Van Sleet starts teams for amputee players

Dave Van Sleet stayed on the playing field and kept serving after his military career ended.

In 2011 he founded the Wounded Warrior amputee softball team, which subsequently became today’s USA Patriots. His former team, based in Norfolk, Virginia, made its annual trip to Huntsville Sept. 28 for exhibition games at Madison Academy. The team, of former service members who lost limbs in combat, beat Madison Academy 14-13 and lost to Redstone 12-8.

Jim Myers, a legendary senior softball player, knows Van Sleet well.

“He was the original coach and the founder of the Wounded Warriors (amputee softball team),” Myers, 72, of Huntsville, said. “He also wrote a recommendation letter for me when I got inducted into the Hall of Fame. I played with him four different times with the guys. My tournament team, we played them down in Winter Haven, Florida, at the spring nationals, in 2013 I believe. And I pitched for the Warriors and we played against my team. I pitched against my own team.

“He is the founder of that Wounded Warriors (team), and the accolades he got for that. He did all that on his own. It’s unbelievable.”

Myers was inducted into the Softball Players Association Hall of Fame on Sept. 14, 2018.

Van Sleet is now general manager and president of the Louisville Slugger Warriors National Amputee Baseball Team Inc., a nonprofit organization and the only nationally sponsored amputee baseball team. Most of the members have played college baseball before or after their amputation.

He retired from the Department of Veterans Affairs at the end of 2011 and moved to Estero, Florida. Van Sleet led the amputee softball team from 2011-15 and he started the baseball team in

January 2017.

After high school, the Burlington, Vermont, native joined the Army in July 1973 as the United States was ending its involvement in the Vietnam War. Van Sleet had basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He came to Redstone in September 1973 for advanced individual training as a nuclear weapons electrical specialist. He was here through March 1974 when he left for Korea – he departed a month before Huntsville’s devastating tornadoes that April.

“I had never been that south before in my life,” he said. Van Sleet spent much of his seven months on post at the gym which would be leveled by the April tornadoes. He played unit level sports. At 5-foot-7, he was the starting guard on the 4th Enlisted Training Company, 3rd Platoon, basketball team which won the post championship.

He remembered when he and two teammates, forward Dennis Caldwell and center Willie Banks, drove to Fort McClellan in Anniston for an informal dance. Along the way, they went to a restaurant where Banks was denied service because he was black. “That was when I was exposed to segregation,” Van Sleet said.

In May 2012 he returned to Huntsville for the first time since 1974 when he participated in a press conference at city hall announcing that the Wounded Warrior amputee softball team would play in the Rocket City. The team played exhibition games at the Metro Kiwanis Sportsplex in June 2012 and again in 2013.

“I remember it sort of being a small town back then (in 1973-74) but not now,” Van Sleet said. “It’s really gotten built up everywhere and not just the Army base but everywhere. The airport is much much larger than I remember. When I would drive to the airport I would drive by cotton fields. I remember open land and cotton fields.”

Van Sleet left the Army in August 1974 as a specialist four and, as planned, went to college. He attended George Mason University from 1975-76 before transferring to Northern Virginia Community College from 1976-78. He earned associate degrees in dental technology and liberal arts.

“Joining the Army was the best thing I ever did,” he said. “It elevated me in my personal and professional life.”

He was accepted to the Department of Veterans Affairs maxilla facial prosthetic program from 1978-80 where he learned how to design and fabricate artificial eyes. Van Sleet spent the first 25 years of his VA career on the clinical side. As this nation’s war role increased, he moved to the administrative side. He managed all of the VA’s prosthetic programs for New England and the Southwest. He retired from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Van Sleet received the Olin E. Teague Award, the highest honor to a VA employee who serves war-injured veterans, in November 2011. “It was a nice way to end my career,” he said.

At 64 he enjoys sports, traveling, board games, trivia and riding his bicycle. He is a life member of the Disabled American Veterans.

Van Sleet shared his thoughts on this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.

“For the Soldiers that served in theater, it’s something else that they could be applauded for,” he said. “As you know, most of them were drafted and were somewhat reluctant to go. But they accomplished a lot and never got the recognition that they deserved. So I think this is another way to say thank you to them.”

Editor’s note: This is the 240th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

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