When Chris Powell and Darryl Fletcher were dodging bullets and land mines in Iraq, neither dreamed of someday shooting hoops with Sam Cassell and John Wall of the Wizards.
In fact, it’s fair to say the only thing they dreamed of was waking up alive.
“My experience over there was one of those experiences that you say you’d probably never go through again if you didn’t have to,” said Powell, a 26-year-old army sergeant from Riverdale, Md., who was among a handful of war veterans invited to attend the Wizards’ practice at Verizon Center on Monday.
“Every day you wake up and you’re not really too sure what’s going to happen,” Powell said. “… A lot of people talk about fear. I get that question a lot. Are you afraid? Were you afraid? And I tell them, ‘Yeah, in the beginning I was.’ But then after a couple months go by, you kind of get used to it. So the fear never really goes away, but the showing the fear kind of goes away.”
Cassell understands. The former NBA all-star and current Wizards assistant coach grew up in Baltimore in a military family. He said he appreciates the service of men like Powell and Fletcher, each of whom is recovering at Walter Reed from injuries suffered in Iraq.
“It’s tough on your family,” Cassell said. “You never know what may happen or you may get that phone call. I have an uncle that’s been in the Navy for 30 years.
“He told me a long time ago that it could be a long time before this war ends. And that was six years ago. Right now, we still have troops over there and it won’t be over until every single troop is home. It gives closure to that family that has a son or daughter over in Iraq, to come home safely. Until the last American solder comes home, it’s not over.”
Fletcher, 39, is a Staff Sergeant from Trenton, N.J. who had his arm badly injured in Iraq in 2010.
“We were extended an invitation to view a controlled demonstration, which went awry,” Fletcher said of his injury. “There were corners that were cut. But in lieu of that I survived, but the guy that was next to me did not. But through God’s grace and mercy I’m here today.”
If nothing else, meeting Powell and Fletcher put into perspective the Wizards’ worst start in team history. They own the NBA’s worst record at 1-13.
“Sometimes you worry about wins and losses and what’s affecting us,” said Wizards coach Randy Wittman, who will spend the next 24 hours game planning to beat the defending champion Miami Heat. “And then you see guys at a young age putting their lives on the line to make the world a better place. It kind of opens your eyes a little bit. We’re thankful for these people for what they do for us. They’re more than welcome to come out here any time they want.”
Wizards rookie Bradley Beal said it’s as much an honor for him to meet our nation’s wounded warriors as it is for them to meet him.
“It just helps you realize the blessing that you have,” Beal said. “And at the same time it shows what you're thankful for. These guys are selected to defend their country and they're blessed to be able to come back. Some of the people didn't make it [home from] over there and they're blessed to come back, even if they're wounded.
“That’s a blessing in itself and you still have your life to live. We're just so thankful for that, especially myself. That just touches me because they represent us. And it’s just crazy because they actually know who [we] are and we have no idea who they are besides the fact they're in the army.”
Beal said one of the soldiers asked him if the lifestyle of an NBA player is everything people say it is.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, it is. It’s pretty amazing,’” Beal said. “He was like, ‘Don't get too Hollywood on us. If you see us in the street just say hey.’”
Cassell says a word of thanks is the least every American can do for the men and women who serve their country.
“I don’t think we can thank them enough,” Cassell said. “They are fighting for our freedom and everything this country stands for. You can tell these guys have sustained some serious injuries over there. I just thanked them for fighting for our freedom. Everyone on the streets that sees these individuals should show their gratitude.”