- Associated Press - Friday, September 12, 2014

MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) - While football, cooler weather and pumpkin-spice-flavored everything were on the minds of the masses, the lingering sounds of summer were heard this month in Tointon Family Stadium.

Teams of soldiers and regional celebrities gathered on a Saturday to play a doubleheader and to raise money for those wounded in battle, The Manhattan Mercury (http://bit.ly/1rSjabZ ) reported.

Organized by Fort Riley Chief Warrant Officer 2 Aaron Sargent, the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team took on the Celebrity All-Stars and the Fort Riley All-Stars with a home run derby contest in between. Free admission and picture-perfect weather filled Tointon with fans of all backgrounds - especially Army veterans who are also amputees.

Organizers accepted donations to the Wounded Warrior softball team during the event.

Notable names on the Celebrity All-Stars team were former Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Will Shields, NFL Hall of Famer and former Washington running back John Riggins, and College Football Hall of Famer and former Kansas State Wildcat linebacker Mark Simoneau, to name a few.

But the Celebrity All-Stars were easily overshadowed by the Wounded Warriors on the field.

Composed of wounded veterans from across the nation, the Wounded Warriors featured players with missing legs and even arms. But their disabilities didn’t stop them from being good - really good - at softball.

In the opening game against the Fort Riley All-Stars, with Maj. Gen. Paul Funk also in the dugout, the Wounded Warriors won 19-7.

‘It’s a blast,’ Wounded Warriors right center fielder Lonnie Gaudet said while softballs were being rocketed over the fences during the home run derby. ‘Everyone here is all military and we’ve all served, so it brings that camaraderie that you had when you were deployed and when you go into service.

‘For a lot of us, this is therapy. You can’t talk to anybody in a room for an hour a day and get as much help as we get out here helping each other. The game really does a lot for us.’

Gaudet, 29, is from Wayland, New York, and lost his left leg below the knee after he stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan in March of 2012 during a ‘clearance’ of a village, which he said was ‘a known hot spot.’

He considers himself lucky, though, because another jug of homemade explosives - 12 pounds worth - connected to the landmine failed to detonate.

‘I’m very fortunate to be here,’ Gaudet said. ‘I can’t complain.’

But it wasn’t the first time he’d had a close call.

In 2010 he was standing nearly 10 feet from where an explosion went off and it threw him 15 feet back. He said he ‘wasn’t unconscious long,’ but his shoulder and other parts of his body were full of shrapnel.

The blast hospitalized Gaudet for two weeks in Kandahar.

‘It did more mental damage than anything,’ he said. ‘I had friends that weren’t as fortunate. They survived, but they (were severely injured). It will be tough for them.’

While the experience troubled Gaudet, there was no going back home. In his mind, that wasn’t an option.

‘While I was in Kandahar there were a lot of questions, but my buddies were still there,’ he said. ‘There was no way I was going home if I was still able to fight. I wanted to go back.

‘You couldn’t have convinced me otherwise.’

After the landmine took his leg, though, he was done and returned to his wife and three children in New York.

While Gaudet, who singled to center in his first at-bat during the Celebrity All-Star game, enjoys playing, what is really rewarding to him is when the team holds softball camps.

‘When we have them for amputee children, we teach them about softball, about perseverance through their injuries and about life in general,’ he said. ‘This happened to us later in our life. You got to imagine these kids are going through the hardest part of their life. They’re learning and growing, and with bullies and the way it was when we were kids, we didn’t have these deficiencies.

‘They’re very ashamed of themselves for being an amputee, but when they come to camp and see us not bashful or shy about anything we have - some guys have custom stuff done to their legs, like their units are on their leg or favorite sports team.

‘That’s what we do. These kids come out more motivated and we’re motivated because of them. The change you see in them, there’s nothing like it. We’re giving back. It’s not about us.’

Sargent said he saw a Wounded Warriors softball game in Panama Beach, Fla., a few years ago and had to find a way to bring them to Manhattan.

‘I saw them play and demonstrate the military way of life when it comes to overcoming adversity,’ he said. ‘And I just wanted to bring them to the community.

‘They’re amazing,’ he said. ‘We hope to do it every year.’

Funk said it was an honor for Fort Riley to be a part of it.

‘It’s great, and if you didn’t notice, they’re pretty doggone good,’ Funk said about his opponents. ‘If you want to talk about resiliency, and just how tough our military is, and how tough our country is, you just need to look to those young men.’

Gaudet said prosthetic technology has advanced to a rate where he and his teammates can make all the athletic moves needed to be a good softball team, but he also said life is all about effort, and that obstacles shouldn’t be a road block.

‘The only excuses you have are the ones you make,’ Gaudet said. ‘It’s not over.’

By the bottom of the second inning, the Wounded Warriors were beating the Celebrity All-Stars 9-5.

___

Information from: The Manhattan (Kan.) Mercury, http://www.themercury.com

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