Just two days before he was supposed to leave Iraq in 2006, Army Sgt. Taylor Urruela was riding in a Humvee that hit a roadside bomb, mangling his right leg.
After 35 surgeries, the Tampa 27-year-old agreed to have his leg amputated. Before long, he was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and was drinking away his pain.
Last year, he and a fellow veteran founded VETSports, a nonprofit sports league with roughly 100 players in several cities — all of them wounded vets. The idea is to help them overcome their injuries through physical activity and teamwork.
On Sunday afternoon, a team of wounded warriors faced off against St. Petersburg firefighters and police officers in a pair of hard-fought softball games at Al Lang Field.
The games were to raise money for charity — for VETSports and for the Kiwanis Miracle League, a St. Petersburg-based organization that gives disabled youngsters a chance to play baseball.
Urruela, who runs the bases on a metal prosthetic blade where his right foot used to be, was joined on the field by combat veterans from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. They've all been dealing with the challenge of readjusting to civilian society.
"We all go through it," Urruela said. "This is rehabilitation, whether physical or psychological or social. We want to change the way they look at life."
The wounded warriors' dugout was a place of baseball gloves, Gatorade bottles, prosthetic limbs and surgical scars.
Take third baseman Jeremy Spoerle of Houston, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq in 2007 when an improvised explosive device took out his Humvee.
"I'm here for the feel of being part of a military family again," he said. "Civilians don't understand."
Or first baseman Roberto Cruz, 32, of Tampa, who was shot by a sniper in Iraq in 2005. The bullet lodged in his spine, paralyzing him for two years.
"They told me I wasn't going to walk again," Cruz said. "I'm here to prove there's no such thing as a disability. No matter how injured you are, there's so many things you can still do."
Tampa Bay Rays Brandon Gomes and Sean Rodriguez stopped by the softball exhibition. The ceremonial first pitch was thrown by Ireland Nugent, the Palm Harbor 3-year-old who lost her legs in a lawn mower accident earlier this year.
On a day when ice storms were freezing much of the rest of the country, a crowd of about 125 spectators at Al Lang tried to stay out of the hot Florida sun, clustering in the shady spots in the stands.
Besides the $10 admission tickets, money was raised through a silent auction where people could bid on a baseball signed by Evan Longoria, a football signed by Darrelle Revis or a hockey stick signed by Martin St. Louis, among other items.
No final tally was available Sunday for how much money was raised.
"We're out here to support the wounded warriors," said St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Lt. Jon Fair. "It's a great cause."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151.