Four years ago, Matthew Ritenour would have been thankful to walk, much less play baseball.
In 10 days the former U.S. Army staff sergeant and Huntley resident is penciled in to be the first baseman for Team Salute Inc. at the Chicago White Sox Fantasy Camp in Glendale, Ariz.
Ritenour, 36, is a presidential Silver Star recipient and one of a group of seven wounded military veterans given the opportunity to attend the White Sox Fantasy Camp, courtesy of the White Sox, Salute Inc. and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
On Sept. 4, 2007, Ritenour and his unit fought against 180 Taliban fighters who attacked their base in southern Afghanistan. Although he was shot in the head and partially paralyzed during the battle, Ritenour fought on, encouraging nearby soldiers and using a radio to call in mortar fire on the enemy.
"I was shot in the head and paralyzed on my right side, I don't have much movement in my right foot and ankle, and the strength and coordination on my right side is not what it used to be. It took me 2½ years to learn how to walk again," he said Thursday night during a team batting practice at Lisle's Bulls/Sox Academy. "That's going to make playing baseball a little challenging, but if you'd have told me after I got shot that I would be playing baseball today I would have told you were crazy."
During their seven-day adventure at Camelback Ranch, the veterans will wear custom White Sox uniforms, work with Sox greats and compete for the fantasy camp championship.
That's all a dream come true for 32-year-old Army veteran Jeremy Votaw, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and leg injuries. He was shot in the quadriceps, knee and calf by a 14-year-old insurgent in Ramadi, Iraq. His rehabilitation took more than a year.
"I've always loved baseball, but I've just never had much luck at it," the St. Charles resident said. "My little man and I are huge (first baseman Paul) Konerko fans. This is awesome. Every little guy wants to be a baseball player when they grow up. This is my chance."
For Chris Miller of Schaumburg, who gained national attention in 2010 for issues he suffered with due to post-traumatic stress disorder, the camp is a chance for him to learn to be part of a team again.
"I came back and my whole world was my wife and my son and that was it," he said in between turns in the batting cage. "This is great opportunity to be part of a squad, part of a team again. I'm really excited."
The trip, which has many corporate sponsors, was organized by Palatine-based Salute Inc., a nonprofit that attempts to meet the financial, physical and emotional needs of veterans and their families.
"We know each of these vets personally. We've been through challenges and surgeries with them," said Executive Director Marybeth Beiersdorf. "This is a celebration of them having met the challenges and gives something really looking forward to."
Bob Grim, senior director of White Sox broadcasting, said the team was honored to be the first MLB team to feature a veterans team at their fantasy camp.
"These men are heroes and extraordinary human beings," Grim said during batting practice. "We're honored to share our field with them."