Nick Clark (left) and Josh Wege get ready for practice

Amputees Are Making An Impact

Nick Clark (left) and Josh Wege get ready for practice

Nick Clark (left) and Josh Wege get ready for practice
Nathalie Walker photo

It lasted only about an hour, not much time to get to know them.

Running around Millican Field at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, they could have been any young service members letting off steam or just enjoying the weekend with some softball and trash talking, and the losers buying rounds at Club Pearl Enlisted Club. The only difference is the missing legs that, if you hadn’t been paying attention, could have gone unnoticed as they bound around the field and endanger cars beyond the distant centerfield fence.

In fact, it’s not until they remove their prosthetics does the gravity of their injuries and sacrifice become apparent. Before that, they’re just young men playing ball.

The four athletes are members of the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team. They were on island last week to promote their Jan. 5-12 series of games against able-bodied military and civilian teams. The contests aren’t rehabilitation exercises for the 14 guys who make up the team; it’s for the veterans who still struggle and the children born with defects who may think life has passed them by.

“There are a lot of kids who have prosthetic arms and legs, and to see grown guys playing, it gives them hope to continue with their rehabilitation,” said Sgt. Matt Kinsey, a 27-year-old former paratrooper who lost part of his right leg to a land mine in Afghanistan.

The team was created in October 2010 by David Van Sleet, an Army veteran and VA employee. With the thought of playing a few weekend games, the call went out and 200 former high school and college athletes applied.

“It just took off. In a year and a half we went from playing one game a week and saying goodbye to these guys to playing in 37 cities and playing three weekends a month.”

Not only has the team been a popular opponent – they turn down more offers than they accept – they’ve dominated. In their first contest they bested the FBI 35-10. Evidently, there is no mercy rule in amputee softball. According to their website, they’ve played in the neighborhood of 60 games this year, and while they don’t keep stats, Van Sleet estimates their record at 40-20.

Such a relentless pace does take its toll.

“Right now my skin is broken and it’s bleeding in front,” said Josh Wege, a Marine who lost his both his legs below the knee after the vehicle he was riding in struck an improvised explosive device. “It’s just something I have deal with right now. My prosthetic just doesn’t fit right now. I probably grew out of it. A lot of times after a game my legs are pounding – they’re bruised, they are sore, but if you have a good pair of prosthetics, it makes it better and you don’t have as much skin breakdown.”

As the message has gotten out, the team members have become celebrities of sorts. They’ve appeared in Sports Illustrated, on HBO and have done enough interviews to be seasoned pros. Louisville Slugger has donated more than $20,000 in equipment to the team. The Washington Nationals, whose uniforms they don as practice gear, invited them to play in Nationals Stadium, and former USA Softball star Jennie Finch helped raise untold amounts for the group. Still, it’s all secondary to the real mission.

“You never know what impact your life will have on someone else,” said Wege.

We do now.