Astros visit Walter Reed center
Group talks to soldiers, tours rehabilitation facilities
WASHINGTON -- For as many years as the Astros have been visiting Washington, D.C., they've made a trip to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to visit with soldiers who were recently wounded in Iraq.
The visits always are both touching and difficult for the Astros, who meet with dozens of soldiers who've lost limbs and nearly lost their lives during their time overseas.
"It's very touching, motivating -- all in one," Houston manager Cecil Cooper said. "You think your situation in life is glum, you think you're in a real difficult situation sometimes, worrying about wins and losses, how you hit, how you're throwing ... then you see those guys in the positions they're in, and it makes you appreciate where you are, what you have, how blessed you are."
In the past, players have visited soldiers in small groups, going from room to room to spend a few minutes on a more individual basis. This time, the team toured the rehabilitation facility as a group, interacting with the soldiers in that area of the facility.
"It may be just as good for the players to see that as it is for the soldiers," Brad Ausmus said. "There's a lot of people that we've met that are missing a, or multiple, limbs. Surprisingly, most of them are very upbeat."
Brandon Backe, who spends a lot of time at, and donates generously to, Shriners Hospital near his hometown in Galveston, Texas, had a somewhat different feeling when he visited Walter Reed this time. While he wants to believe the Astros' visit is uplifting for the soldiers, he wonders how much good can come out of a group of 30 people invading the lives of people who have been through what can only be described as a living nightmare.
"Here we are, invading in their privacy and their space," Backe said. "It's just basically like it's a zoo, like we're watching them and looking at them. I don't want to feel that way. I'm there to thank them, more than anything. Sometimes it's not enough. They just want to be left alone, and if I was in their shoes, I would want to be left alone, too."
Backe is a regular on the Astros' winter caravan tour, and he has enjoyed his past visits to hospitals, where the groups are smaller and he feels as though he can make a real connection with the patients. But considering the debilitating, and devastating, conditions that many soldiers are in when they arrive to Walter Reed, Backe wonders if outside distractions, such as a baseball team touring their facility, is hurting more than it's helping.
"I want them to understand that when I leave the hospital I will be a better person, because what they go through is real life," Backe said. "You can watch the news all you want, but when you actually go visit Walter Reed, you are seeing what is happening to our soldiers. You're hearing some of the stories. All I want to do is say, 'Thank you.' But I feel like I'm interrupting their days and their routines. There are just some times when we go there that I feel like I'm in the way and I shouldn't be there."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.