OKLAHOMA CITY – With a mission of Serving Beyond the Uniform® while showing the world that Life Without Limbs is Limitless®, the USA Patriots – America’s Amputee Softball Team – has went above and beyond to shine light on the power of inclusivity through the sport of softball. USA Patriots consists of a team of veterans who travel the country playing against able-bodied athletes in effort to inspire, encourage, and promote healing on and off the field. The organization has grown immensely over the years, including the addition of Kids Camp, which allows kids from across the world to come together for a week of softball with mentors and peers who can relate to living life without limbs.
USA Patriots President and team member, Josh Wege, says the purpose of Kids Camp is to provide the kids involved with an experience that allows them to grow more comfortable in who they are. A retired Lance Corporal in the U.S. Marines Corps, Wege lost both his legs while on his first tour of duty in Afghanistan and has found participating in slow pitch softball with the Patriots to be a therapeutic activity that he wants others to experience.
“We aim to provide an exciting and inclusive experience for our campers,” said Wege. “A lot of these kids have been picked on and excluded throughout their childhood. Even mom and dad can't really understand what that's like, because usually they're able-bodied persons themselves. So, we try to pop that bubble that's been put around them and just treat them like a kid for a change.”
Kids Camp was created when veterans on the USA Patriots team realized they could serve beyond the military uniform and impact a larger group of people, especially kids who were in a similar situation as them – and what better to do that than by using the sport of softball? Our sport offers so much to everyone who participates, but what often goes unnoticed is the human connections and relationships that are formed. With all that in mind, USA Patriots has grown to provide a life-changing experience for the veterans, campers and parents involved at each annual Kids Camp.
“Obviously we use the game softball,” said Wege. “But at this level, it's more than that. It’s really just about them gaining confidence in who they are.”
Kids Camp is supported by the Kids Camp Annual Fund which aims to raise $180,000 annually. The fund is used to bring 20 children to camp each year for an all-expenses paid experience. This year’s camp in Fond du Lac, Wisc. was the eighth annual Kids Camp put on by USA Patriots. Rotating to different sites around the country, the team has traveled to Florida, California, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Washington, D.C. – giving kids across the nation the opportunity to participate.
The week-long camp features four days of practice with skills sessions and drills to allow campers to interact with each other and USA Patriots mentors, followed by a banquet dinner on Friday night and an intersquad on Saturday. With the hope of providing a memorable experience for the campers, the intersquad aims to have a “major league feel” with the kids wearing custom jerseys and hearing their names announced on the loud speaker.
“At the beginning, they kind of act like they don't want to be there – they're shy,” said Wege. “But by the end of the week, they don't want to leave. You see them become confident in who they are. They're not ashamed anymore.”
An example of one of those kids is 2021 camper, Chase Merriweather. At the age of three, Chase went into septic shock, leading to amputations below the elbow on both of his arms and below the knee on both of his legs. After getting comfortable with his first set of prosthetic legs at the age of four, he started playing baseball and eventually became involved in football, sled hockey, basketball, and track. “Nothing really slowed him down,” said his mother, Chisa. “He pretty much wants to try it all!”
At this year’s Kids Camp, Chase – now 11 years old – instantly connected with one of the USA Patriots players who had the same level of amputation as him. The two bonded and shared different techniques and tips that grew Chase’s confidence on the field, while allowing him to connect with someone he could truly relate to. In addition to connecting with the USA Patriots player, Chase also spent a lot of time connecting with the other campers. He traded contact information with all the kids and was quick to start a group chat once camp ended so they could stay in contact.
According to Wege and USA Patriots, that’s what Kids Camp is all about – to get kids out there connecting with others, while growing in confidence on and off the field. “It was an absolutely amazing experience, and they really made the kids feel like superstars,” said Chisa.
Nine-year-old Ruth Evelyn also attended Kids Camp this year and left with an experience she will remember forever. A bilateral amputee, Ruth was provided a chest rig created by the USA Patriots to assist her with hitting the ball. The rig sat across her chest and was strapped on her with a MOLLE hardness and a battle belt, allowing her to use her hips and still hit the ball. Ruth left Kids Camp on cloud nine, begging her mom to let her join a team thanks to the effort and ingenuity of USA Patriots.
“For the USA Patriots players, it’s like recharging your batteries,” said Wege. “It motivates you and gives you purpose, which is what these guys want.”
Army veteran and USA Patriots team member, Saul Bosquez, is another example of a Hero on the field who aims to help amputees feel comfortable and powerful in their bodies. Bosquez lost his leg after being injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq and uses his determination and competitive spirit to encourage kids that they, too, can get back on their feet.
“There is so much you can do,” said Bosquez. “You can play sports; you can do all the things that all the other kids are doing. You have to overcome more things than the average person does, but it doesn’t make you different – it makes you special. That’s how we try to empower the kids and I love seeing them get out of their shells and come out stronger by the end of it.”