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Tuesday July 16 2019
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The Meaning of Sacrifice

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Brian Taylor Urruela knows the meaning of sacrifice. A former baseball player in high school, Urruela still looks the part eight years later. Pegging the lightly stubbled, broad shouldered man as an athlete is not a thin limb to climb out on at first glance. It is only after scanning the 26-year-old’s lower body that you might second guess yourself.

Urruela stands on one leg, not two. His right leg below the knee was lost in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Even though the U.S. Army sergeant now relies on a prosthetic limb, you won’t find Urruela complaining.

“It can be challenging and frustrating at times,” Urruela described. “Pain can keep me in bed a little extra, and putting my leg on every night when I go to the bathroom can be irritating, but all in all, it’s not so bad. It's all relative. People fight with far worse injuries than mine every day, so keeping that in perspective [makes] my life a breeze.”

The glamorous lore of college wasn’t strong enough to pull Urruela from a different kind of life away from home. At 18, the St. Louis native joined the Army and set his sights on protecting his homeland instead of his home plate.

Assignments to Baumholder, Germany; Baghdad, Iraq; and Washington, DC highlighted his military travels. He worked his way to the rank of sergeant before his rise in the Army was halted by his injury. Almost a decade after enlisting, Urruela returned from the war-torn Iraq with no degree and no leg.

Handicapped, medically retired from the Army and eight years removed from living in his own country; Urruela’s situation is one that has broken even the strongest of men.

It didn’t break Urruela. Instead, he took advantage of a new opportunity.

David Van Sleet knows the meaning of sacrifice.

He has seen plenty of it first-hand, managing prosthetics for the Department of Veteran Affairs.

For Van Sleet, serving those who served America is a passion. His military career started during the Korean War, but was put on pause after returning home. He attended college and ultimately found his way back to the armed forces – this time in a different capacity. More than three decades later, Van Sleet has concluded his work with the Department of Veteran Affairs. He retired in December of 2011, but not before helping one last handful of soldiers.

The Wounded Warriors amputee softball team is a group veterans who have all lost limbs defending our country. Van Sleet---a baseball coach and player since childhood---started the project last year with the help of a congressionally funded training camp. After hand selecting the best group of 15 players, a team was born.

“I’ve always been around the game,” Van Sleet said. “So I pooled my passions together and came up with this product.”

The result has been beyond what anybody expected. Sports Illustrated, HBO and ESPN have all produced features on this extraordinary group. It isn’t just the media that is so impressed by the team, though. Louisville Slugger, the Washington Nationals and softball legend Jenny Finch have all sponsored the Wounded Warriors. They were a hit in Huntsville, Alabama during Military Week, they’ve played on the famous Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, and Finch’s event in Louisiana this month is expected to draw more than 10,000 people,

Don’t think the opportunities surface out of a spirit of charity either.

“We can hang with almost anyone,” Van Sleet boasted.

Rocky Bleier knows the meaning of sacrifice.

The former running back left a promising professional career with the Pittsburgh Steelers to serve in Vietnam after his rookie season. While overseas, he was wounded in both legs and told he would never play football again. The bullheaded Notre Dame grad refused to believe the facts.

“When the doctor said he didn’t think I could go back and play, my thought process was that it would heal,” Bleier said. “I didn’t necessarily take it wholeheartedly”

A postcard from Art Rooney and four Super Bowl rings later, Bleier looks back on his service with pride.

“I’m very proud to have fought for our country and been able serve with my brothers over in Vietnam.”

It is that experience that made the Wounded Warriors and Bleier a perfect match. The star tailback has supported Van Sleet since the beginning and was more than willing to help when the team arrived in Pittsburgh for a contest in Washington, PA, earlier this summer.

“You do the things you like and the things you identify with. In this case with the Wounded Warriors---I being one---I understand what they go through,” Bleier noted. “If it’s source of inspiration for them, then it’s something I can give back. There is a bond there that maybe can be shared by only those who have gone through those experiences. Wounded Warriors became a special project in which I wanted to support and do what I can.”

The feeling was mutual for Van Sleet, who met Bleier when the Wounded Warriors and Bleier attended the Super Bowl together this year.

“[Rocky] is a first class guy and he is a veteran, so he can relate and we can relate.”

The Wounded Warriors coach and founder also raved about his Pittsburgh experience, “The atmosphere there was absolutely unbelievable. For a small community, we were overwhelmed with hospitality and generosity. They should be extremely proud of what they pulled off. We are looking forward to coming back next year.”

Urruela echoed Van Sleet’s thoughts, “It was such an honor to meet Rocky. He is not only one of the greatest backs of all time, but an American hero as well. He is a true inspiration.”

Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Bernardo FullerIt’s fitting that a statement such as that would come from Urruela, a man who lost a leg as a result of driving over two improvised explosive devices while serving in Iraq.

The term “hero” is used carelessly these days, but you will be hard pressed to find a person more deserving of the title than Urruela.

Sacrifice not risking your body to block a shot, make a catch or take a charge. Sacrifice is risking your life to protect a soldier, an American and your country.

Brian Taylor Urruela knows the meaning of sacrifice.

For more information and details on donating to the Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball team visit www.woundedwarriorssoftballteam.org.

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