By Gary A. Cameron
COOPERSTOWN, New York (Reuters) - When Saul Bosquez, a 27-year-old U.S. Army veteran who lost part of his left leg in Iraq, stepped up to the plate during a softball game this Memorial Day weekend, he knew he needed a big hit.
Bosquez, who plays with the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team and wears a prosthetic leg below his left knee, said the hot weather on Sunday in Cooperstown - home to the Baseball Hall of Fame - was making it harder than usual for him to run the bases.
Luckily, the ball soared over the outfielders' heads, and Bosquez made it safely to third.
"They were playing pretty shallow, and I was able to get it between both of them," Bosquez said. "Usually I'm a pretty decent runner for a guy with one leg."
The Wounded Warriors ended up beating the Cooperstown First Responders, a local team of firefighters and police, 21-9.
"We all pretty much have the same story," Bosquez said of his teammates, participants in the kind of athletic pastime that experts say can be a key factor in the successful rehabilitation of wounded war veterans.
Bosquez, who is from Seattle, was wounded in Baghdad in August 2007 when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device.
The Wounded Warriors, consisting of 15 men who lost limbs in the decade of U.S. warfare following the attacks of September 11, 2001, is the creation of David van Sleet, a prosthetics manager for the U.S. Veterans Affairs Southwest Health Care Network and the team's head coach.
"With a lot of these guys, they didn't think they are going to live. Then they didn't think they were going to walk, and all along they certainly didn't think they were going to play a high-level sport, or any sport, again," van Sleet said. "The camaraderie on this team is absolutely unbelievable."
The team, launched last March, has won 20 of its first 38 games.
"We're a good team. We're not a great team," their coach said.
RECOVERING AS A TEAM
Nearly 1,500 American service members have lost limbs in military action over the past decade, with leg and foot injuries making up the bulk of cases, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Kendra Calhoun, head of the Amputee Coalition, a national advocacy group, said the recovery and readjustment process of someone who loses a limb is closely linked to the person's network of social and family support.
"These soldiers train in groups, they go to war in groups, and (in the case of amputees) they recover together. And then they go home to their individual civilian lives, and they're alone," Calhoun said. "These team sports really provide them that camaraderie that they have become so accustomed to. And I think it's critical for their recovery and readjustment."
Nick Clark, 31, an Army veteran from New Hampshire who lost part of his left leg in Afghanistan in an attack involving a rocket-propelled grenade, said the Wounded Warriors team means everything to him.
"I didn't have anybody I could talk with or who I could relate to," said Clark, who lives in Seattle. "It really helped me out with my mental recovery.
"It's like I'm part of a brotherhood again," he said.
(Additional reporting and writing by Edith Honan; Editing by Steve Gorman and Eric Beech)