For love of the game
September 10, 2010
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. - They act like they own the place - Chuck, George, Don and Darold.
And perhaps they should.
At first glance, these Air Force and Army retiree golfers at Eagles Pride Golf Course don't appear that unusual - they play from the gold tees and fly the blue and white flag with the symbol of the wheelchair user as they drive their golf carts right up to the greens.
But show up at Eagles Pride any Monday morning, and you'll see something a little different.
Covered in sawdust, dirt and pine needles, "the guys" will be hard at work, not with 5-irons or sand wedges, but with saws, rakes and shovels.
"I think its kind of like combat troops - we're here for each other," said Chuck Aly, 76, an avid golfer and retired Air Force colonel who flew fighter planes during the Vietnam War.
"We enjoy each other's company and are committed to this thing as a group. We love the golf course, and we think we're doing some good for it, so why not come back'" Aly said.
For nearly 20 years, the group has logged thousands of volunteer hours at the 27-hole course - trimming the trees lining the fairways, building staircases to tee boxes and maintaining the driving range.
"We just wanted to make the course better, and make it easier to maintain," said George Baird, 77, also a former fighter pilot who at one time was the top senior golfer in the Air Force.
Aly, Baird, Don Rogers, 74, and Darold Hall, 79, have spent most of their adult lives golfing in their spare time. They've played military courses while on deployments in Europe and the Philippines. So it was only natural for the men to make Eagles Pride their home course when stationed at McChord and Fort Lewis.
"It's just got everything you want in a golf course," Aly said. "It's got water and sand and trees and you're not walking through somebody's laundry to get from hole to hole. It's a golf course that's built to be a golf course."
The group started volunteering in 1991 after fellow golfers complained about the condition of the course.
"We got tired of hearing other people say 'why don't they do this'' and 'why don't they do that''" Aly said. "We decided, 'Why don't we!'"
At that time, most of the complaints centered upon the more than 2,000 evergreen trees lining the fairways, that they had never been trimmed to facilitate movement of mowers and golf carts. The group found its first objective.
"We spent two years of Monday mornings trimming trees and hauling the slash," Aly said. "We had just finished all 27 holes when the ice storm hit."
The infamous storm of 1993 wreaked havoc on the course.
"The next Monday, it took us all day just to clear the first tee," he said, realizing that they'd need some backup if they were going to have the course ready for business anytime soon.
"We brought the matter up at the Golf Advisory Council, of which then Col. Pete Chiarelli (now the Army vice chief of staff) was president," he said.
Chiarelli assembled a small corps of Soldiers to assist the volunteers and the course was open within a month, Aly said.
Despite facing some serious health problems, the retirees continue to donate their time at the course. For Rogers, a.k.a. "Bubba," who recently had cancer and then MRSA, volunteering has proven to be his ticket to recovery.
"He's tougher than a one-eyed rattlesnake in a sand storm," Aly said of his friend and golf buddy who joined the group nearly 10 years ago.
For Hall, the group's oldest member, diabetes has affected his ability to stand for long periods of time. Instead of retiring, he's assumed the position of "heavy equipment operator" and regularly drives the dump truck.
"I'm just not smart enough to quit, I guess," Hall said. "I have to keep these guys from screwing off too much."
Mike McDonald, Eagles Pride director of golf, said it is impossible to put a value on the amount of work the volunteers have done.
"When they (retire)," McDonald said, "I don't know if there will ever be another group like that."
While the group has no intention of quitting anytime soon, they know they can't go on forever.
"If we could get another small corps to take over for us," Aly said, "that would be ... the best gift we could give the course."
Ingrid Barrentine is a photojournalist with Joint Base Lewis-McChord's weekly newspaper, the Northwest Guardian.