The University of Kansas national champion men’s basketball team began their victory lap in the nation’s capital by visiting wounded warriors and signing autographs at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC.
Towering players in blue warm-up suits and members of the Jayhawks coaching staff mixed among a dozen camo-clad soldiers in the lobby of the main building for a brief ceremony before visiting injured troops in two hospital wards.
“We’ve labeled today as ‘national champions meet national heroes,’” said Army Secretary Pete Geren. “Your visit means a lot to the [wounded warriors], but I’m confident that your opportunity to visit with them meant a lot to you, as well.
“They’re an inspiring bunch of soldiers,” he added. “I’m confident you’ll walk away feeling uplifted.”
Before ushering Kansas head coach Bill Self to the podium, Geren presented him with a commemorative plaque and thanked the team for spending time with the recovering troops.
“We have looked so forward to our trip to Washington,” Self said of the two-day visit that included a meeting with President Bush at the White House.
“I think our visit to the Walter Reed Medical Center will be a major highlight of the trip,” Self continued. “We take for granted so much the gifts that we have, and then to see people that are out there doing things that really matter in life — protecting us so we have an opportunity to do such things,” he continued. “It is very humbling, rewarding, and certainly something I think we will get a lot out of. It is our privilege to be here today.”
Chase Buford, a freshman guard on the Kansas squad, said it was an honor to talk with wounded troops — even the soldier who razzed the Jayhawks for defeating his beloved North Carolina Tar Heels in the men’s college basketball semifinals last season.
“It’s pretty neat to see all these guys who have been through so much,” he told American Forces Press Service. “The fact is, we’re just as proud of them as they are of us.”
Army Col. Patricia Horoho, commander of the Walter Reed Health Care System, told the crowd that sports and wounded warrior rehabilitation both require endurance and perseverance in the face of difficult challenges.
“So it means a tremendous amount when you all take the time to talk with them,” she told the players. “Ask them how they got injured [and] how they’re doing, because part of their healing is being able to share that story.”
One soldier attached to a warrior transition brigade here is Jerrod Hays, a staff sergeant in the Kansas National Guard. He had been with his brigade in Iraq for 10 months and was wounded when his convoy drove over two armor-piercing charges buried in the road.
Hays showed a picture that his deployed brigade in Iraq sent him: it showed several of his battle buddies posing in front of their barracks, clutching a University of Kansas flag. “It’s like I told Coach Self: you guys have given us some good bragging rights,” Hays said, an autographed basketball tucked under his arm.
Asked if the visit from the team boosted his morale, he replied, “Oh yeah, especially because they’re my hometown boys. This is good stuff.”
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