#TGW: A Heartfelt Thank You

Nov. 27, 2014

By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

– What will you thankful for when you sit down to dinner with family and friends on Thanksgiving?

Most people put health on the top of the list. It’s something people tend to take for granted until you can’t. But health can be a relative thing.

Josh Wege’s version of good health is a lot different than most people’s.

Five years ago, Wege came face-to-face with death in Afghanistan as a 19-year-old United States Marine. But the Campbellsport, Wis., native, who now lives in Fort Myers, Fla., lived to tell about it and talks about it every day he and the Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball Team take the field.

“About six months into my first tour we hit a 200-pound IED (improvised explosive device, more commonly referred to as a roadside bomb),” he recalled. “It blew right up through the gas tank and i just happened to be sitting right there and it took both my legs below the knee with it. So at 19 years old I’m sitting here in a vehicle, thinking, `This could be it.'”

What followed is a small part of what Wege is thankful for. His staff sergeant ripped the twisted, couple-of-hundred-pound steel door to the vehicle off its hinges, allowing medics to enter and quickly applied life-saving tourniquets to both legs. A buddy, also injured in the blast allowed the medics to walk over his broken legs and treat Wege so as to save his life.

Both survived. Wege went through rehab, learning to use a pair of prosthetic legs and now, when he’s not studying at Florida SouthWestern State College, is part of the Wounded Warriors softball team.

“The only reason I’m still here is because of my guys,” he said, recently while at a Tech women’s basketball game at McCamish Pavilion. “That unit cohesion translates right into the sports teams. That’s why I love playing on sports teams. That’s why I love playing on this team because you immediately have two things in common. You were both in the military and you both got hurt traumatically in some way, shape or form. These guys are the epitome of the warrior ethos that is instilled into our military today. These are the guys you want on the front lines buffering you from the evils of the world. That’s what we’re here to do and we’re very good at it.”

The unit recently visited Georgia Tech and showed HOW good, walloping a very good alumni team, 22-9. While none of the former athletes, including President G.P. “Bud” Peterson, football players Joe Hamilton, Kelley and Randy Rhino, Roddy Jones, and Lucius Sanford, men’s basketball coach Brian Gregory, assistant baseball coach Bryan Prince, and former softball All-American Ashley Thomas, enjoyed tasting defeat, all of them, as well as the fans at Mewborn Field, had nothing but respect and admiration for their victors.

“It made for a fun game. It was a fun environment but they still kicked our butt,” said Thomas. “I love playing other teams that are super-competitive and they’re the most competitive team that I’ve played.”

The Wounded Warriors met and addressed the current Yellow Jackets team prior to the game, giving them a new sense of perspective. They then doled out the humble pie to the Tech alumni. But the score of the game was not as important as the message they brought by their presence.

“One of the biggest things that we as athletes on this softball team can give back to other athletes is perspective,” said Wege. “Honestly, we were all, something was taken away from us and a lot of us thought our athletic careers were over. Your life can change in an instant and it happened with us. We talked about just play every game like it’s your last. You never know. This injury of mine has been a blessing because I try not to take things for granted anymore. I worked my butt off to try to get back to where I am but my athletic base was taken away from me at 19 years old and I had to fight back.”

Allowing the injured vets this outlet to fight back and make a difference was the idea behind putting the team together back in May 2011 by David Van Sleet, the team’s general manager and a former Army veteran, who served in the Vietnam era. “We have Air Force, Marines, Navy and Army. Our ages range from 23 to 53,” said Van Sleet, who has spent his career working in prosthetics for the Department of Veterans Affairs. “These guys suffered a serious injury in the military and they didn’t think they were going to live. They certainly weren’t going to walk and to play a sport again was the furthest thing from their minds. But these guys persevered and went through extensive rehabilitation and they’re doing what they always wanted to do, to be a kid again and to play sports and they do it well.”

The entire experience was inspirational.

“Sometimes you just get caught up in everything going on in life and you forget why you’re really doing this or what other people are going through,” said Thomas. “Meeting them, their perspective, is amazing. It’s awesome to just talk to them. It puts your thinking into perspective a little bit more about, `Why I play this game. What I do this for. Why do I get mad that I just struck out that at-bat?’ There’s so much else going on. It just changes your perspective completely.”

The team, which played 103 games this year, visiting 40 cities, made its final 2014 stop in Atlanta, with Georgia Tech having the privilege of hosting thanks to efforts by softball coach Shelly Hoerner. (Scheduling the team is difficult, as it has a two-year waiting list). Thomas felt privileged to be on the field, even though the score didn’t go her team’s way.

With their mission done for 2014, WAST will take the winter off then get ready to get back to spreading their message of hope in 2015.

“We’re all like brothers. We’re all ex-servicemen,” Van Sleet said. “We have nine guys in college right now. It’s just a great story that everybody buys into. We’re very inspiring. It gives me extreme pleasure to see what’s going on and how popular we’ve become but more important, these guys have won even without getting on the field.”

“It’s not just a softball team. If it was just softball it wouldn’t make a difference,” said Wege. “The reason this team exists is to educate and inspire the nation. That’s what we’re here to do.”

It’s something for which we all can be thankful.

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