The biggest rounds of applause at Cactus League games in Arizona earlier this month weren’t necessarily showered on ballplayers.
During four games this month, the warmest reception went to a group of 21 young people with at least one thing in common. All received Purple Hearts for wounds in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Escorting the 17 Marines and four Navy corpsmen was Rancho Bernardo resident Richard Williams, who in 2008 began organizing spring training trips for troops in the Wounded Warrior Brigade.
Williams used to look out the window at his San Diego law office and see the Naval Medical Center near Balboa Park, where many of the most seriously wounded Marines and Navy personnel are treated for their injuries. Williams, a retired Marine, learned that many family members of the injured service members lacked money for food and accommodations while treatment continued.
“We had a lot of people’s families who were living in cars and vans because they couldn’t afford hotels,” Williams said. “We started what I thought would be a six-month project. We’re now in our eighth year.”
That project was the Injured Marine Fund, established through the Marine Corps League, which provides support for the family members of those recovering troops.
About five years ago, Williams talked with pitcher Barry Zito, a San Diego native now with the San Francisco Giants. Zito is the founder of Strikeouts for Troops, through which dozens of major league players raise money to assist wounded veterans and their families.
The idea of taking some of those veterans to spring training popped up when Zito asked Williams what he could do for the wounded Marines in the hospital. It took about a year to obtain the necessary approvals. Since then, the treks have become an annual event.
“The idea is to get the Marines out of their beds, out of the hospital and show them a good time at spring training,” said Williams. “Most Marines are former athletes. For them to interact with major league players, there’s a bond there. The players take time out to welcome them. On the other side, the athletes are humbled to have these servicemen among them.”
This year’s group was met at the Phoenix airport by about 200 cheering people. The group visited four different ballparks, getting a standing ovation at each, Williams said. That means a lot to the participants.
“It’s humbling to walk off the field and have thousands and thousands of people standing on their feet to say thank you for your service to our country,” said retired Staff Sgt. Chris Hill, who has made three of the trips. “It’s almost like being in a stadium full of veterans. You’re back at your seat and people are still on their feet clapping.”
Hill’s first trip to spring training made a huge difference in his life.
He suffered a spinal cord injury during a 2004 rocket attack in Fallujah, Iraq. He recovered enough physically to return to active duty, but spent much of the rest of his time huddled in his room because of post-traumatic stress.
“One of my counselors put me on the list (for his first trip). He knew that if he asked me, I would say no,” Hill said.
He remained in his hotel room for two days until Williams convinced him to attend the appreciation dinner for the troops put on by Zito and the other ballplayers who made the trip possible. It was there the Birmingham, Ala., native clicked with the Giants pitcher and former Padres pitcher Jake Peavy, also from Alabama.
“I saw a Ferrari in front, and I asked Jake if it was his. He said, ‘Hell no. The first thing I did with my money was buy a tractor. I put in a radio and air conditioning.’ I’m from the South, and I was laughing like hell,” Hill recalled. “These were down-home guys. Totally different from the image I had in my head.”
It was the first time that Hill had expressed any interest in talking to people since his return home. Now, he’s a fixture on the trip.
The smiles on the veterans’ faces are all Williams needs to see to know how important the spring training journeys are.
“I said to Zito, ‘They probably get more therapy from these trips than from two years of talking to psychologists,’” Williams said. “It’s really a neat experience.”