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Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team inspires awe

Think about this for a moment: Their motto is "Life without a limb is limitless." Then you watch them display that motto on a softball field, and you become an instant believer.

You watch a lineup for a seven-inning softball game that includes a catcher and a first baseman, each who lost both legs in combat. You watch every other player on their team who has lost a limb in Iraq or Afghanistan, and suddenly you’re reminded that war is hell.

You watch them play at the softball field in Sun City Summerlin, and you become utterly amazed after seeing them drive home runs well beyond the fences in left and right field, more than 275 feet from home plate. You watch in awe as a one-legged amputee slides into second base for a double.

And you marvel, all the time keenly aware of the fact that most of them are running with prosthetic devices that serve as their legs. In fact, their literature promotes their amputee status by stating, "We push the limits of modern prosthetic technology."

They are easily identified by their camouflage-colored softball uniforms. They are the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They came to Summerlin to play last Saturday, just as they did last month from homes across the U.S., and they displayed incredible talents at the Pinnacle softball field in Sun City.

And appropriately, they came to Las Vegas to celebrate Veterans Day two days ago by playing two games at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. But the games they played in Sun City were particularly memorable to their coach, David Van Sleet.

When they visited Las Vegas in October, they first defeated a national team of police officers at Big League Dreams Sports Park, 3151 E. Washington Ave. The next morning they came to Summerlin and beat the host Sun City senior men’s team. They did the same to a team of firefighters from Las Vegas Fire & Rescue —- all within 24 hours.

Roy Lawson, the budget analyst for Las Vegas Fire & Rescue, was largely responsible for bringing the Wounded Warriors to Summerlin. Lawson contacted Tom Popek, president of the Sun City Men’s Softball Club, to arrange for the two games they played at the Pinnacle field.

"They like this field, and they like the atmosphere here," said Lawson, referring to the appreciative spectators from Sun City. Van Fleet confirmed that and added that his team was so impressed with the entire Summerlin environment, it would like to return next year.

"We came here to play hard and to win," said Van Sleet, who lives in Espero, Fla. He is also the founder of the Wounded Warriors, having created the team of amputees in March 2011.

"I’m an Army veteran, but I’m whole, and so I don’t play on the team," he said. "Every player on our 14-member roster has lost at least one limb."

Van Sleet said Las Vegas is the 38th city the team has played in this year, and Nevada is the 17th state. The Wounded Warriors have numerous sponsors, including airlines and hotels, which cover their expenses.

"We’re composed of half Marines and half Army," Van Sleet said. "Half of our guys fought in Iraq, and the other half fought in Afghanistan."

Josh Wege, 22 and a Marine veteran of the Afghanistan War, is the first baseman. He lives in Campbellsport, Wis. He lost both legs just below the knees in 2009.

"I was riding in a vehicle that got hit by a roadside bomb," Wege said.

Left fielder Nick Clark of Seattle explained how he was manning an Army machine gun in Afghanistan when a rocket grenade tore off his left leg in 2007. Second baseman Bobby McCardle, a Marine veteran from Franklin, Wis., was 21 when he lost his right leg in Iraq in 2007 due to a road bomb.

Shortstop Matt Kinsey of Rockville, Ind. —- an Army parachutist —- was 25 when a land mine ripped off his right foot in Afghanistan in 2010.

Each man tells a similar story. Each man is soft-spoken. Each man is polite and speaks with a friendly smile. Each man is happy to be alive and playing softball.

Herb Jaffe was an op-ed columnist and investigative reporter for most of his 39 years at the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. His newest novel, "All For Nothing," is now available. Contact him at hjaffe@cox.net.

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