Safe at home: Wounded Marines step in as umpires at Triple Crown | SteamboatToday.com

Safe at home: Wounded Marines step in as umpires at Triple Crown

Wounded Marines step in as umpires at Triple Crown

Tony Mauro pulls his umpire's face mask over his United States Marine Corps sunglasses Wednesday during the Triple Crown youth baseball tournament in Steamboat Springs. Mauro is one of nearly a dozen veterans with disabilities serving as umpires at this week's tournament.

— Twice shot, caught in two IED explosions, and 19-year veteran of the Marine Corps, Kyle Bujno, has seen the worst war has to offer, but on a sunny yet cool mountain summer morning in Steamboat Springs, that terror didn't seem as if it could have possibly been any further away.

Crowds roared, bats cracked and hot dogs sizzled Wednesday as the Triple Crown World Series kicked off, a tournament that to many of the players in the field — and more than a few of their parents behind the fences — seemed like the most important thing in the world.

Bujno loves that, the rhythm and the order, the passion and the joy that combine in baseball.

He was a catcher growing up in Washington, D.C., though he was never good enough for the sport to get him out of his inner city neighborhood. He turned to the Marine Corps for that, and through two decades serving his country, not a minute of which he regrets, the Corps turned him into the man he is today.

It made him cool under pressure and strict with the rules. It made him decisive, attentive and responsible.

It made him a lot of things, and somehow, it made him an umpire.

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Into the blue

Bujno was one of a dozen Marines to don the blue this week during the Triple Crown World Series U11 and U13 baseball tournaments in Steamboat. Those men were the product of a Front Range-based camp that caters to wounded Marines.

"It makes a huge difference for these guys," said Jimmy Craig, an NCAA Division 1 umpire and former Marine who was one of three men instrumental in starting the program, the Wounded Warrior Umpire Academy.

Craig teamed with Dan Weikle, a NCAA Division 2 umpire from Ohio, and Major Greg Wilson, the executive officer with the Marines' wounded warrior battalion based in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Together, they brought an idea to life, and they hope they're saving lives.

The organization is not associated with the Wounded Warrior Project, but hopes to reach out to veterans with disabilities for many of the same reasons.

"You've got Marines who turn to alcohol, who put guns in their mouths every day because they don't know how to cope and how to fit back into society," Craig said. "They've lost everything they wanted and needed that they had in the Marine Corps. What this does, it gives them a coping mechanism. It allows them to feel like they belong, and it gives them another brotherhood."

The camp, only in its second year, is already rolling in success stories. Of the 14 Marines who participated in the inaugural version, 11 stuck with it. More went through the training this summer and the ranks continue to grow.

The project found a partner in Aurora Sports Officials on the Front Range, which is contracted to do Triple Crown World Series tournament in Steamboat, and Hal Weizman, who oversees the umpires during the week.

The goal, Craig said, is to hold two annual training camps pumping out 50 umpires each year. It’s Marines and a few sailors from the Navy currently, but eventually, the plan is to include rehabilitating service members from all branches.

Tony Mauro is one of those success stories. Stocky and tattooed, he put 21 years into the Marine Corps and now wears a bushy black beard because, for the first time in more than two decades, he's allowed to.

He was among the first to give the umpiring academy a try and now, more than year later, is still at it.

"What I like about it is that I get to eject coaches," he said, grinning. "Seriously, though, this is another brotherhood, another uniform I can wear with pride. When I go out there with another umpire, we're a team. I've got his back and he's got mine."

Finding peace

For Bujno, umpiring isn't so much a job as it's a hobby, but an important one, as it offers a window into peace.

He's still active duty, assigned to Wilson’s North Carolina wounded warrior battalion.

When he does get out — and it will be soon — he envisions a career as a law enforcement officer, not an umpire. But he doesn't actually want to get out, and that haunts him.

He was in Fallujah, Iraq, the first time he was shot, Oct. 6, 2005. All his injuries actually came from that deployment, and he followed a similar procedure after each, recovering medically, and then, as soon as he possibly could, going back, back to war with his brothers.

His wife and young child joined him in Steamboat Springs for the Triple Crown tournament, and they took in the sights. They tubed the Yampa River on Tuesday and rode to the top of the gondola at the ski resort.

He said he loved it. Still, he'd have left on the next jet if he'd had the opportunity to once again go back to a combat unit.

"Every Marine standing out here, if you could give them a plane ticket right now, they would go," he said. "Every single one of them, without thinking twice. I'd tell my wife, 'I'll see you in six months.'

"That's just the way it is."

But he can't go. His injuries all took a toll, chipping away at him in ways he didn't always even know.

It eventually grew to be too much.

He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and the effects of a traumatic brain injury.

"There are only so many times you can say, 'I'm good. I'm good. I'm good' when inside you're hurting," he said. "On the inside, you're being eaten alive."

He talked between games, tall and affable, clear and concise. 
He'd been behind the plate in the first game he worked Wednesday, then took to the field in the second, absorbing equal amounts ridicule and praise from coaches, players and fans.

It might as well have been on a different planet than the one where he served 19 years in the Marines, when he fought in some of the toughest spots in the war on terror.

"I sucked a lot of things up, took in so much," he said, "but I still felt like I have a lot to prove, especially for the Marines who didn't come home."

Umpiring doesn't "fix" that. It doesn't make the desire to go back disappear, and it doesn't heal his wounds, physical or mental.

A bright sunny day in Steamboat Springs, filled with home runs and hot dogs, however, does help.

"I've realized on a few occasions that life if way too short," he said. "Take advantage of what you have now, because that can be gone. It almost happened to me a few times.

"This place is great. I would do this for free."

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9

How to help

The Wounded Warrior Umpire Academy trains veterans with disabilities to be umpires at baseball games. The organization keeps an updated Facebook page at facebook.com/WWumpireacademy and accepts donations at http://gofundme.com/BrotherhoodInBlue.

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