Soldiers cherish Army MWR wounded warrior golf clinic
October 26, 2011
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Battle-battered Soldiers and Vietnam War veterans came together for an Army Morale, Welfare and Recreation-sponsored golf clinic Oct. 18 at Walt Disney World Resort.
Both emotionally and physically, Sgt. Ricky Royster had difficulty expressing how much it meant to spend a couple of hours on the Osprey Ridge driving range with fellow wounded warriors.
"I loved it," said Royster, 50, his speech slurred by injuries sustained during at least four deployments to Iraq in the past eight years. "There are no words to express how I enjoyed it.
"It's been a long time since I've felt this happy about myself. Yes, sir, I feel happy about myself."
Royster's primary instructor was Marty Ebel, a double below-the-knee amputee from Houston who tours the country conducting "First Swing" clinics for the National Amputee Golf Association.
Ebel is a master of teaching folks how to drive golf balls long and straight while seated in an adaptive golf cart. His No. 1 secret for carrying a big stick: swing smooth and easy.
Royster, a father of six from Simpson, La., who lives in Rockledge, Fla., loves to watch golf on television but said he could never afford to play. He thought he was "too beat up" to walk 18 holes. But in a matter of minutes, Ebel had Royster swinging away and making contact in more ways than one.
"The gentleman who worked with me, he helped me a bunch," Royster said. "He was able to communicate with me. He understood me."
Royster is somewhat difficult to understand. He sustained traumatic brain injuries and has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder since his deployments to the Middle East.
Royster is one of about 290 Army National Guard and Reserve Soldiers with the Community Based Warrior Transition Unit in Orlando, Fla. He rattled off his battle injuries like most people would list body parts.
"I've got knees, hips, shoulders, TBI (traumatic brain injuries), two vertebrae in the neck messed up, two cruciates between the vertebrae about to rupture," he said. "From '03 until last December, I've been in and out of Iraq multiple, multiple, multiple, multiple times -- about four or five. After awhile, I quit counting. And being a Reservist, my tours were a year and a half each.
"I do what I'm told, unconditionally," added Royster, a mechanic with 16 years of military service. "That's why I'm broken down right now. There were all kinds of things I had to see and do over there that I can't really talk about, but I did what I had to do to get my job done and move forward."
Such is the tale of countless injured troops these instructors thrive to help keep physically active and mentally challenged. For many, the lifetime game of golf may be their last resort -- and their saving grace.
Staff Sgt. Lorenzo Acevedo, 31, had never held a golf club.
"I like it," he said. "It's relaxing. I'll definitely give it a try again."
Acevedo, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., has been with the CBWTU in Orlando for almost a year since returning from Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he nearly lost the use of both feet.
"All that gear and that terrain just messed me up," he explained. "It came to the point where my whole lower extremities were just always in pain -- my ankles, my feet, my lower back. I had surgery on my left foot two times. I don't think I'll ever be back to full speed.
"I'll definitely have to give golf a try because I tried playing softball not too long ago, and, oh man, it was killing me. I was hurting. … I think this is great. It definitely increases the morale in Soldiers -- gives them something different.
"And it also reminds them that people are out there thinking about them."
That oftentimes, as much as anything, means the world to injured Soldiers.
From laughing at "Caddyshack" jokes to generating an appetite deserving of buffet lunch at Mangino's Bistro at the nearby Shades of Green Armed Forces Recreation Center, their clinic time passed too quickly. They enjoyed seeing a beautiful flock of wild Osceola turkeys that wandered onto the driving range not far from the gates of the Magic Kingdom.
Sgt. Marco Torres said he played golf daily for almost a year at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, upon return from Iraq.
"I would love to go pro, but it costs too much money," said Torres, a native of Coral Springs, Fla., whose health took a turn for the worse nearly a year after he returned from Iraq. He then went 11 months without touching a club. Along the way, he reported in January to the CBWTU in Orlando.
"I have a condition where my throat keeps tightening, little by little, because of something I breathed in while I was in Iraq. I have no clue what it was," Torres said. "It's getting worse instead of better, but today was a lot of fun."
Seven retired Army and one Marine Corps combat vets from the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital's Adaptive Sports Program in Tampa also attended the clinic.
"I loved every second of it," said Reginald Franklin, a retired Army staff sergeant. "We are very appreciative. We're already making plans for next year to come back."