game I played – soccer, baseball, basketball – between 1984 and 1992 – anxious, but in a good way. I want it to start.

*   *   *

I quickly learn that playing softball with an above-knee prosthesis presents certain challenges.  Before the game, I correctly opined that I needed to wear my running prosthesis in order to be of any use on the basepaths or in the field. That, combined with the discovery that I could swing a bat without ending up on the ground, had led me to believe that I was ready to play. Unfortunately, I have not correctly forecast my ability to execute both of these activities in quick succession.

I hit a hard grounder to third … and stand at home plate. The neurons that once took me from swinging to running fail to fire, and for a second, I’m rooted to the dirt in the batter’s box. A voice inside my head says, “Jackass – run!”, and I lurch in the general direction of first base. The throw beats me to the bag while I’m still only halfway down the line, but it’s low, and the ball skips away from Josh Wege, the first baseman.

At this point, two things go through my mind: (1) I could be safe at first, and (2) why am I still so far away from it? I accelerate far too late into a real run, and Wege snags the ball and hits the base with one of his two prosthetic feet while I’m still three strides away.

I have Manny Ramirized myself into an out, jogging because I believed the play was already over. Comparing myself to the steroid-using, chronically clueless major leaguer does nothing to improve my spirits.

I look at our first base coach, Ryan, who looks ready to run a marathon except for the beer in his right hand, and say, “Maybe I should have run faster.” Ryan, a smile on his face, politely agrees. The inning is over.

Photo by James Cassimus

*   *   *

As I watch the WWAST, I quickly uncover Van Sleet’s defensive coaching strategy, which is sound. Lower extremity amputees generally found themselves in the infield, where any limitation in lateral mobility can be mitigated by playing a few steps deeper than normal and having a cannon for an arm. This seems especially true of the WWAST’s shortstop, Matt Kinsey, whose throws from deep in the hole scream across the diamond with an audible “ssssssssss” as the softball plows through the cool air and hits Wege’s glove with a resounding crack.

Upper extremity amputees, on the other hand, find themselves in the outfield, where they eat up impossibly large amounts of real estate to snare fly balls, then flip both glove and ball into the air to catch the latter with their sound hand, and fire it back into the infield. The glove maneuver elicits hushed disbelief among some in our dugout, one player noting that it happened so fast he didn’t even see it. I find the glove-ball transfer less impressive than the fact that it appears most of the upper extremity amputees in the outfield have taught themselves how to throw again with their wrong arm.

In one of the night’s better defensive plays, the right fielder dives for a shallow fly and can’t come up with it. While rolling on the ground, he swats at the ball lying on the grass with his only hand, knocking it quickly into the infield like a hockey puck before the runners can advance any further. If he had tried to pick it up and throw it, another run would have scored. The expression “necessity is the mother of invention” flashes through my mind as the crowd cheers the play.

*   *   *

Photo by James Cassimus

(Josh Wege, 1B)

The game see-saws early. We jump out to a quick lead, only to be overtaken on a shot into the gap that runs all the way to the wall 320 feet from home plate. By the time the relay comes in to our shortstop, camouflage has already crossed home plate, giving the WWAST a two-run cushion.

The game remains close until the middle innings when a bang-bang play at first with two outs goes in our favor. Wege can’t believe the call and rolls his eyes to the heavens but holds back from yelling at the ump. From there, a combination of hard hit balls and errors result in us blowing the game open, and we’re suddenly up double digits.

I contribute nothing to our night offensively, grounding out two more times before coming up in the top of the seventh. Lee, the catcher, is now on his second prosthetic socket of the night, having snapped the first one in half while sprinting across first base. (He started the game in a check socket, breaking the fiberglass upon his impact with the base. Undaunted, he had picked up the two pieces of his prosthesis and hopped back to the dugout, calling out, “I’m ok!”)

Now, wearing a permanent socket that probably doesn’t fit that well, he looks at me and asks, “How’s it going?”

“Just great,” I reply. “I’ve made the third out already two times tonight. Going for the trifecta.”

He grins. “When we made the third out of the inning, we used to have to wear tutus afterwards.”

I quickly consider this alternate reality that, happily, I’m not part of, and tell him, “That means I’d be wearing two right now.”

I then proceed to hit an absolute pea at the pitcher, Tom Carlo. Carlo, who was born in the Bronx, snares the ball before it strikes his below-knee prosthesis. I haven’t had time to make it even one step out of the batter’s box. A smile involuntarily comes across my face as I flip the bat in the air and hold out my hands in the universal sign for, “what can you do?” I have no idea if Carlo is a Yankees fan or not, but if he is, I figure he’s taking great delight in retiring a one-legged opponent who’s wearing a 1978 Red Sox hat.

I have made the third out of the inning. Again. I look in the WWAST dugout. I see no tutus.

*   *   *

Photo by James Cassimus

(Tom Carlo, Pitcher)

I spend the bottom of the seventh watching from the bench as the final half inning plays out. A friend of mine who’s not playing stands on the top step of the dugout, watching the game.

“This is a great night, isn’t it?” I ask.

He looks at me with a somewhat pained expression on his face. “But they’re supposed to win,” he says plaintively.

I’m surprised by his answer, because that thought hasn’t even occurred to me as the game has played out. I respond, “Trust me, they didn’t come out here for us to let them win.” I find my reaction telling – for me, this isn’t about amputees playing (mostly) able-bodied competition. It’s just a softball game that both teams want to win.

The last half inning gets kick started by the WWAST’s oldest player and tonight’s pitcher, Tom Carlo, who sends a shot off the left field wall. He’s the first person on either team to hit the ball that far. He’s followed by Brian Taylor Urruela, who does him one better, sending a shot arcing over the mock Green Monster wall like a neon tracer. His arm goes up as he jogs towards first, knowing what he has accomplished before the ball has even left the park.

One of our outfielders tries to sprint in to give Urruela a high-five, but can’t make it to the infield in time. I find myself, with the rest of the players in our dugout, jumping up and down near home plate as Urruela circles the bases. He hits home plate while his teammates mob him like he has hit a walk-off shot. I stand behind the circle of camouflaged players, grinning stupidly from ear to ear.

I suddenly realize that Van Sleet had it right earlier in the day.

As I take the bus back to our hotel after the game, my back tightening up from the unfamiliar act of swinging a bat, I turn the improbability over and over again in my mind. A team made up of members of the Army and Marines is barnstorming across the country every weekend, teaching people how to have fun. And they’re doing that while trying to kick able-bodied America’s ass.

I wonder why that makes me feel so normal.

Photo by James Cassimus

(Me, looking much less coordinated and cool than I felt.)

5 thoughts on “what I learned from the army and marines

  1. You have walked among heroes, James. The first baseman, Josh Wege, is our son. He is surrounded by guys I would want in my corner in any and every situation. You, sir, caught that tone perfectly! Thank you for a great article that captures the warrior spirit Dave Van Sleet and his boys so very well.

    • Mr. Wege – thanks so much for your kind words. I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of cool people and do a lot of cool things since I lost my leg 15 years ago. But this one would go right to the top of any list I was making. It’s a unique and powerful experience standing on a field with these guys. I’m glad that you felt this captured the WWAST’s essence.

      Dave McGill

    • Oops… James was the photographer. But again, DAVE :-),
      great blog. I made my wife listen to me read it aloud to her last night. October 4, 2009 is long ago, but the tears at times are fresh.

  2. Pingback: don’t skip the audition « less is more

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s