By Tim Hipps, Installation Management Command Public AffairsFebruary 28, 2012
VIERA, Fla. (Army News Service, Feb. 28, 2012) -- Cpl. Matt Kinsey says he plays for the newest version of "America's Team" -- the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team.
"We've got the best fans of any team in America," Kinsey said Feb. 24 after practicing at Space Coast Stadium, spring training home of MLB's Washington Nationals. "Everybody says we're America's new favorite team. The support that we get is just unbelievable -- everywhere we go, we get first-class treatment."
All the players are Soldiers or Marines who lost limbs while deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. They're the first softball squad completely assembled with wounded warriors playing on prosthetics or with missing body parts.
They plan to play 60 to 75 games this year against able-bodied teams, and they expect to win most of those contests. For these guys, however, every day spent on the diamond equals a win-win situation.
"The fans thank you for your service and everything, but they're kind of in awe because they're not used to seeing -- it's the first time it's ever been done: guys playing competitive softball on prosthetics," Kinsey said. "I think they look at us walking in like, 'ah, I don't know if these guys are really going to be up to snuff.'"
"But they find out pretty quickly that we can play. As soon as the game is over, I think they're just in awe of how hard we play and the talent level we're at. We get a really good reception," he said.
The team is the brainchild of David Van Sleet, 56, a former Army specialist who spent the past 32 years working with prosthetics for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"I've been involved with softball my whole life, managing, coaching and playing," Van Sleet said. "I just stopped to do this. I'm the brainchild, the founder and head coach."
"I saw some pretty athletic looking guys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan," he explained. "And the University of Arizona acquired a congressional grant that enabled us to bring 20 guys to Tucson in 2011 for a disabled veterans sports camp. I came up with the idea to make it a softball camp.
"When we were there, the camaraderie and the skill level that I saw, I was like, man, we've got something here. More importantly, the guys told me that we had something there, and they didn't want it to end. We took it from there and it's just exploded."
The team carries 13 to 15 players on the roster and takes 11 on each road trip to play against military teams, firemen, policemen, celebrity squads, elite women's teams and all-comers.
They will face a D.C. celebrity team following the Boston Red Sox-Washington Nationals game April 3 at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. They also have a game set for Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
More extravaganzas are set for Huntsville, Ala., and The Hamptons on Long Island, N.Y. And, Olympic softball star Jennie Finch has invited them to Louisiana for a "Battle on the Bayou." The team is also slated to play before the NCAA Women's Softball Championship finale in Oklahoma City.
Kinsey, 26, played baseball for Rockville High School in Indiana and a year of junior college ball for Danville Area Community College in Illinois. He experienced arm problems there and returned home to work on the farm for a couple of years before joining the Army in March 2006.
"I was on my second tour of Afghanistan when I stepped on a land mine on a night patrol and lost my right foot," Kinsey recalled of June 2, 2010, the day his life forever changed. "Half of it was missing initially. The explosion blew away from me, so I was very fortunate that happened. When I got to Walter Reed (Army Medical Center), we decided to take the rest of the foot. Now I have a nub."
"I had a very quick recovery. I was running by August," he added.
However, running again was a learning process.
"It's different at first. I'm not going to lie," said Kinsey, who shifted his pitching and catching baseball prowess to shortstop for softball. "You basically retrain yourself on how to play and how to move. But as far as getting up and going and planting, I probably have more of an advantage because I create more torque. I have more leg than a lot of the guys."
Saul Bosquez played high school, American Legion and two seasons of junior college baseball at Grand Rapids Community College before joining the Army. He soon deployed as a specialist from Fort Benning, Ga., to Iraq. On Aug. 1, 2007, Bosquez had completed a convoy of Iraqi police checkpoints and was returning to base when his vehicle encountered an improvised explosive device that broke his left leg in 11 places and collected two of his right toes. Eventually, he became a below-the-knee amputee.
"It was the best thing for me to do," Bosquez said. "It was a tough decision, being 22 years old, and having to decide where I wanted my leg cut off at. I guess it's a decision you never think you're going to have to make."
Bosquez's first athletic journey outside of WRAMC in Washington was to Jim Estes' Salute Military Golf Association clinic for wounded warriors in Olney, Md.
"You can feel sorry for yourself all you want, but it's not going to make your situation any better," Bosquez said then. "So why not try to do something?"
"It's like the easiest thing to do for guys missing legs," Bosquez recalls of the golf therapy. "It's not very high-impact, and it gets them back out there competing. Golf is not always against other people, though, it's a very mental game. I have a new found respect for golf. I play a lot of golf now."
On a good day, he has a golf handicap of 13, a score most honest hacks would envy. Bosquez, however, was a former football and baseball player who swam and ran track. He still yearned for team competition and was determined to play baseball again -- or at least softball.
"I can do other things, but they don't have a lot of programs for the things that I want to do," he said. "I'd like to start a baseball program and actually play in a league."
He since has learned how to ski on snow and water -- something he never attempted on two natural legs.
"I'd never tried either one until after I lost my leg," he said. "I picked it up just like that. Anything athletic always has just come pretty naturally to me."
Fast forward four years, and Bosquez is playing in a veritable softball league of his own.
Last March, about 20 wounded warriors gathered for the tryout camp at the University of Arizona. They concluded with an intra-squad game in which Bosquez threw out a runner at home plate to preserve the victory.
"That was a pretty cool moment," he said.
Kinsey said learning how to achieve daily activities was the hardest part of dealing with his injury.
"Being out here on a ball diamond, your mental instincts kick in," he explained. "I've played in thousands of games so it's more muscle-memory than anything. Everyday things like showering or getting up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, you have to hop there -- but you get your own system and learn what works."
Kinsey bats third in the Wounded Warriors' lineup.
"I go deep every now and then if the wind's not blowing in," he said with a grin.
He still has difficulty fathoming this whole scenario.
"If you would have asked me over a year ago when I got hit if I would be playing softball at spring training with the Nationals, let alone being on this team and getting to go to all the places that we've been, I'd tell you that you were full of it," Kinsey said. "This has been a dream come true, and it's only getting bigger. We've been from the East Coast to the West Coast so far."
Kinsey, a sixth-year Soldier, is stationed at WRAMC but is on permanent change-of-station home leave, awaiting clearance by the medical board.
A former quarterback, Kinsey helped coach his high school team for the past eight seasons. Now he's taking it to the next level.
"I'm going to be coaching college football next year at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Mich, but between doing that, softball basically is my full-time job," he said. "I'm going to be continuing my education up there."
Meantime, Bosquez is basking in the moment of traveling around the country to play softball.
"We've blown up in the past year," Bosquez said. "We were in 'Sports Illustrated.' We were on 'Real Sports with Bryant Gumble' on HBO. We just played a flag football game against retired NFL guys in Indianapolis the week of the Super Bowl, and we won by like 21 points. And, we were on like a five-minute segment on 'SportsCenter' with Rick Reilly.
"It's been a pretty big ride."
The Washington Nationals and Louisville Slugger are their primary sponsors, with Boombah providing shoes and Phiten tossing in accessories. Even musician Jimmy Buffett has boarded the caravan.
"This past October we hung out with him in Las Vegas, where the world's largest margarita was made," Bosquez said. "Wherever we go, the people who bring us out will take care of us."
All but one of the former baseball players had never played competitive softball, so they're learning the nuances of the game on the fly.
"Me and Matt still have the baseball swing and mentality -- it's kind of hard to break out of that," said Bosquez, 27, who received Army retirement papers three years ago. "Pretty much every athletes' dream of a second chance after they're done, we got it, and we're all taking the most from it."
The players hope to spread awareness and inspire others to realize that just because you're injured, it's not over.
"You're going to have to work for it, but you can do it again," Bosquez said. "We show that, and hopefully other disabled guys and other amputees will get that. Hopefully, we can inspire them to go out there and try."
"It's no different than someone who has a nagging injury or something that just can't heal. You might go out there and trip over your foot or something that you wouldn't have done before you got hurt -- just little things like that. But like they say, a day out on the golf course or a day out on the field is better than a day of pretty much anything else, so you can't complain."
"As long as I can play, I'll play," he said. "I'll play until my legs fall off, or my arm falls off, or whatever."
For his efforts, Van Sleet received the Veterans Administration's highest award before Congress last year.
"I've had a pretty good career with the V.A.," he said. "They took the flag off the Capitol and gave it to me."