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Jace Ethridge, 12, connects during batting practice while attending the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball TeamÔ??s Kids Clinic on Wednesday. Veterans who are amputees work with children with missing limbs. / Scott Utterback, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- One day in October 2009, some Marines in Lance Cpl. Josh Wege's platoon were going out for a routine patrol in Afghanistan. Wege wasn't scheduled for duty that day, but he could see that one of his friends was drained, so he volunteered to go in his place.

Everything was normal - as normal as it could get in such a situation - until Wege's vehicle rolled over a 200-pound improvised explosive device buried along the road. Wege survived the blast, but he lost both legs below the knees. His life would never be the same.

"I always asked for a challenge," he said, "and I guess I got my wish."

Nine-year-old Jace Ethridge, meanwhile, has never known life with four full limbs. When his mother received her five-month ultrasound, doctors told her there was a problem: Her boy would be born with parts of both arms missing.

Jace learned to do everyday tasks without hands. He tried to play football and basketball and baseball. He was fitted for a prosthesis, and he can now attach a hook or the head of a lacrosse stick to the end of it.

"Any 9-year-old is going to want to throw a football," his mother, Kaci Ethridge, said, "so if he wanted to do it, we weren't going to worry about the fact that he didn't have hands."

The stories show two different worlds, two different obstacles, two different lives. But here in Louisville this week, they are intersecting in acts of kindness and compassion.

Wege is a member of the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team, a group of young men who came back from war facing new lives without arms or legs. They travel the country playing against local softball teams, and they are an inspiration at every stop.

But this week they are not competing; they are teaching. They are running a softball camp for 20 children who are missing limbs, children like Jace. And when you talk to those involved, it becomes clear the experience is as beneficial for the instructors as it is their pupils.

"These kids don't think of themselves as disabled or having a tough time," said Rick Wilk, an Army veteran who had one leg amputated. "They make us look like wimps out here, because they're running around and jumping around. How can we talk about being hurt when these kids have so much passion and so much drive?"

Wilk said that after a tour of the Louisville Slugger Museum on Monday, he heard a man ask his son if he was in pain from the physically grueling day. The boy told him he had no time to hurt, because there was only time to be happy.

The campers and counselors formed an instant bond here. Yes, the children are learning how to play softball, but they're also learning that they are not alone. They have help. They have support.

"It brings joy to my heart to see there are other kids doing what I do," said 12-year-old Jordan Halterbeck of Chico, Calif., who was born without a full right leg. "It's nice to know more kids have kind of been through the same thing."

Campers started out a session this week by playing catch, and it was heartwarming to see how patient the children were with each other. One girl threw the ball over the head of 9-year-old Jen Castro of New Fairfield, Conn., who was born without a left arm. The girl apologized.

"It's totally fine!" Jen yelled back as she ran to the ball, well aware that little in this life comes easily.

Later, they fielded ground balls. A boy with no left arm would field the ball in his right-handed mitt, then flick off his glove and catch the ball with his bare hand, all in one fluid motion. Everyone was impressed, and you could tell he appreciated that.

During batting practice, some children swung with one arm, almost as if they were using a polo mallet. They received encouragement whether it was a whiff or a smash.

Between drills, the children and the Wounded Warriors shared stories and lessons. They pulled down their shirts and showed their scars. They talked about receiving injections in their stomachs. They commiserated about how uninformed other children can be.

"Someone asked me which hand I write with," Jen said with a smile. "I was like, 'Seriously?'"

Outside the playing area, Chris Kazemekas of Thomasville, Ga., watched his 8-year-old son, Steven, dash around the field, happy as ever. Steven's left arm ends at the elbow, and he was recently fitted for his first prosthesis.

When he arrived at the camp, he could not wait to show his father all the children and soldiers who looked very much like him. He made it clear that here, he was not alone.

What does it mean to Kazemekas to have these war veterans - men with their own struggles - hold an event like this for children like his son. He choked up, his eyes watered, and he simply shook his head, and you knew exactly what he meant even though he did not say a word.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Wounded Warriors, amputee kids bond over softball

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