By Michelle KennedyOctober 11, 2012
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Many Soldiers have spent their whole lives playing sports and being active. However, if they are injured in combat or contract a serious debilitating illness, they are often unable to enjoy the activities they did in the past.
Salute Military Golf Association's New York chapter gave more than 20 wounded warriors of the 10th Mountain Division (LI) another chance at participating in physical sports this summer during an eight-week golf clinic that took place at several local golf courses in the area.
"Many of these young warriors were baseball, football and basketball stars in high school and college before being (injured)," said Frank Dorchak Jr., SMGA-NY regional manager. "After getting injured, they figured their sports-playing days were over."
In addition to the physical aspect of golf, the sport also "exercises" participants' ability to concentrate and builds their self-confidence by proving they can participate in sports despite their injuries, Dorchak added.
Because of the success of the past two years, Dorchak expects the program to resume in May.
"The program is working exceptionally well, the word is getting out around Fort Drum, and each season, more wounded warriors show up," he said. "In 2011, I had only one instructor and 12 Soldiers; this past season, I had three instructors and the numbers doubled.
"I'm still getting calls (from) Soldiers wanting (to participate in) the program," Dorchak added.
For several of the Soldiers, participating in the SMGA clinic was the first time they had played golf.
Spc. Lavert Pennington, who is attached to 3rd Battalion, 85th Mountain Infantry (Warrior Transition Unit), learned firsthand that anyone can learn to play golf, regardless of ability, age or economic background.
"The golf clinic was a tool for rehabilitation to help us recover," he explained, adding that the program offered adaptive techniques to accommodate all of the Soldiers' abilities.
In addition to the physical activity golf provides, Pennington added that he likes being away from everyday life.
"You don't have cell phones ringing or someone … telling you to 'hurry up,'" he explained. "It's just you, the course and the ball. You can take your time and play at your own pace."
Golf professionals who assisted with the clinic tailored the Soldiers' training, techniques and swing to each individual, Pennington noted.
"(The golf professionals) helped us learn the game without aggravating or re-injuring ourselves in any way," he said.
Because Pennington was active in sports before his injury, he thought learning to play golf would be easy.
"I thought that because I played other sports throughout the years that golf would come naturally, but I was wrong," he said. "It's like night and day from football, basketball or baseball. It's more of a 'thinking man's' game. It's not as abusive on your body.
"Learning the game of golf actually saved my life," Pennington continued. "When I had my injury downrange and I was (sent) home, I was told I would never be able to play … traditional sports ever again."
Pennington said he trained in mixed-martial arts for nearly five years before he was injured. Learning that he could never participate in the activities he loved led him to slip into a depressed state.
"The game of golf gave me hope again," he said.
Anthony Stephens, who medically retired from the Army as a staff sergeant last week, also was active in sports before being injured. Stephens said this was the second year he participated in the SMGA-NY program.
While he had never played before participating in his first clinic last year, Stephens said he was always interested in learning to play golf.
"(SMGA-NY) gave us an opportunity to learn something new and get out of our comfort zone," he said. "For me, I was an athlete and played basketball and (ran) track."
Golf played an important role in Stephens' healing, and he encourages other wounded warriors to learn to play golf.
"I'm competitive, and (playing golf) seemed like I was still in the fight," he said. "You have to go out there and play 18 holes and play every hole.
"I like that challenge that golf brings," Stephens continued. "You have to stay focused, (just like) when you're in the military. (When) you're on a mission, you have to stay focused."