Wounded troops back in the swing
February 18, 2009
By Tim Hipps
Salute Military Golf Association has helped hundreds of combat-wounded servicemembers get back into the swing of life-both physically and psychologically-by providing free instruction, golf clubs, balls and practice facilities.
Most of the wounded warriors who attend clinics at Olney Golf Club in Maryland come from Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda Naval Hospital, where they are recovering from severe injuries.
Some come on prosthetic legs. Some hold the club in one hand, while maintaining balance with a metal hook that serves as the other. Some have never played golf before. Some may never again play the game as well as they once did.
They all, however, seem to leave feeling more content than they came.
"You can feel sorry for yourself all you want, but it's not going to make your situation any better," said Spc. Saul Bosquez, who had his left leg amputated below the knee and lost two right toes after getting hit with an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Baghdad. "So why not try to do something'"
Bosquez, of Fort Benning, Ga., has been rehabilitating at Walter Reed since September, when he learned about the SMGA.
"I figured I might as well do something while I'm here," he said. "If you're out doing stuff, it takes your mind off what happened. You might have a little reminder here and there while trying to make a swing - it's more difficult because of your disability. But I'm out here golfing while there are guys still over in Iraq, so I can't really complain."
A member of the Eastern Amputee Golf Association, Bosquez recently shot a 92 at Tournament Players Club Scottsdale in Arizona. On a couple of local courses, he has posted nine-hole scores of 43 and 45.
"Before, it was pretty much 'here's a ball, now go hit it,' Bosquez said. "Now there's a little more thought process going into my swing. Coming from a baseball background, all I wanted to do is just hit it as far as I could. Now there's a little more of a science to it.
"I can do other things but they don't have a lot of programs for the things that I want to do," he said. "I would like to start a baseball program and actually play in a league."
That kind of spirit is what inspired Jim Estes to create the Salute Military Golf Association, whose mission is to provide rehabilitative golf experiences for Soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. A former PGA Tour player and current director of instruction at Olney Golf Park, Estes launched the program last year.
"Most people, if they don't do it well, they quit," Estes said. "These guys, they don't quit at anything, so they've got a perfect mentality for it. You tell them how long and how hard and they'll do it. That's the sort of people we wish we had as students. Most people play golf for recreation. These guys play golf for therapy and recreation."
Just getting out and about and mingling with others is half the battle.
"It's good to get out and socialize because after physical therapy I just go home and really don't do anything," said Sgt. Randy Coggins of Fort Campbell, Ky. "I'm not as depressed as I used to be."
While driving through northern Baghdad on Aug. 23, 2007, Coggins was hit by an explosively formed penetrator that severed his left leg below the knee and shredded the Achilles tendon in his right leg.
"I don't really take it too hard," Coggins said.
"I just tell myself it happens sometimes and you've got to deal with it-just got to accept the fact that it's the way I'm going to be for the rest of my life."
An eight-year Army veteran, Coggins, has come full circle back to Walter Reed, where he was born. Disabled Sports USA program services assistant Kat Poster approached him there about joining forces with the SMGA.
"I said, 'Sure, I'll give it a try,'" Coggins said of the invitation to play golf. "This is my second time out. I had never played golf before. It's kind of cool, actually. I'll try playing a round of golf and see how that works out, but right now I'm pretty content just knocking the ball around."
Those kinds of comments make Estes smile.
"I've seen it happen firsthand-how guys change their mind: go from depressed and drugged to the point they're almost reaching for medication and everything's negative because that's the environment," Estes said. "Every single day a doctor is telling them 'this is what's wrong with you' and pretty soon that's all they're thinking about.
"So let's get out of that medical atmosphere. Nothing against physicians, that's what they're trained to do is tell you what's wrong with you, but you can't play and have fun and be in a proper mindset with golf and think that way. So we just transform that."
Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command program analyst Trace Kea, a nine-year PGA Professional, volunteered to help instruct the wounded warriors every Saturday from April 5 through May 24.
"It was a great way to give something back to these guys, who have given their all for us," said Kea, who also worked with the group last year. "Their attitudes are great. They love that someone is doing something for them and they love this program. They're happy to be doing something instead of being laid up doing nothing at the hospital."
Kea, a veteran, has missed all but one of his 5-year-old son's soccer games to work on the driving range with the wounded warriors.
"I figured it was the least I could do," he said. "If we all did something like this, life for all the vets returning would be great.
"I went to the prosthetic clinic at Walter Reed one day, and it brings tears to your eyes to see 40 or 50 people going through their drills and their rehab for the day," Kea said.
Sergeant 1st Class Sonia Williams, a human resource specialist with the Defense Logistics Agency at Fort Belvoir, Va., struggles with a recurring hip injury originally sustained during a car accident in 2002.
"We worked out the kinks in my back and neck, but my hip is still off," said Williams, who's been on medical hold since having two screws inserted in her hip in January of 2006. "I told Jim I was not sure if I would be able to play because of my hip, and he said, 'We can work around your limitations.' So I started coming once or twice a week for lessons. It's very therapeutic for me because it has me focused on other things, not my injury or things going on at home or at the hospital. At Walter Reed, I was diagnosed with depression."
Everything seems to change on the driving range.
"When you look out there, everything is just open, and it just directs your focus elsewhere," said Williams.Estes began helping wounded warriors get their lives back on course four years ago.
"He's phenomenal with what he does and how he instructs and motivates and gets these men and women out there to play their best at golf," Kea said. "And their attitudes are phenomenal. They're happy to be alive. They're happy to be here. They enjoy what we're doing for them."
The Disabled Sports USA folks, who have partnered with the PGA of America to support the program, have also taken the wounded warriors white-water rafting, biking, climbing, scuba diving and skiing, among other activities.
Estes said the organization would not exist without gracious contributors, adding the nonprofit he founded and online contributions cover the costs of equipment, lessons, facility fees and time with golf professionals.
For more information about the Salute Military Golf Association visit www.golfsalute.org, or call (301) 802-5215.
Tim Hipps works for FMWRC Public Affairs