“When I walk out onto the field with these guys it gives me the goose bumps,” Dan Lasko, 28, said after playing the Diamond Dream Foundation at George Mason University this past Saturday. “I always say there was three times in my life I got the goose bumps: The day I got married, the birth of my son, and when I take the field with these guys.”
As Dan made his way onto the field at Nationals Park with his fellow Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball teammates the following night, I got goose bumps too. Ten players, some who lost limbs while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, took command of the stadium in a friendly game against local Washington celebrities. As they warmed up—throwing to each another and running drills—their injuries seemed to fade away, along with any doubt that these men weren’t fully capable of dispatching the DC Celebrity team in short order.
It has been a difficult path to the ballpark for many of the players. After life-altering injuries, they had to rebuild. They were forced to heal with the help of rehabilitation and prosthetics, learned to accept their new physiques, and relearn how to do many of the things they love, including softball.
David Van Sleet, head coach and 30-year employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs, saw a need for returning Veterans to get involved in their community and proposed the creation of an amputee softball team. Six months ago, with the help of The University of Arizona, Van Sleet created a disabled sports camp. Twenty Vets were brought in from around the country. The Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team was born.
Once a month, the team comes together to play able-bodied sports teams ranging from firefighters to cops to the FBI (a team they easily dismantled). To show their capabilities, they never play other amputees. The team trains like any other ballclub; they work out, eat breakfast, hit the field, gather for a team lunch and take the field again. Over the course of the weekend, the team usually plays two games and they often win. Their record stands at 11-6.
For anyone that knows servicemembers or Veterans, it would be no surprise to see the level of competition these guys brought to the field. Outfield catches and second base slides came natural to the team as they racked up runs throughout the six innings of play. It was an encouraging sight that destroyed the mythical image of the downtrodden Veteran nursing an amputation. They not only performed, they excelled. And the scoreboard showed it. By the end of the night, the final tally was 15-4. Though the celebrities had a surprising cadre of big-hitters, the Wounded Warriors held steady.
After a post-game handshake and photo op, the players headed for drinks and hotdogs with a few lingering fans. Just beyond the stairs where the players exited, autograph seekers clutched hats and jerseys to be signed. They weren’t waiting for Stephen Strasburg or any other Washington Nationals star. They hoped to get the signature of players like Dan and coach David Van Sleet. Many ask how we can close the gap of understanding between civilians and Veterans that have persisted since Vietnam. That chasm seemed to narrow just a little this past Sunday evening.
View photographs of Sunday’s game below.