Wounded veterans trade the battlefield for the playing field

By MEG JONES | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | Published: July 4, 2012

FRANKLIN, Wisc. — The roadside bomb changed Bobby McCardle's life.

And his swing.

McCardle is a much different ballplayer than when he was a second baseman for his Whitnall High School baseball team. For one, he's no longer a teenager — he's 26 and a married father of two. Second, he's a member of a terrific squad of softball players who travel around the nation hitting home runs, throwing strikes and inspiring countless spectators.

The IED, or improvised explosive device, that exploded underneath the Humvee McCardle was driving in Iraq five years ago took his right leg, but it also led to an opportunity the aspiring cabinetmaker from Franklin could never have foreseen.

"It's turned into a train ride. I'm not getting off until the train stops," said McCardle, who served in the Marines from 2004 to 2008.

McCardle plays for the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team, a squad of Iraq and Afghanistan veter ans who lost limbs to explosions.

Founded 15 months ago, the slow-pitch softball team plays able-bodied squads from communities around the country and is making its first visit to Wisconsin this weekend. The veterans will play three games Saturday at Lakeside Park in Fond du Lac in an event billed as "Dustup on the Diamond."

The team of 15 players is almost evenly divided between veterans of the Army and Marines and split between those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost all lost parts of their bodies to IEDs or rocket-propelled grenades. No matter the weather, they always wear shorts. They're not afraid to show off their prosthetic legs and arms because they know they're an inspiration to other people with disabilities.

Players hail from all parts of the U.S. Wisconsin is the only state to boast two team members — McCardle and Josh Wege, a Marine from Fond du Lac who lost his legs in Afghanistan.

In every community, at each softball diamond, they're treated like rock stars. The Washington Nationals are one of the team sponsors, providing uniforms and instruction. Two team members will play next week in the celebrity softball game that's part of the All-Star Game festivities in Kansas City. Members of the team have been featured in Sports Illustrated and on ESPN and HBO's "Inside Sports." They have shoe and ball contracts. Louisville Slugger is a sponsor.

The team's calendar is filled for the rest of this year, and most of 2013 has been scheduled — including at trip to Hawaii in 2013 to play softball at several military bases. Some events are already planned for 2014.

"Everywhere we've gone the support is amazing. I didn't expect this," said McCardle as he held his 9-month-old son, Chase, during a recent interview in his kitchen.

Wege, 22, thought the team might find enough games to keep going for a year or two. He never suspected he would travel almost every weekend and play 85 games in a year. From March through mid-June, Wege — one of two team members who has played every game — was on the road 40 days playing softball.

Like McCardle, Wege played high school baseball. He was the team captain and leftfielder for Winnebago Lutheran Academy, which lost to Waupun in the state baseball sectionals in 2008, his senior year.

Both McCardle and Wege joined the Marines shortly after graduating from high school. Both were injured by IEDs. And both were hand-picked to come to a one-week softball camp of veterans adjusting to the loss of a limb at the University of Arizona in March 2011.

McCardle's right leg was amputated below his knee three months after he was wounded by the IED in Anbar province that also broke his hip, elbow and jaw, shattered his teeth and caused a concussion. At the time, he was 20 and had been married six months. He was given the option of amputating his leg, an incredibly difficult choice but one McCardle says he's glad he made. The prosthetic leg allows him to be more active, making it easier to chase after his kids and play softball. He wouldn't have been able to do that had he kept his severely injured leg.

He also had to relearn to hit a ball.

"I'm still working on my swing. I'm missing a leg, but it's also the timing. When I played, I swung down on the ball, but now it's more of an upper cut," said McCardle, who is taking business management classes at MATC so he can start his own cabinetmaking company.

Wege, a football, baseball and basketball player in high school, has had to work on his balance in the batting box, opening his front foot to create a more stable base.

"The hardest part was learning how to bat again. You have to find a point where you can still twist and get your hips into the ball," said Wege, who grew up in Campbellsport.

Wege was on a routine patrol in Afghanistan's dangerous Helmand province when a 200-pound bomb ripped through the armored vehicle where he was sitting in October 2009. The bomb shredded both of his legs below his knees.

He was at Walter Reed hospital working on agility and ladder drills when he was asked if he played softball. Soon after, Wege was at the University of Arizona at the softball camp run by David Van Sleet, who spent 30 years working with prosthetics at VA hospitals.

At first it was supposed to be only a weeklong event for young veteran amputees funded by a one-time grant. But after the week, the guys so enjoyed the camaraderie and playing softball that they asked Van Sleet whether the team could continue in some way.

Van Sleet's parents held a fundraiser in Florida that paid for the first trip of softball games. Then the national media picked up on it, more money poured in to the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team and pretty soon the squad was in heavy demand.

All travel expenses and equipment for the players are provided through sponsorships and donations. Among the corporate sponsors and donors are Oshkosh Truck and Sargento Foods, which has booked the team to appear in Plymouth next June. In addition to plane tickets, meals and hotels, players receive a $50 per diem on trips to pay for incidentals such as airport parking and baggage fees.

Of the 15-member team, Van Sleet uses at least 11 players on each trip. Players fit the games around their work or class schedules. Some like Wege, who is single, go to almost every game, while others like McCardle play as often as they can.

Van Sleet, who retired from the VA in December to work full time as coach and team organizer, noted that the large number of amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has spurred vast improvements in prosthetic technology.

"People ask me all the time could this team exist 10 years ago? Yes, but not at this level," said Van Sleet. "Most of these guys, if they were wearing pants, you wouldn't know they're amputees."

Players are funneled to positions based on their ability and prosthetic. In the outfield, Van Sleet tends to pencil into the lineup a leg amputee in left field, an arm amputee in center and another leg amputee in right. Players with above-the-knee prosthetics pitch and catch. One player lost his arm up to his shoulder — he plays in the outfield, catching the ball with his glove on his only arm, throwing his glove in the air, catching the ball and throwing out runners in one smooth, continuous motion.

Wege, whose photo adorned the cover of Softball magazine this year, plays first base, and like all good first basemen, he sometimes must dig out a throw, getting low enough to do the splits.

"I learned if it's a close play and I need to do it, I can stretch out a little bit further than you think," said Wege. "I always tell people I don't have as many tendons in my legs, so it doesn't hurt as much."

The Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team only plays able-bodied teams, usually squads from police and fire departments, colleges and the military. On Saturday, they'll play teams from the Fond du Lac police and fire departments and Dan's Village Bowl.

If teams pity the wounded warriors, they quickly learn the veterans play hard and they play to win. The squad's record is around .500.

"I think people feel sorry for them because they're young and lost a limb in the war," said Van Sleet. "But I think by the second inning, they forget they're amputees."