Bill Ballew 2015-11-24 04:02:12
This past September marked the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that led to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since then more than 6,800 U.S. military personnel have lost their lives while tens of thousands have suffered serious injuries, including approximately 2,000 amputees. These figures bring to mind a quote by George Washington, who said more than two centuries ago, “My first wish is to see this plague of mankind—war—banished from the earth.” The realities of the present-day situation have led some special individuals to help those who fought for the freedom we continue to enjoy in the United States. A handful have even gone so far as to not only assist veterans in their time of need but allow them to return to normalcy and thrive, all the while receiving some appreciation for their service and having the opportunity to do something they love. Five years ago, an idea with all of those components seemed too good to be true. David Van Sleet heard that type of talk on countless occasions yet knew what he envisioned had a chance to become something much bigger and more beneficial than the naysayers might believe. His perseverance wound up paying off with the formation of the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team, which over the past few years has become one of the best-loved and most well-known signs of patriotic pride in the United States. Truth be told, even Van Sleet did not foresee a touring team of military personnel, both active and retired, with amputations suffered during the Freedom Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. A veteran of the U.S. Army with a background in prosthetics, Van Sleet simply wanted to provide an opportunity to some soldiers to participate in athletics after suffering their life-altering event. In addition to working with the Department of Veterans Affairs, he was a softball enthusiast who had been associated with the game for more than three decades and thought the sport could be an ideal activity at the University of Arizona, whose Disability Resource Center had obtained a Congressional grant to host a sports camp for disabled veterans. Twenty men were selected from a couple hundred applicants to travel to Arizona in March 2011 to learn and play the game of softball for a week. Many of the veterans had never discussed their amputations with someone who had experienced a similar event. Despite featuring members from each of the four branches of the armed services, a common bond formed immediately, which left more than half the participants longing for more. “I tell people that I believe there was four pieces to the puzzle and I was fortunate enough to possess all four of them,” Van Sleet said. “After that week in Tucson, Arizona, several players came up to me and asked, ‘Where do we go from here?’ Unfortunately, the answer was, ‘You go home; the funding is over.’” Van Sleet’s father, Jack, flew to Arizona and watched the camp. He noticed how much several players wanted to take the opportunity to play softball together to another level and encouraged his son to find a way to make it happen. David, meanwhile, was amazed at the participants’ athletic ability and admits to being surprised at how well they adapted with their prostheses after having played baseball in high school and, in some cases, college. A month later, in April 2011, Van Sleet’s parents and volunteers worked with Highland Woods Golf and Country Club in Bonita Springs, Florida on a golf tournament. Nearly $7,000 was raised to support the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball team. As a result, in May Van Sleet and 11 players who had been together in Arizona headed to the nation’s capital and played games in Fairfax, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Annapolis, Maryland, over a three-day period. “I didn’t feel like I had a team in March,” Van Sleet said. “It wasn’t a team until we started to form in April, and then we played for the first time in May. To go from a camp to a team in two months was absolutely mind-boggling.” One of the primary reasons Van Sleet and the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team was able to form so quickly involved the assistance provided by sponsors, particularly Louisville Slugger. In fact, as soon as the company caught wind of the idea in December 2010, the iconic provider of bats and other baseball and softball equipment expressed their desire to help. Louisville Slugger not only sent gloves, bats, batting gloves and equipment bags to the camp in Arizona, the company also provided marketing and public relations support through their agency, Doe Anderson, which helped get the word out as soon as the team was formed. “When we heard about the team David Van Sleet in his prosthetic position with the Department of Veterans Affairs was putting together, we said without hesitation, ‘We want to provide all of your equipment,’” said Rick Redman, Louisville Slugger’s vice president of corporate communications. “We wanted to ensure that these guys who have sacrificed so much for our country’s safety and freedom would have the very best equipment available to help them play competitively and have fun.” Stepping up to the plate for U.S. military causes is a longstanding tradition for Louisville Slugger. Throughout its long history the company has supported the American military, dating to World War I when it first sent baseball gear to U.S. troops in Europe. Since then Louisville Slugger has donated baseball and softball gear to troops in every U.S. conflict, including more than 17 tons of gear going to American soldiers in war theaters since 2003, to help boost morale by providing some much-needed recreation. Louisville Slugger’s association with WWAST and Doe Anderson’s assistance also led to a plethora of media exposure, including a feature story in the Washington Post during the team’s three-game debut. Before long, WWSAT was featured on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, ESPN, ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated. The Washington Nationals noticed as well, which led to additional sponsorship as well as WWAST becoming a 501(c)(3) entity and fan favorites in ballparks large and small, including such major league venues as Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Petco Park and Nationals Park. “Since the Washington Nationals started working with the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team in 2011, we have been in constant awe of the pure athletic ability - and maybe even more so, the intense dedication and strength of character - demonstrated by the players,” said Mark Lerner, vice chairman and principal owner of the Washington Nationals. “We’re honored to have helped them off the ground and we’re proud to have been the first Major League Baseball team to host them on a big league field.” “We have had players participate in the annual celebrity softball game prior to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in each of the last four years,” Van Sleet said. “Jennie Finch first heard of us there and what she has done since has been absolutely incredible and amazing. She brought us down to her home area of Sulphur, Louisiana, twice, once in 2012 and once in 2014, and had 5,000 people in the stands two nights in a row on both trips. We played an exceptional team of former professional athletes.” Since WWAST played its first games in May 2011, the team has gone to 35 states and taken the field in more than 150 playing venues throughout the country. Currently the team consists of 30 players (including 11 who have been with WWSAT since the beginning) who live throughout the country and range in age from 25 to 53. Twelve players typically travel to play in any given event. Their competition always consists of able-bodied players and features teams of all levels of play. “We play all types of games, whether it’s exhibitions, celebrity events or tournaments,” Van Sleet said. “These guys are playing serious games at times and playing it very well. Honestly, nothing impresses me with this team any more. I felt they could do it and they’re doing it. “In the process, I’ve gotten to see the United States the way I wish everyone could see it. I’ve seen it from small town USA to the big city lights. We found out a long time ago while traveling that the heartland of America is our lifeline. We draw large crowds in the heartland because we’re often the only game in town that weekend and everybody comes out to see us.” Van Sleet believes that every trip the team makes is special and is always impressed with the connection the fans and WWAST players make over the course of a few hours. That is particularly true when the team works with and plays against local police and fire departments and other first-responders. The common bond of giving and protecting is immediately obvious, which creates an atmosphere in which everyone benefits. Plus many first-responders are former military personnel. Yet perhaps the most obvious example of the team’s two-way exchange of encouragement is seen during its annual WWAST Kids Camps, which welcome 20 children with amputations every year. The first one was held at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando in 2013, with the second and third taking place in Louisville, Kentucky, and Mission Viejo, California, respectively. “That’s been an amazing experience for all involved,” Van Sleet said. “Those young kids between the ages of eight and 12 inspired our guys with amputations and our guys inspired those young kids. One thing we realized right away is that some of those kids have been amputees longer than some of the guys on our team. Sixty kids have gone through that camp so far and I know there have been some lasting friendships develop among the kids and the players.” Other highlights over the past five years for WWAST include a trip to Hawaii in January 2013 when the team played on five military bases in seven days. The players were able to see and learn about military history they might otherwise never had the opportunity to experience while also having the chance to play the game. The team also has been invited twice to the PoliceSoftball.com World Series in Las Vegas and been the guest of many college fastpitch teams, including Alabama, Arizona, Notre Dame, George Mason and South Carolina. Their team song was written and released in 2012, their book, Battlefied to Ball Field, was released in 2104, and their full feature length documentary has completed filming and is in the editing stage and expected to be released on 2016. Having been involved with the program on a full-time basis for the past five years, Van Sleet recently decided to step down as CEO/General Manager of WWAST, Inc., effective in February 2016. Van Sleet retired from the Department of Veterans Affairs on the last day of 2011 and received the Olin E. Teague Award, the VA’s highest award. He also has been presented with the George Washington Medallion of Merit Award through the Military Order of the Purple Heart in 2013. Both awards recognize an individual whose achievements have been extraordinarily beneficial in the rehabilitation of warinjured service men and veterans. While he is considering a variety of different paths, one being keeping his feet on the ground a bit more in Estero, Florida, Van Sleet knows the relationships he has formed since March 2011 will continue for the rest of his life. “This has been very humbling and inspiring for me,” Van Sleet said. “I’ve gained a lot of friendships through players, families and the softball world. Initially I was told it couldn’t be done, but having a prosthetic background and seeing how young and athletic and active a lot of these guys looked, I believed in the idea right from the beginning. I’ll be going to a lot of college graduations and weddings in the near future. I’ve seen these guys who thought they weren’t going to live go through extensive rehabilitation and perseverance to become an athlete again. This has given them a second chance to be an athlete by playing a sport many of them grew up playing.” “I am sorry to see David step aside as he was the engine that made this vehicle run for so many years, but at the same time I am happy for him as well,” said Louisville Slugger’s Dennis Turner. “From the first day I met David, I was inspired by his vision and determination in making this team bigger and better every year, in which he was successful. I wish nothing but the best for David in any future venture he decides to be a part of.” Although the WWAST has had the opportunity to touch the lives of thousands of people across the country, no one has been more impacted by Van Sleet’s efforts than the team’s players. All of the athletes have experienced a roller coaster of emotions since suffering their injuries in the Middle East, and all are grateful for the opportunity they have had working with Van Sleet while traveling throughout the United States. “Every once in a while, God places someone in your life that changes it for the better and gives you the opportunity to serve others,” said U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Josh Wege, a double amputee who lost both of his legs below the knee in Afghanistan. “For me, that someone is Mr. David Van Sleet. Combining his love for this country’s veterans and the game of softball, David took it upon himself to create the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team. When the team was first created, it gave me the chance to break free of the ‘brokenness’ of a military hospital and play one of this country’s oldest pastimes. “As a player, I immediately had two things in common with my teammates: One, we all wore the colors of our Nation’s military; and two, we were all significantly injured in some way, shape, or form that resulted in the loss of one or multiple limbs. The team filled the competitive gap that was missing in my life after my injuries. As the team evolved, the bigger picture of the team’s existence not only included the game of softball, but the opportunity to use my injuries by inspiring, educating, and serving others that come to see the team play. The new mission also included what we now call the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team Kids’ Camp that teaches 20 amputee children the game of softball. The camp is easily the most rewarding thing that I have ever been a part of in my life. My life will be forever changed and it was all made possible through David’s actions. For that, I will be eternally grateful.” Air Force veteran and WWAST player Leonard Anderson lost his left forearm and fingers on his right hand while also suffering severe burns. He, too, could not be more appreciative of the chance to play the game of softball thanks to the efforts of Van Sleet. “David Van Sleet has afforded me the opportunity to rehabilitate in a very unique way,” Anderson said. “Not only to continue to play a game that I love, but to connect with thousands of people from all walks of life, both young and old. He has given me a chance to push myself to a level I wasn’t sure I would ever be at again. David realized that competition is a huge manipulator in rehabilitation and created the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team. While allowing me to push myself he has also helped me in delivering a message to everyone I come in contact with. The team’s message, ‘Life Without a Limb is Limitless,’ is about perseverance and overcoming adversity in life. David has given me endless opportunities to become mentally, physically, and spiritually stronger as a person due to what he has created with WWAST. He is the definition of someone who is paying it forward, and has dramatically changed my life for all the right reasons.” In addition to the WWAST players, Van Sleet has been inspired by the generosity displayed by so many different people and companies, beginning with Louisville Slugger, Highland Woods Golf and Country Club and the Washington Nationals and continuing with USSSA, OSSUR, Margaritaville, Regenesis Biomedical, InDyne, Knight Point Systems, Boombah, New Era, Majestic and many others. Suffice it to say the things he has seen and the caring he has experienced over the past five years have left a permanent impact on his life. “I would like to thank everyone involved in this whole adventure, especially the friends, family and people working and volunteering in the WWAST, Inc. organization and the players, the coaches who helped make this become what it has become,” Van Sleet said. “I have been very fortunate to surround myself with honest, positive people who were able to lift me and the team to a higher place. In the process, I have found what I think everyone is looking and striving for in their life. I have a sense of pride, accomplishment, and the ability to give something back and pay it forward.”
Published by Baseball Magazine. View All Articles.