This All-Amputee Softball Team is Changing the Way We Think About Treating Trauma
As the number of veterans with both physical and psychological injuries balloons, this squad of 11 wounded warriors wards off PTSD by playing a little ball.
On a clear July afternoon, the Warriors softball team walks into Canal Park – a 7,630-seat minor league baseball stadium in Akron, Ohio – in sort of a funk. The squad was just thrashed in a tournament in Brainerd, Minnesota, losing all four games they played. The same ten men and one woman then flew to Akron on five separate flights to take part in a doubleheader today, the first against a “local celebrities” team fronted by the city’s mayor. The Warriors warm up by stretching, tossing high flies on the sunlit outfield, and smacking neon softballs in the underground batting cages below the dugout. But there’s a new concern overtaking the malaise brought on by the exhausting travel and demoralizing losses back in Brainerd: there aren’t enough towels in the locker room.
“An amputee needs a lot of towels,” says Zach Briseno, a 32-year-old veteran of the second Iraq War. Brisneo, from Fort Worth, Texas, is missing both of his legs from the knees down. Flexing his arms and thighs on a wall-mounted joint stretcher, he adds, nodding toward the baseball diamond, “Because out there, things can get a little messy.”
The Warriors – whose complete name is the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team – is a traveling collective of veteran athletes from around the United States, all with visual wounds: missing hands, legs, arms, eyes. Some also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other emotional trauma. The team of former colonels, infantrymen and specialists turned policemen, mental health therapists and inspirational speakers was first constructed in 2011 to help shatter stereotypes of injured vets as downtrodden and despondent. The squadron, which plays about 80 games per year, has also become an alternative form of therapy for its members.
“Our goal is to inspire,” Briseno says as he walks through a hallway underneath Canal Park toward the locker room. “Yes, a lot of us do have missing legs; one guy lost his eye in an RPG attack. But our goal is to realize that that sore knee that’s bothering you, it’s not that big of a problem.”
Briseno, the Warriors’ first baseman and second-place hitter, enters the visitors’ locker room, and talks to the bat boy, a volunteer for the local celebrity team, about what the Warriors need to start the game.
“Towels?” the bat boy says, facetiously, upon the request. “But you’re our enemy!”
“Am I?” Briseno quips. Finally a member of the local celebrity team hands him a stack.
By gametime at 7:05 p.m., the spirit of the Warriors starts to liven. On the bench, Danielle Green from South Bend, Indiana, who lost her left arm in Iraq, cleans off her bat-attachable prosthetic while waiting for her two-year-old son Daniel to show up with his father. Cody Rice, a 32-year-old former Afghanistan Special Forces squad leader with no right leg, banters with teammate Josh Wege (“No leg-y Wege,” as Rice calls him) in the dugout.
Coach Bucky Weaver begins to rally the team from the sidelines: “Warriors... Crowd time! Let’s go!”
After a 16-year-old girl in a bejeweled dress sings the national anthem, the 11 Warriors, uniformed in flag-sleeved polyester shirts and firetruck-red Reeboks, take the field in front of about 4,000 fans – many of them also decorated vets – cradling hot dogs and craft beers.
Following Weaver, the Warriors form an oval on the third base line as AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” roars through the stadium. “Sound of the drums, beatin’ in my heart,” Rice sings along in a husky, high-pitched falsetto like that of the group’s frontman. A few Warriors laugh. “The thunder of guns, tore me apart.”
The AC/DC track fades and an electric organ riff hums loud. “Ready!” Weaver shouts again, and the team yells a collective, “One-Two-Three—WARRIORS!” and spreads out across the field.
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