The idea came to David Van Sleet last March. Van Sleet works for the Department of Veteran Affairs, with a specialty in assisting veterans who have been wounded in war and require prosthetic limbs. In March, the University of Arizona received a congressional grant to start a new program for wounded soldiers. Van Sleet was part of the committee for how to use the grant.
“I had a crazy idea,” he said. “I wanted to start an amputee softball team.”
Van Sleet began organizing the team with a spring training in March, and the idea reached a new peak today at Nationals Park. After the game today, the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team will play a softball game against a team of local celebrities.
The program has helped the warriors adjust to life after losing a limb, providing camaraderie and normalcy. “These guys suffered a devastating injury,” Van Sleet said. “When they found out they had to have something amputated, they didn’t even think they were going to walk, much less play a sport. They’re at a very high level now. These guys preserved through extensive rehabilitation.”
Van Sleet took 20 players to the University of Arizona in March for spring training, not knowing which direction the team would go. He decided to barnstorm around the country, playing community teams made of police and firemen. He decided, “We need to connect with a major league baseball team.”
Van Sleet came to Nationals Pak with two players from the team in June and was invited on to the field before a game. Van Sleet introduced himself to Nationals Director of Community Relations Israel Negron and told him about the softball team. It turned out Negron had heard about the softball team through Walter Reed hospital and wanted to set up an event and the game.
The players came to the game last night. Today, they lingered on the field pregame. The entire team posed for a picture with Stephen Strasburg, Jonny Gomes and Brian Bixler. The three Nationals chatted with the players for a few minutes afterward. One player looked at the picture on his camera phone and said, “You can tell he’s really smiling. That’s cool.”
The players walked into the major league stadium, six months after the group had formed out in Arizona, awed by where they would play a game.
“For them to go, ‘Oh my God’ when they walked in the stadium, that’s when I realized I sort of accomplished my goal,” Van Sleet said. “I mean, we’re going to be around for a while. But I accomplished my goal just seeing them say, ‘Oh my God.’ ”