As the number of veterans with both physical and psychological injuries balloons, this squad of 11 wounded warriors wards off PTSD by playing a little ball.
On a clear July afternoon, the Warriors softball team walks into Canal Park – a 7,630-seat minor league baseball stadium in Akron, Ohio – in sort of a funk. The squad was just thrashed in a tournament in Brainerd, Minnesota, losing all four games they played. The same ten men and one woman then flew to Akron on five separate flights to take part in a doubleheader today, the first against a “local celebrities” team fronted by the city’s mayor. The Warriors warm up by stretching, tossing high flies on the sunlit outfield, and smacking neon softballs in the underground batting cages below the dugout. But there’s a new concern overtaking the malaise brought on by the exhausting travel and demoralizing losses back in Brainerd: there aren’t enough towels in the locker room.
“An amputee needs a lot of towels,” says Zach Briseno, a 32-year-old veteran of the second Iraq War. Brisneo, from Fort Worth, Texas, is missing both of his legs from the knees down. Flexing his arms and thighs on a wall-mounted joint stretcher, he adds, nodding toward the baseball diamond, “Because out there, things can get a little messy.”
The Warriors – whose complete name is the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team – is a traveling collective of veteran athletes from around the United States, all with visual wounds: missing hands, legs, arms, eyes. Some also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other emotional trauma. The team of former colonels, infantrymen and specialists turned policemen, mental health therapists and inspirational speakers was first constructed in 2011 to help shatter stereotypes of injured vets as downtrodden and despondent. The squadron, which plays about 80 games per year, has also become an alternative form of therapy for its members.
“Our goal is to inspire,” Briseno says as he walks through a hallway underneath Canal Park toward the locker room. “Yes, a lot of us do have missing legs; one guy lost his eye in an RPG attack. But our goal is to realize that that sore knee that’s bothering you, it’s not that big of a problem.”
Briseno, the Warriors’ first baseman and second-place hitter, enters the visitors’ locker room, and talks to the bat boy, a volunteer for the local celebrity team, about what the Warriors need to start the game.
“Towels?” the bat boy says, facetiously, upon the request. “But you’re our enemy!”
“Am I?” Briseno quips. Finally a member of the local celebrity team hands him a stack.
By gametime at 7:05 p.m., the spirit of the Warriors starts to liven. On the bench, Danielle Green from South Bend, Indiana, who lost her left arm in Iraq, cleans off her bat-attachable prosthetic while waiting for her two-year-old son Daniel to show up with his father. Cody Rice, a 32-year-old former Afghanistan Special Forces squad leader with no right leg, banters with teammate Josh Wege (“No leg-y Wege,” as Rice calls him) in the dugout.
Coach Bucky Weaver begins to rally the team from the sidelines: “Warriors… Crowd time! Let’s go!”
After a 16-year-old girl in a bejeweled dress sings the national anthem, the 11 Warriors, uniformed in flag-sleeved polyester shirts and firetruck-red Reeboks, take the field in front of about 4,000 fans – many of them also decorated vets – cradling hot dogs and craft beers.
Following Weaver, the Warriors form an oval on the third base line as AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” roars through the stadium. “Sound of the drums, beatin’ in my heart,” Rice sings along in a husky, high-pitched falsetto like that of the group’s frontman. A few Warriors laugh. “The thunder of guns, tore me apart.”
The AC/DC track fades and an electric organ riff hums loud. “Ready!” Weaver shouts again, and the team yells a collective, “One-Two-Three—WARRIORS!” and spreads out across the field.
* * *
Raised in the factory town of Newark, Ohio, Cody Rice joined the 173rd Army Airborne Division when he was 22 years old.
“Every job I could find was in metal cutting,” Rice says. “My dad did all that for years, and had to bust his ass to make a living. I had to do something to get out of Ohio.”
Rice was hoping to become a Green Beret, but a busted Achilles tendon sent him from basic training to an American base in Vicenza, Italy.
“He was just always upbeat,” says Joe Allen, a then private first class who served alongside Rice on two deployments and also joined him on the base’s softball team in Vicenza. “Every time we had a training rotation that sucked, Rice was always cracking everyone up. But he had a serious side as well.”
Their softball team was so talented, both Rice and Allen say, that they were set to fly out to Landstuhl, Germany, to play in a multi-platoon tournament.
“We never got to go to Germany,” Rice says. “We had to deploy.”
For about a year, beginning in December 2009, Rice, Allen and the rest of an eight-man squad occupied a large camp called Combat Outpost Nerkh, in a valley outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. The team was charged with gathering intelligence about Taliban whereabouts, manning guard towers, and patrolling area villages. Save for a few firefights here and there – mostly mountainside spurs calmed by quick-and-ready mortar attacks – Rice’s first deployment was fairly smooth, for him and his squadron. “Nobody got blown up,” he says.
But in July 2012, Rice and his troupe embarked on a stretch of service that saw far more danger, while holed up in an outpost in Afghanistan’s Charkh Valley. “It was always a guessing game,” Rice recalls of their time in the area. “We had grenades thrown at us from over walls. Taliban would pop around corners, shooting.”
Around six p.m. on August 10, 2012, Rice and his team were surveying activity on a mountain in eastern Afghanistan’s Logar Province. As Rice’s squad set up camp, they began to take sporadic fire, uncertain as to where it was originating. Allen says it was business as usual. He and Rice even exchanged some cathartic lines of sarcasm: “We’ve got one more day to live,” Allen said.
Sometime that evening, Rice left camp to patrol the perimeter. Allen was awake with the rest of the squad. “We were just hanging out,” he says. “Usual overwatch.” Suddenly, a loud bang erupted on the other side of the mountain.
When Allen and an accompanying sergeant ran to the site, they found Rice on his back. He was writhing, covered in blood. Rice had stepped on a “toe popper” – a land mine – after taking a knee on the ridge. “My whole leg was black all the way up,” Rice recalls. “I looked down, and my foot was just gone. It was just like the movies.”
Allen immediately shot back at the unseen enemy. “Start suppressing! Start suppressing!” Rice yelled. Allen and his counterpart hoisted Rice into a medivac chopper, Allen still seething with adrenaline.
“Just the fact that one of your brothers got fucking mangled like that,” Allen says. “It pisses you off. It’s hard to go through that. He’s lucky. But when I saw him go into the [copter], I knew that he was going to be fine.”
For almost two years Rice was bound to a hospital bed after a Syme amputation – one that goes through the ankle joint. He attended rehab to relearn everyday tasks like how to shower and walk, while undergoing brain scans and clinical evaluations.
Though Rice left the hospital in December of 2014 without being diagnosed with PTSD, he battled with telling signs: anxiety upon hearing loud noises, unsettling dreams, and depression.
For many recuperating vets with trauma, the path to recovery – to normalcy – has always been rather foggy. Soldiers with “shell shock” or “railway spine” in early 20th-century battles were sometimes sent back to war, their condition deemed as mere “nervousness” with no signs of a physical wound. In the 1990s, a decade after PTSD had finally been recognized as a psychological disorder, clinical therapists began administering treatment via behavioral therapy, aided by Zoloft or Prozac. With research indicating that Iraq and Afghanistan vets of the 2000s are reporting high rates of PTSD, the recent focus of psychologists is not just which medication a trauma-carrying vet should take, but more so a look into how a vet should live his or her life once out of the hospital.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) treatments for war trauma victims – those delineating from conventional western medicine, like mindfulness meditation and “movement therapy” – have been proven helpful. Government funding for CAM treatments has been ratcheted up the past couple years, but one 2012 study found that only 40 percent of vets seeking help for their mental trauma were actively engaging in CAM treatments – many vets are not eager to talk about their PTSD to someone other than their therapist.
Besides the acupuncture and herbal supplement strains of CAM, the past several years has seen a rise in athletic clubs, from fly-fishing to swimming with dolphins, scuba diving, and softball teams like the Warriors – all what CAM researchers classify as “recreational therapy.” Dr. Paula Schnurr of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD says that although alt-treatments have yet to get a definitive study, they are often immensely helpful – that is, as long as vets are not forgoing traditional remedies altogether.
“It’s not an either/or question,” says Schnurr, who has been investigating trauma fixes for three decades. “You don’t go hiking or go to psychotherapy. It’s more important for a vet to think: ‘How can I pull this all together to promote wellness in general?’ That’s really the goal.”
Schnurr also notes that CAM solutions are subjective and not one-size-fits-all – some vets prefer kayak therapy, others racing sailboats. The National Center’s 2011 “Overview of Complementary and Alternative Medicine Therapies for Anxiety and Depressive Disorders” states that such therapy appears to be “less invasive” and has “fewer side effects than traditional therapies,” but also notes that there’s not a sufficient number of systematic reviews to verify CAM as more efficacious.
Yet, Schnurr says, there’s no denying the salve. “There are so many advantages to just talking and not isolating,” she says in reference to the Warriors. “Even if they weren’t amputees, feeling connected is key. I mean, just working together towards a goal? That’s very powerful.”
“All of us were injured,” says Cody Rice of his Warriors teammates. “We didn’t think we’d be able to do normal things again. But you get on the team, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ You realize eventually that there’s nothing holding you back except yourself.”
* * *
In Chicago during the summer of 1994, a decade before Warriors outfielder Danielle Green was shipped off to Baghdad as a military specialist, she was a basketball whiz with a sweet left-hand shot. Whip-smart and focused, Green would come to impress the head coach of the Notre Dame women’s team, Muffet McGraw, earning a spot on the Fighting Irish in 1995.
She graduated in 2000, and after trying out for the WNBA’s Detroit Shock, settled into a job as a high school physical education teacher. Two years passed, and Green, then 26, pined for more. “I decided that if I wanted to serve, I had to serve now,” she recalls. “I would probably regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t.”
In January of 2003 Green enlisted in basic training, and later went to Iraq for a year-long deployment. “Nobody wanted me to go,” she says. “My boyfriend at the time cried.”
On May 25, seven weeks after Green briefly returned home to marry her boyfriend, she was back on security duty at a National Police Station in the center of Baghdad. The station was empty except for her and her squad. “We got this eerie feeling that something would happen,” Green recalls.
She hiked up to the roof of the station and an RPG whizzed by her, exploding a barricade. “It clipped me, and knocked me down to my right side,” Green recalls. She tried kneeling, readying her M4 carbine rifle. “I thought I could get up – but I was bleeding too bad.”
Her sergeant and another specialist ran up and began performing first aid. “I remember thinking that I was going to die in this awful country,” she says. “But at some point, I realized, I may survive this.”
That night, Green awoke in a hospital bed outside Baghdad with her master sergeant standing by the bedside. “I said, ‘Sarge, is my arm missing?’” Green recalls. She was asking about her left arm that had successfully tossed so many basketballs through so many hoops. “And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s gone.’ I broke down for a second or two.”
Green was soon awarded the Purple Heart, and applauded by a room full of comrades. Her sergeant also announced more good news: “They said they went back to the rooftop, and got my wedding rings,” Green says.
The next morning, Green was flown to Germany, where she officially became an amputee. During her stay, a passing doctor recognized her name and paid a visit to her room.
“He was Coach McGraw’s best friend,” Green says. “I called up Coach, and told her what had happened to me. I said, ‘All those years you’ve tried to get me to use my right hand…’ On the other end, she just went silent.’”
An hour before the Warriors take the field in Canal Park, Green talks about her recovery from trauma: “All this is very, very therapeutic,” she says with her usual cheery lilt as she takes batting practice in one of the cages. “What really got me through losing my arm thirteen years ago was sport. Four months after I was blown up, I was in New York running a five-mile run in Central Park. I still had stitches in my leg. I started to run, I started to cycle, ski, and golf. It kept me at bay.” She smacks another ball into a net, and adds, “There’s no reason you can’t go out and do something like this to get those endorphins – that happy feeling, instead of popping pills.”
She says telling her story to fellow vets also helped stave off PTSD, and led to Green becoming, for a time, a readjustment counseling therapist herself. She won the 2015 Pat Tillman Award at the ESPN channel’s ESPY Awards, for her service and astute athleticism. Throw in Green’s goal to become a Paralympic cyclist – she’s been training for months alongside Warriors games – and recovery for her is not at all a part-time gig. “This is now what gives my life fulfillment,” she says, leaving the cage at Coach Weaver’s request. “It’s all about, ‘Let’s see what I can do, how high I can take it.’”
* * *
Cody Rice grabs his bat to go up to the plate. It’s the bottom of the fourth inning in the first game of the doubleheader. They’re tied up with the celebrities at nine runs apiece, but have runners on first and third. Someone in the crowd yells, “Cody, baby!” amidst shouts and roars. The first pitch, a strike. Rice readjusts his stance, cleans his bat against his prosthetic. He readies, and cuts the next pitch into center field. The Warriors on base score, and Rice runs across them all for an inside-the-park home run. When he reaches the dugout, the Warriors stand up to greet him with high fives. “I manned up for once,” Rice says, wiping his forehead. “I finally followed through.”
The Warriors go on to win the game, then take the second against a team of non-disabled vets. After cleaning off their prosthetics, the 11 of them line up to sign autographs. Now, with a crowd snaking in front, they’re the celebrities. “What do you think?” Weaver says to a toddler getting a softball signed. “Not bad for missing a couple of parts.”
Weaver says the game’s turnout makes up for Brainerd by a long shot. He discusses the team as a treatment for war trauma: “I’m sure all of [the Warriors] thought, ‘Oh, I’m never gonna play ball ever again.’ But they play, and they’re like, ‘I was down on my luck, and now I have a new lease on life.’” Weaver’s voice softens to a whisper. He adds, “Let me just put it this way: I know we saved a couple of lives.”
After softballs are signed, the autograph tables are hoisted out to make way for a minor league game that Sunday. Once all the Warriors have left for their hotel rooms, the remaining lights in the park are shut off. The next morning, each Warrior flies back to their home city, back to their nine-to-five, until a tournament in South Bend a week later. Then, it’s on to Topeka, Indiana, and to Utica, New York, in September.
Wherever they play, the Warriors leave everything on the field.
“Sure they want to inspire, they want to educate,” Weaver says. “But they also want to win.”