On a gorgeous sunny Saturday in April 2012, Chris Tarte approached the mound to throw out the first pitch. The game was between two local high school teams gathered for a tournament organized to honor military. Fresh from combat, with his leg in a “cage” and pins coming out in every direction, he captivated the players from both teams along with the crowd. Suddenly war was real to this small community situated in the middle of Arkansas. It was vivid and shocking. It was displayed on the body of one of their own, not much older than the players, right in view of everyone. No “photoshop” or video editing could change the reality of this young man standing before a crowd of about 350 people. Next to Chris stood 92 year old “Uncle Earl”. He fought at the Battle of Iwo Jima and was on the shores when the flag raising happened that is now an American icon depicted in the bronze statue. Earl is the uncle of three of the players who participated the first Boots ON Baseball tournament; the brainchild of twin brothers and coaches Wes & Will McCrotty. The contrasts were palpable. Right before their very eyes the realities of the cost of freedom were visible on one of the most iconic representations of Americana: a baseball field. All around Chris, Uncle Earl other veterans appear along the baseline with two teams of teenage boys decked out in combat boots as Chris throws out the first pitch. Not a dry eye in the place.
Motivated, encouraged and desperate to continue to make a difference for people like Chris and Uncle Earl, the McCrotty brothers plan the second baseball tournament for April 2013. They raised money with local businesses and the Booster Clubs at each of their schools to support the Second Annual Boots ON Baseball Tournament featuring the Dardanelle Sand Lizards and the Pottsville Indians. On the docket this year is a visit from Char Westfall, widow of Jacques Fontan who died during the rescue portion of Operation Red Wings. His helicopter was hit with an RPG as he was repelling out for the rescue. Char’s life changed forever at the ripe age of 28, just slightly younger than Chris Tarte when he was injured. Wes and Will aren’t merely coaches or history teachers they are investors. To drive home the cost of freedom for the teenagers they lead, the twins invest in bringing Sean Parnell to the tournament. Sean spoke to the ball players, their families and guests; among them was Chris Tarte and his wife.
As the day progressed to evening, the group gathered for dinner after the game to celebrate another great tournament. Sean asks the boys if they have any questions about serving in military, combat or anything else. Someone blurts out “what do we do to help now?” Without hesitation Sean challenges them to embrace those who have served and are in need living among them. He finishes by saying it’s easy to say thank you to a soldier once but to invest in their lives on a daily basis will have a greater impact for all. While Sean visits with the guests, Char is in the back of the room talking with Chris. She’s discovered he is in need of some housing assistance for his wife and family. She tells him about the Boot Campaign’s housing assistance program and encourages him to complete the application process. A few short months later the Boot Campaign grants some assistance for Chris with the help of Boot Campaign Ambassador, Louise Thaxton at Fairway Independent Mortgage.
Chris and his family selected a house in need of repair but situated smack in the middle of both boot-wearing coaches and players from Dardanelle and Pottsville. The very second Will and Wes learned the house needed some attention, they took Sean’s encouragement to heart. With the help of family, friends and students, the twins showed up to the Tarte’s future home and began to give it the “spa treatment:” cleaning the yard of debris, trimming trees & bushes, power washing driveways and walls. All the while they kept sending Boot Campaign photos and messages of gratitude like: “this is such an honor for us to do this for the Tarte family” and “we assessed other repairs and will take care of those”, and “we are so grateful for Chris and y’all for letting us help”, and “thankful Sean came to our neck of the woods”. The best one however was the email sent when it was all done “it was an honor to do this, our lives have been changed forever.”
When people understand the value of service, and look for ways to honor those who served on their behalf, it’s like a field of dreams. The world opens up and opportunities RUN to you. Even better is to watch how it affects so many amazing people. The continued generosity of Louise and her team at Fairway to the Boot Campaign for projects like this, the honesty and integrity of Sean and Char both of whom have suffered enormous loss, the sacrifice of Chris, and the boots on 50 or so teenage kids have brought a man home from combat with a supportive community behind him. And there is not a dry eye in the place!