Heroes Meeting Heroes
Elmer was shot in the chest by sniper. Eric was hit by a hundred pieces of shrapnel. Jeromye was hit by a mortar and thrown in the air as high as a palm tree. He walks with a cane and has to rely on his wife to remind him to take his daily doses of painkillers, antidepressants, mood stabilizers and seizure meds. Christopher was blown up by an IED while crossing a bridge and tossed onto the riverbank below. His left arm, crushed in the fall, is strafed with ropey scars.
They and about 25 of their fellow Marines were gathered at Frasher’s restaurant in Scottsdale Saturday night for dinner. Their host: Barry Zito.
Zito flew the wounded Marines in from San Diego, where they are rehabilitating at Balboa Naval Hospital. He put them up in hotels, bought tickets to Giants games and hosted Saturday’s dinner. The group returned to San Diego Sunday.
“Pinch me,” Elmer Ugarte said as he surveyed the dining room packed with maroon-shirted Marines socializing with Randy Winn, Brian Wilson, Jack Taschner, Alex Hinshaw, Matt Cain, Orlando Hudson, Noah Lowry, C.J. Wilson and Zito.
“I can’t call this amazing,” Ugarte said, “because amazing is something you think might happen. Unbelievable is something I thought would never happen.”
The trip was part of Zito’s efforts to ease the recovery of injured troops. He founded Strikeouts for Troops in 2005 and has raised almost $2 million. The idea behind the fund is to give the recovering men and women the comforts of home, largely by providing transportation and housing so loved ones can be nearby.
Zito has recruited nearly 70 fellow ball players to contribute money for every strikeout, home run or RBI.
“All we do is throw a ball around,” said Hinshaw, who attended the dinner with his fiancť, Courtney. “They fight for our country and for our freedom. They look up to us but we’re the ones who look up to them.”
Said Wilson, “As baseball players, we represent our city and team. They represent our country.”
Rick Williams of the Marine Corps League of San Diego recalled one of Zito’s several visits to Balboa Naval Hospital.
“Twelve Marines just came back who had literally been blown apart,” Williams said to the crowd when everyone had settled at their tables for dinner. “Barry went from room to room, talked to them and listened to them and looked them in the eye and said, ‘You’re going to be OK.’ He spent 45 minutes with one kid who had lost an arm and a leg and was just devastated. Barry somehow had him laughing.”
He turned to Zito, standing behind him.
“You were raised right, man,” he said. “You were raised right.”
Zito asked each of the Marines to stand and introduce himself. One by one they gave their names, some too emotional to say anything more.
“This reminds us of why we did what we did,” one Marine said in a cracked voice. “It shows all of the Marines that America really cares about them.”
Toward the end of the evening, after Zito thanked his teammates and friends for coming and thanked the Marines for their sacrifice, one soft-spoken Marine with a cane tapped Zito on the shoulder.
“The most important thing you’ve done is to listen to us,” he said. “You make us feel that what we did mattered.”