PORT CHARLOTTE – There was Robert Cruz shagging fly balls Thursday night at Charlotte Sports Park while the Tampa Bay Rays took batting practice. A lifetime ago Cruz was told he would never walk again.
He was serving in the Army in Iraq in 2005 when a bullet from a sniper pierced his spinal cord.
“I was paralyzed for a year and a half, almost,” Cruz said. “Coming here, shagging fly balls with the guys, it makes me feel like there’s a lot of things I can do.”
Cruz, 32, who lives in Tampa, was one of 10 members of the Wounded Warriors Project who spent Thursday and Friday with the Rays. They participated in the pregame stretch, shagged during BP, had a beer and a bag of peanuts with pitcher Heath Bell and watched the games from the Rays bullpen.
“We’re grown-ups playing a kids game,” Bell said of he and his teammates. “For them to come out and be on the field, mess around, they’re just out there playing and having a good time. We’re all buddies. It’s a good experience. They do so much that we don’t even know about. Every time they come out we look up to them.”
Bell has been involved with the Wounded Warriors for several years. He wears a camouflage necklace and a camo T-shirt under his jersey to honor of his father, a Marine who served in Vietnam.
It was former Ray Johnny Damon who first invited members of the Wounded Warriors to Tropicana Field in 2011. Rays strength and conditioning coach Kevin Barr took over in 2012. The visits evolved from watching the Rays take BP at the Trop to taking BP themselves on Sundays, a day when the Rays do not take batting practice. Barr first invited them to spring training last March.
“It’s an awesome experience,” Andrew Coughlan, alumni manager for the Wounded Warrior Project, “but it’s also an opportunity for these guys. We’re working out with the team, doing drills, taking batting practice. Getting them around each other is huge for their transition, helps them physically and emotionally and I’m sure it inspires a lot of players. Some of these guys, amputees, missing limbs, guys who walk on crutches, taking batting practice, hopping on one leg like it’s nothing.”
Coughlan, 30, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, the result of a mortar attack on his base in Iraq on July 19, 2004. He was with his team, planning their afternoon patrol when the attack began.
“I ended up making it into a little cement bunker with two other guys, two of my teammates,” Coughlan said. “One of them was killed while we were in the bunker. He saved my life. He shielded me from the blast. And after that happened the mortars kept coming into the camp. The tent that I just left took a direct hit and started a fire, which spread to all the other tents around us, so not only did we have incoming mortars, now we had a fire that was burning down our camp, and inside the tents were all our personal ammunition so we had secondary explosions from grenades and mortars, rockets and small arms.”
It was Charles Persing who saved Coughlan’s life. Persing was 20. Their team leader, Dale Lloyd, was also killed in the attack. He was 22.
“I was with all these guys and I escaped with no major physical injuries,” Coughlan said. “The guilt and stuff that I had to deal with for not being wounded, it really took a toll on me. Now I have the opportunity to work for Wounded Warrior Project and continue to serve guys that have the same experience and provide opportunities like this.”
Cruz said he cried when told he would never walk again. He said he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life that way, that he no longer wanted to live.
“It’s something about the military, you never quit,” he said. “Being an infantry guy you know that quitting is not an option.”
Cruz said he’s a stay-at-home dad, helping to raise his daughter, Layza, 7. He said he meets with other wounded vets when they return to the Tampa area. He also plays first base on a Wounded Warriors softball team.
“I can’t run too much, but, hey, you know, I’m out there having fun,” he said. “I’m just enjoying life. Taking it every day and giving thanks to God for keeping me here.”