Damon bonds with wounded vets

Damon bonds with wounded vets

TAMPA, Fla. -- It has been two months since Johnny Damon stood before the packed audience of a New York hotel ballroom, his lower lip quivering as he choked back tears and spoke honestly about how much the sacrifices of America's servicemen and servicewomen mean to him.

The Yankees outfielder is a national spokesperson for the Wounded Warrior Project, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based non-profit organization that aims to help severely injured soldiers with their readjustment to civilian life.

Before Wednesday's exhibition game against the Twins, Damon accompanied three soldiers who recently returned from Iraq to the mound for ceremonial first pitches, drawing a standing ovation.

As Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Roeder (U.S. Navy), Capt. Jonathan Pruden (3rd Infantry Division, U.S. Army) and Sgt. Jace Badia (1st Infantry Division, U.S. Army) threw baseballs to players behind home plate at Legends Field, Damon smiled with pride.

"It's one day to take time and show your appreciation," Damon said. "Hopefully, these guys never get tired of seeing me. I know there are a lot of people who really appreciate being able to put on a baseball uniform because these guys fight for their freedom."

The son of a career Army NCO and Vietnam veteran, Damon has developed a lasting connection to the military, making time during his schedule to visit wounded soldiers around the country, engage them and listen to their stories. After Wednesday's game, he recruited as many teammates as possible to organize a visit to the Tampa VA Medical Center.

The Yankees' affiliation with the Wounded Warrior Project has helped raise a large amount of funds. A spokesperson since September 2006, Damon said that he is more than happy to continue offering his name to the cause.

"I want to make sure the money that people are giving is making a difference," Damon said, "and it absolutely is. These guys are able to go skiing, and they're playing golf. They're being celebrated. That's why I want to help out."

Chris Britton, Nick Green, Alan Horne and Ian Kennedy were among the players who visited the hospital, located about 20 minutes from Legends Field. Several of the wounded veterans recognized the Yankees, including Britton and Kennedy, who pitched in Wednesday's nationally televised game.

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"It means a lot to me," said Horne, a right-handed pitcher. "I have a lot of military history in my family. I'm proud of everything they've done and anyone who puts their life on the line for this country. Any time I can do something like that, it's a lot of fun to me. It's something I take a lot of pride in."

Steve Fortunato, a retired Air Force officer who now acts as a media consultant, said that the players were planning to meet with Tampa-area veterans who have suffered serious trauma, including head and brain injuries.

The appearances are as much for the veterans, Fortunato said, as for the families.

"It means almost as much to see a guy like Johnny Damon come in and say hi and know that there are people out there who care and respect these veterans," Fortunato said.

Fortunato said that Damon and the three veterans taped public-service announcements on Wednesday at Legends Field. The spots will air on national television and radio beginning in April and will also be shown before or during games at Yankee Stadium this season.

A salute to wounded servicemen and servicewomen is also planned for this season in the Bronx. More than 29,000 soldiers have been injured in the current war on terror, wounds that will retire them from military service.

"It's the least I can do," Damon said. "There are so many people that help me out to make my job easier. If I can lend my time to help these proud veterans out and make a difference, it is definitely worth it."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.