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Martin Fennelly Columns

Soldier's story put sports losses in perspective

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 03:56 PM
ST. PETERSBURG -

At least the Tampa Bay Rays are now down to nine men on the disabled list. Jose Lobaton, just off the DL, singled home the only Rays run in a loss to the White Sox on Memorial Day.

A rather homely Rays batting lineup struck out 15 times against Chicago pitcher Chris Sale, a record for Tropicana Field. But one loyal Rays fan, sitting in Suite 16, had a message for his favorite baseball team.

"Keep fighting," he said.

His name is Aaron Estes, he's 21, from St. Petersburg, and he's a private first class in our United States Army. He went on the disabled list last September. Three days after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, he was hit by gunfire in Afghanistan. His friend Teddy didn't make it home.

Aaron Estes was there Monday afternoon, in his army camouflage, though he walked with a limp and was aided by a steel device that helped support the calf on his left leg. He might limp for a long time. But he stood in there Monday and threw a ceremonial pitch to Rays player Stephen Vogt.

"There's a lot of perspective there," Vogt said. "We play a game. There are men and women risking their lives, giving their lives, in the name of freedom, our freedom, too. This is nothing more than a game."

On Memorial Day, we remember those who died while serving. The Rays wore ball caps featuring a camouflage pattern inside the "TB" logo. There was a moment of silence. The color guard was from MacDill Air Force Base. Air Force technical sergeant Sonya M. Bryson sang the national anthem and, later, "God Bless America."

Aaron Estes graduated from St. Petersburg's Northeast High School. He said he played some football, tight end and linebacker, and competed on the diving team. He enlisted in the army in March 2011. He did some of his training at Fort Knox in Kentucky, with his pal, Theodore B. Rushing.

"Teddy was from the Orlando area," Aaron Estes said. "We met at processing in Tampa. He was just a good guy, a funny guy. He was a character. He was just friends with everybody. Even with the drill sergeants, he would make jokes. He had this high, squeaky voice. Teddy could even turn something bad into something happy."

By early August, they were in Afghanistan. Aaron Estes was there a little more than a month. Teddy made it two more months after that.

Estes is on a visit to St. Petersburg, but since September his real home is Walter Reed National Military Medical Center just outside of Washington, D.C., where he has endured most of his 11 surgeries and physical therapy.

On Sept. 14, Estes' platoon was on patrol, looking to clean out improvised explosive devices. Estes walked out of an apple orchard into a clearing near a village …

He was hit three times, once in the left knee, the bullet ripping through his femoral artery, a bloody geyser. He was hit in the back "but the (steel) plate stopped that," Estes said. He also was hit in the buttocks. A lieutenant in his outfit slapped tourniquets on the leg wound and "amazing docs saved me and my leg," Estes said.

His mom, Rayna, recalls that first phone call. It was Aaron all over, ready with a Forrest Gump joke.

"He told me, 'Mom, Lieutenant Dan won't give me any ice cream,' " Rayna said. "I started saying he should, he better, and then he laughed and told me 'Mom, I got shot in the butt-tocks .' "

He has a scar from his ankle to mid-thigh, long and ugly. Eleven surgeries later, Aaron Estes walked to the mound at the Trop. He has always loved the Rays. He went to games all the time, "but I always sat out there," said Estes, pointing to the left-field bleachers. The Rays provided the suite for Estes, his family and friends on Memorial Day.

Estes was asked about all those Rays "injuries." He smiled.

"Hey, an injury is an injury. I'm not one of those, 'Oh, you got a sprained ankle, well, I got shot.' I signed up knowing it could possibly happen. … That's the deal over there."

Aaron was stateside in November when he got word. Teddy Rushing had been on foot patrol in Kandahar Province when a roadside bomb went off. Teddy was 25.

"He had died on Veterans Day," Aaron said.

"I thought that his parents had buried him in Orlando, but he's actually up at Arlington, so I'm going to make a trip to see him."

The Rays lost a baseball game Monday.

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