Softball with Strong Men and Women

The Honorable James M. Byrne

A determined veteran in a rapidly accelerating wheelchair rounds third base, headed toward home plate. Another equally focused veteran, also in a wheelchair, is the catcher guarding the home plate, awaiting a throw from the outfield. The softball arrives and is caught moments before the collision. Bodies, wheelchairs, athletic gear and dust go flying every which way. Everyone is silent and unclear on how to respond. The catcher, having tagged the runner, is on the ground flat on his back. And then to everyone’s surprise, the catcher raises the ball into the air showing the violent collision did not dislodge the ball from his possession and signaling the runner was indeed out at home plate. The umpire confirmed the obvious and the crowd and both teams spontaneously erupted into applause. Both disoriented players were helped into their wheelchairs and back to their team benches. 

This was one of many highly competitive events at the annual Warrior Games – but not even the roughest event. I was there as a senior executive with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs to provide opening ceremony comments, award ribbons, thank sponsors, staff and other volunteer supporters, and most importantly – meet the participating veterans. 

“Hey, Mr. Deputy Secretary, after that collision and certain concussion, I suppose you are going to shut this game down?”

Having observed the determination and exhilaration demonstrated at the games by these veteran athletes, the home plate confrontation only seemed natural to me. I was well aware that the media or a politician could spin this collision at home plate (and other games) into VA leadership promoting activities that harm veterans. 

“Of course not. That was awesome.” After the game I presented the runner and catcher with the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs challenge coin for exceptional service and told them I should be asking for their autographs. I was not alone in my praise. Their expressions were priceless. 

Though I no longer work at the VA, I am still passionate about VA’s #1 clinical priority: suicide prevention. We know a few things about suicide and how to prevent it; chiefly, connection and helping people create a world in which they want to live are critical for many. The men and women participating in the adaptive sports programs I oversaw that day (and many days outside of that) demonstrated living well. 

More than a few participants in these wheelchair games and other adaptive sports games have told me that these activities saved their lives. They train and look forward each year to participating. How do we place a dollar value on that? We can’t and don’t. We continue to expand these programs, providing opportunities for these people to continue to find purpose in meaning in everyday life. Like these veterans, we help people find things that give their lives value.

I am honored with the opportunity to share this passion of suicide prevention on the board of the American Association of Suicidology (AAS). In my role with AAS, I hope to bring opportunities and knowledge to the organization that are reflective of our members’ needs. VA wisely acknowledges that preventing veteran suicides is a whole nation effort and we are still all in this together. AAS’s mission is to promote the understanding and prevention of suicide and support those who have been affected by it. I stand firmly behind this mission and believe that everyone has a role to play in suicide prevention.