It’s a chilly Friday night in Bonita Springs. The bleachers overflow with fans as the stadium lights kick on and eleven softball players jog into right field to warm up. These men have been through hell. They’ve braved bombs and bullets and shrapnel and rockets and fire. And now they are on a mission: to show that life goes on after war.
Outfielder Daniel “Doc” Jacobs, pictured above, 26, flops onto his back to stretch. Jacobs, a U.S. Marine who lives in San Diego, lost his left leg below the knee after being struck by an Improved Explosive Device (IED) during a routine patrol in the Sunni Triangle in Iraq in February of 2006.
After two years in rehab, Jacobs has returned to full duty. Part of his job includes traveling around the country with the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team, a collection of U.S. Army and Marine Corps veterans who have lost limbs post 9/11 while serving their country. The team averages two games a month against police departments and fire departments across the United States. On this night they play the Bonita Springs Fire Department.
Every member of the team has a story. Second baseman Tim Horton, 27, of San Antonio, served two years and eight months with the U.S. Marine Corps, with a full year of that service spent in the hospital after and IED struck his humvee, spraying his body with shrapnel, breaking his wrist, both elbows and taking his left leg below the knee. Horton said after 50 surgeries, he’s stopped counting. What he and his teammates can count on is his athletic ability, which he demonstrated by back-pedaling into center field and a diving catch to end the first inning.
Head Coach David Van Sleet also works for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, specializing in prosthetics. Van Sleet says he put the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team together last spring after marveling at the scope of athletic talent returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with severe injuries.
“After they were injured, they didn’t know if they were going to live,” Van Sleet said. “They didn’t know if they were going to walk again. They didn’t know if they were going to play sports again.”
After much brainstorming, Van Sleet put a national call out to VA hospitals, military bases and other organizations that might point him towards the best veteran amputee athletic talent in the country. Hundreds answered the call. Twenty made the cut.
One of the chosen few was Sgt. Randall Rugg, a 34-year-old native of Monroe, La. who now plays catcher. Rugg served with the U.S. Marine Corps from 1999 to January of 2004. His unit was ambushed on March 22, 2003 in Iraq. Rugg survived five rocket-propelled grenades hitting his vehicle. Like so many of his teammates, he lost his left leg below the knee.
Rugg says his transition to civilian life was difficult. There was no camaraderie. The two jobs he landed upon returning were fraught with office backstabbing. It was every man for himself, Rugg said. So when a representative from his VA called him, asking if he would be interested in playing softball with fellow amputees, Rugg jumped.
“Hell yeah. I’ll be there,” Rugg said.
“It’s therapeutic,” Rugg says. “It’s like being with family. It’s like going home to see mom and dad for the holidays and being around people that love and accept you. It’s the same thing with this.”
“We’ve been pushed to the brink of what our bodies can be pushed to,” he said. “Sometimes my leg - it’s sweaty. It hurts. But the job’s not done. I push it to the end.”
The Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team is a nonprofit organization that depends on charitable donations to continue their outreach and advocacy across the United States. If you are interested in learning more or donating to the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team, visit their website: www.woundedwarrioramputeesoftballteam.org, or call: (703) 549-2288.