By Kathleen T. Rhem
WASHINGTON, July 23, 2006 – Three severely wounded soldiers recovering in the Washington area got "a dream come true," as Washington's Major League Baseball team honored them and military members everywhere July 21. The Washington Nationals invited the three soldiers to throw out ceremonial first pitches as part of events surrounding the team's "Paint the Town Red" celebration as they took on the visiting Chicago Cubs this weekend.
All three wounded soldiers -- Army Capt. Rob Taber, Staff Sgt. John Borders, and Sgt. Derek Drew -- said the chance to throw out a pitch here was a dream come true. The soldiers said they'd practiced throwing a baseball for the event. "I've been practicing with my dog," said Taber, who was severely wounded in Iraq. He said he was especially excited to be throwing a pitch at a Nationals game because his first trip out of the hospital after nine months as an in-patient was to the Nationals inaugural game here in April 2005.
Taber was so thrilled for this opportunity that he chose this over showing up on time for a good friend's bachelor party. "I called him up, and I said: 'Hey man, what would you do? Would you come to my bachelor party, or would you throw out the first pitch?' And he said: 'I'd throw out the first pitch; go ahead.'" The captain, a field artillery officer, said several friends said they'd be watching and that he'd better not flub the pitch. "All my buddies from college have been telling me they're going to try and watch it," he said. "And they've been giving me all kinds of advice -- you know, don't bounce it."
After a great throw that sailed into the glove of a waiting Nationals player, Taber said he thought his buddies would be proud. "I hope they saw it," he said. Borders and Drew were both members of 4th Battalion, 1st Field Artillery, when they were injured in Iraq. They said they used to play softball together back home at Fort Riley, Kan.
This event was a special thrill for Borders, who said he's become a huge Nationals fan during his time recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here. Borders was wounded in Iraq in early January, and was at the game Friday wearing a prosthetic left leg and an involved halo-type device on his right leg. He said he became a Nationals fan when he arrived at Walter Reed and learned the former Montreal Expos had moved to Washington. He said he stops by the Walter Reed office that handles tickets every day and asks if any Nationals tickets are available.
Borders has been to several games and said he watched excitedly from the stands as two other wounded soldiers threw out pitches before the Fourth of July game. "I was like: 'Man, I want to do that so bad,'" he said. "And now here I am; it's like a dream come true." Also calling it "a dream come true," Drew said he's been a baseball fan his whole life. He said he inherited a love of the Los Angeles Dodgers from his parents, even though the family lived in North Carolina. However, he added, his two young children are growing into real Nationals fans because they've been to a few games here during their dad's recovery.
All three men's wives and Drew's two children were on hand as their loved ones threw out the pitches. Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England accompanied the soldiers onto the field and said it's great that the Nationals were supporting the military. "I think it's terrific. It's another appreciation for America, for those who serve and particularly for our wounded," he told American Forces Press Service. "They're real heroes, and America recognizes it. So it's a great appreciation for them."
England said the three wounded soldiers who threw out pitches represented all wounded servicemembers and troops everywhere. "So God bless them, everybody who serves," England added. The three soldiers throwing out pitches was the highlight of several military-themed parts of the July 21 game. Between the fourth and fifth innings, the stadium announcer saluted Army Staff Sgt. Fred L. Hernandez, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, U.S. Army Garrison, Fort Myer, Va., who was attending the game.
With Harrison waving at the crowd from the Jumbotron screen overlooking the field, the announcer said Harrison had trained several hundred Iraqi policemen and was soon headed to drill sergeant school. The crowd responded with a lengthy standing ovation.
Also before game, the U.S. Army Chorus sang the national anthem, and the chorus and the Herald Trumpets, part of the U.S. Army Band, performed several patriotic songs. Four F-18s from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 332, from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C., thrilled the crowd with a flyover minutes before game time. One hundred fifty teenagers taking part in National Guard Youth Challenge programs in Maryland and New Jersey unfurled a huge flag -- roughly the size of a football field -- across the outfield.
Before the teens took the field to unfurl the flag, England greeted the youths and congratulated them on their decision to enter the program. The National Guard Youth Challenge Program gives at-risk 16- to 18-year-olds a chance to straighten their lives out and earn high school or general equivalency diplomas through the course of a 17-month program.
A program official explained the program consist of a five-month resident program, followed by a year of mentoring. Participants develop leadership skills and skills in eight core competency areas, Jorge Martinez, a spokesman for the program, said. "The 12-month period allows them time to decide if they want to go to college, or want to attain a vocation to get a job, or go into the military," Martinez said.
He noted that the program is voluntary for the teens -- "Their parents can't force them into it," he said -- and has a 97 percent success rate. England praised the program and its high success rate, noting that more than 67,000 young adults have completed the program and about 20 percent go into the military. "That's terrific," he said. "We're just pleased to help."
England also praised the Defense Department's America Supports You program, which highlights grassroots and corporate support for America's servicemembers. "The Nationals have been terrific partners of the America Supports You program," he said. "The support of the Nationals and the 35,000-plus fans was evident in a long and loud standing ovation for the heroes who threw the game's first pitch."
The Nationals were celebrating the "grand reopening" of RFK Stadium. The team hosted the weekend's Paint the Town Red fan celebration to introduce new managing principal owner Theodore Lerner and his partners and incoming team president Stan Kasten. The Lerner group bought the team from Major League Baseball in a deal that is final tomorrow. The Nationals came from behind in the 9th inning to beat the Cubs 7-6. "The Nats come-from-behind win capped an evening that was, indeed, the dream of a lifetime," England said after the game.