Meeting ‘real heroes’ at Walter Reed a reality check for Nationals

A year ago, Nationals pitcher Ryan Mattheus met a man at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The man had recently been wounded in combat and the injuries were extensive.

“He lost every one of his limbs,” Mattheus said.

Tuesday, the same man walked over to Mattheus and shook his hand. The progress the man had made in a year’s time left Mattheus amazed, thrilled and almost emotional.

“He was in his bed the first time I was there. Today, he had his prosthetic legs and arms,” Mattheus said. “Just to see the strides those guys make, the job they do over there, it’s amazing. From being in his bed to up and walking around now, it’s pretty amazing.

“They’re very motivated individuals. Just to see that, to see the smiles on their faces in the situations some of them are in, it puts things in perspective.”

The Nationals and Cardinals played the second contest of their three-game series Tuesday night at Nationals Park. Earlier in the day, Mattheus, 10 of his teammates and two Nats coaches made the trip to Walter Reed.

Chad Tracy, Tyler Moore, Adam LaRoche, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Mattheus, Zach Duke, Craig Stammen, Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa were joined by coaches Randy Knorr and Jim Lett.

Baseball is a high-paying job they all take very seriously. The Nats have their sights set on baseball’s top prize, a World Series championship. The losses, and there had been seven in their previous 10 games going into Tuesday night, sting.

A reality check always helps.

“It really shows you who the real heroes are,” Tracy said. “It helps you kind of wrap your head around what those guys have done for us, the sacrifices they have made. I met a guy today who had been through 49 surgeries. I’ve been through four or five myself, just to imagine a guy going through almost 50 surgeries, to see he was still a driven, confident, leader of a man, really touched me.

“Him not having any legs didn’t define him. His character, who he is, is the same. To hear the stories of him now helping guys who are in his same shoes, who are having a hard time re-acclimating themselves with this world, it inspires you.”

Lombardozzi couldn’t make last year’s trip to Walter Reed. He echoed many of Tracy’s thoughts and said he would plan on making every future trip.

“You are kind of a little nervous going in there at first,” he acknowledged. “You get in there and see what these guys have gone through. We met guys working out, going through therapy. Every guy I talked to was upbeat, just great personalities. They were happy. It makes you grateful for being here, being alive.

“We’re lucky we get a chance to play baseball. They were excited to see us; we were probably more excited to meet them. It was an honor. In the end, this is a game. Yeah, it is a job but there are more important things at the end of the day. To go over and meet them, make them smile and have them do the same for us, it was great. I’m really happy I went.”

Honoring wounded and other returning soldiers is common at sporting events around the country. Every game at Nationals Park, soldiers are introduced before the bottom of the fourth inning. Nationals players and visiting players often offer up a wave to the concourse behind home plate as the soldiers wave back.

“The sacrifices those guys make, wherever they’re serving, they’re pretty much giving up their lives to go fight for our freedom,” Mattheus said. “A couple of them were talking to us about how big a deal it is for them to stand there on the concourse and see the fans and all of us standing up for them.

“For what they do? What we do is minimal. It’s the least we can do, I think.”

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