Like many great ideas, this one was born at a bar.
That’s how Javier Sanchez and several of his friends describe the idea they had four years ago at the Tune Inn on Capitol Hill. Sanchez, who then worked for the Armed Forces Foundation military charity, had been involved in different types of social programming for soldiers back from overseas duty, and so had his colleagues. They found that many soldiers, especially those spending significant time in the hospital, suffered from cabin fever.
“We were watching a news blurb on the TV about the soldiers” at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and National Naval Medical Center “having one hour of therapy and 23 hours of boredom a day,” said Matt Manley, the manager of the Tune Inn.
But in looking for a way to remedy that boredom, they found that the people organizing and appearing at events meant to honor veterans often seemed to have an ulterior motive. It seemed to be almost as much about personal gratification as it was about thanking soldiers for their service.
“A lot of politicians and celebrities go to Walter Reed to sit and hang out with the guys, but a lot of that is just a photo op, and the guys are not oblivious to that,” Sanchez said.
So over a couple of beers, Sanchez, Manley and several others came up with a low-key plan. Gather a group of military veterans, take them out for a drink and some bar food, and then spend the rest of the evening at a Washington Nationals baseball game.
That simple plan was hatched in 2006. At the time, the group relied on donations from friends to pay for transportation, food, drinks and tickets first to RFK Stadium and then to Nationals Park, and the seats they managed to cobble together were all over the stadium.
It’s a little different now. The program has a name people know: Wounded Warriors. Soldiers get to the game by limousine. The tickets now come from the Nationals themselves. The Tune Inn has been replaced as a pregame site in favor of the Bullpen, the bar just outside the new ballpark, because of its convenience, and veterans get the royal treatment there. The seats aren’t scattered — they are in the Presidents Club, right behind home plate.
But the spirit of the thing hasn’t changed one bit, and that’s what sets Wounded Warriors apart: It really is all about the soldiers. Several people interviewed for this story asked not to be named so the focus could remain on the veterans.
One of those veterans is Kevin Miller, who has been in the military for 12 years and is an active member of the 42nd Infantry Division based in Troy, N.Y. While he was stationed in Afghanistan in July 2008, Miller’s chewing tobacco was poisoned with cyanide and heroin, and he nearly died. Two years later, Miller had his right leg amputated, a long-term effect of organ failure.
Miller spent this summer at Walter Reed and attended the first game with the Wounded Warriors program, a Nationals loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 24. Miller then became a sort of Wounded Warriors coordinator, helping find fellow soldiers at the hospital who would benefit from a night at the ballpark.
Miller said he was happy to help out precisely because those organizing the outings didn’t want any recognition for their efforts. Aside from Sanchez, who served in the Marines and spent time in the hospital himself, nobody involved in the program was part of the military, and that added a level of sincerity in Miller’s eyes.
Since then, he and dozens of others have been able to experience the best that Nationals Park has to offer. Wounded Warriors was held six times this season with 19 people attending each time, and all involved described the soldiers’ excitement.
“It’s an incredible program — those men and women come to the game, sit in the Presidents Club and get the wonderful buffet that comes with it, and they are recognized at the end of the third inning,” said Israel Negron, the Nationals’ community relations director. “Our fans give them a standing ovation every game. The umpires know what’s going on and they applaud, and Pudge and our catchers stop what they’re doing and they applaud, too,” he said, referring to the Nats’ starting catcher, Ivan Rodriguez.
“We couldn’t believe everything that was involved in having those presidential seats. We thought it was just going to be, ‘Come and sit down, and here’s a hot dog or a pretzel and you’re done,’” Miller said. “We sat down and were like, ‘Look at this!’”
As D.C.-area sports fans know, this has been another tough year for the Nationals. The team went 1-5 in games the soldiers attended, and Washington has been out of playoff contention for months.
But the scores of the games hardly matter. Sanchez said families of injured soldiers often tell him how happy and relaxed the veterans look, and that’s what Wounded Warriors was always about: just a night at the ballpark, a break from 23 hours of boredom.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.