Just like the softballs that were smacked over the outfield fence at Brook Peterson Park by members of the Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball team this past weekend, the Waconia Lions Club hit a home run with its Waconia Veterans Appreciation Weekend that was held in Waconia July 12-13.
During the weekend, hundreds of community members attended a special veterans recognition program, watched softball games featuring the Wounded Warriors and enjoyed a community picnic, among other events.
“We’ve heard tons of positive comments from everybody,” said Lion Rick Wagener. “I don’t think I can even count how many people said what a great event it was for the community.”
“I know the local veterans appreciated it,” added Lion Chuck Anderson, who shared a brief story about local veteran Charlie Peterson, who had told Anderson that he initially was somewhat hesitant about participating in the veterans recognition program. “He decided to go out there and as soon as he stepped foot on the field, the catcher from the Wounded Warriors gave him a hug and said, ‘Welcome home, solider.’”
Many of these types of moments were created throughout the weekend, which started on Friday night with a softball game between the Wounded Warriors and Minnesota celebrities. The Wounded Warriors consists of players that sustained serious injuries that resulted in amputation while serving in the military but have overcome those challenges to return to competitive athletics. The team members hail from throughout the nation.
At the celebrity game, Waconia native and military veteran Colin Faust threw out the first pitch. The Waconia Fire Department showcased its large American flag and the Waconia High School Marching band played several selections. Gopher legend Dick Jonckowski announced the contest, which the celebrity team won 13-9.
Some of the celebrities that participated included former Minnesota Viking Everett Lindsay, former Gopher and NBA player Kevin Lynch, Chris Shaffer of WCCO TV, John Hines of WCCO Radio and several local players, including Joey Dertinger of Waconia, the U.S. National Paralympic Alpine Ski champion.
Vikings player Jared Allen, who runs a non-profit organization called Homes for Wounded Warriors that raises money to build or modify the homes of America’s injured military veterans, had planned to take part in the evening but was unable to attend after some overseas travel arrangements changed at the last minute.
Allen was interested in attending partly because Faust has been chosen as a recipient of a new house through the organization. Sonja Faust, Colin’s mother, said Allen contacted her family Friday evening to express his support for Colin and his disappointment about not being able to make it out to Waconia.
“Jared Allen and his organization have been absolutely phenomenal to us,” she said.
The Lions showed their support for Homes for Wounded Warriors by presenting a $1,000 check to the organization before the start of the game. After the celebrity game, a meet and greet event was held at the American Legion, featuring entertainment by local favorite Traveled Ground. Waconia native and recording star Jenn Bostic sang the national anthem before the game and performed with Traveled Ground at the Legion.
On Saturday morning, the Wounded Warriors defeated the Waconia Fire Department 7-6.
World War II veteran Will Yetzer of Waconia threw out the first pitch before the start of the game. Wagener commented that it was amazing to see local veterans participate throughout the weekend, from a 96-year-old D-Day veteran in Yetzer to newer veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and all those in between.
The Lions also thanked the city of Waconia for its superb field maintenance before the game. Early in the morning, a thunderstorm dropped several inches of rain on Waconia.
“At 6:30 a.m., the infield was a lake,” Anderson recalled. “A half hour later, you wouldn’t know there was ever a problem. Credit goes to the city for doing a great job.”
In the afternoon, a team consisting of area Iraq and Afghanistan veterans took on the Wounded Warriors and won 25-15. Both of the Saturday games were announced by Tim Litfin of Waconia.
The veterans recognition program was held immediately following the afternoon softball game. Approximately 75 local veterans stood on the infield during the program, which included an appearance by volunteers from the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which presented the colors, and a performance by Bostic. After the program, several hundred people attended a community picnic at the Carver County Fairgrounds. At the picnic, attendees enjoyed the music of RJ Stinger and the Tomkatz (the Warrior Spirit Band was initially scheduled to play but unfortunately, the band had to cancel last minute due to a medical emergency).
Wagener mentioned that although the road wasn’t totally smooth — the scramble to book replacement bands, dealing with a flooded field on Saturday morning, etc. — organizers found solutions and still provided the community with a great chance to show its appreciation for its veterans while enjoying some fun softball.
“Waconia can be proud for being the first community in Minnesota to host the Wounded Warriors,” he said.
Indeed, the weekend event provided the first taste of Minnesota for the Wounded Warriors, who make about 40 trips a year and annually play approximately 100 games. The team is already booked for 2014 and is currently planning its 2015 schedule.
General manager / head coach David P. Van Sleet said the Wounded Warriors were impressed with the event and the community spirit and support that Waconia showed the team and all of the veterans.
“It was a pretty good trip. We really enjoyed it,” said Van Sleet, who thanked the Lions and the community for making the weekend such a success. “I couldn’t believe how much time and effort they put into it.”
On a related note, Wounded Warrior Josh Wege left Waconia on Saturday night to travel to New York to participate in the Taco Bell All-Star Legends and Celebrity softball game on Sunday. The game is part of Major League Baseball’s All Star week. At that game, Wege hit a home run off of former slugger Frank Thomas and earned co-MVP honors along with comedian Kevin James.
“The Wounded Warriors were class guys,” Anderson said. “They were super polite and always said sir. One of them told me this was one of the best run events he’s been to as a Wounded Warrior. High class all the way.”
Anderson said the weekend could not have achieved the success that it did without all of the behind the scenes work performed by the Waconia Veterans Appreciation Weekend Committee.
“We’d like to give a huge thank you to the committee for its hard work and dedication for making this a huge, successful community event,” Wagener said.
In addition to Anderson and Wagener, the committee included Richard Beckett, Dave Gohl, Tim Looby, B.J. Ludwig, Gary Nordick, Doug Ohlson, Tom Pietz, Bob Rehbein, Brian Reister, Ray Rindahl, Darrin Rothstein, Jim Sanborn, Chuck Schmidt, Jon Schuler and Kelly Wagener.
Although the weekend was coordinated by the Waconia Lions Club, many area organizations, businesses and individuals — from the Watertown and Cologne Lions, Cologne Leos, Target employees and the local Yellow Ribbon military volunteer program to Ron Schueble Transportation — gave their support.
The Lions thank the community for supporting the weekend, which cost about $22,000 to put on. The Lions have raised about $18,000 and any additional donations would be appreciated. Checks can be made out to “Waconia Lions / Veterans Appreciation” and can be given to any Lion or mailed to PO Box 21, Waconia, MN 55387.
“We thank the community for showing up,” Wagener said. “If you missed it, you really missed almost a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the Wounded Warriors to show determination, inspiration and even perspiration to prove their motto, ‘Life without limbs is limitless.’”
Contact Todd Moen at [email protected]