Golf speeds recovery for wounded warriors
OLNEY, Md. — Staff Sgt. David Flowers stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan on May 11, 2009. The explosion cost him his right leg below the knee. His left leg was shattered and he suffered multiple fractures to his right arm and wrist.
But here on a windy Saturday morning, Flowers is on a driving range outside Washington. He uses a cane to steady his gait. He stops, lays the cane on the grass, and picks up a golf club. He positions himself, balancing on his prosthetic right leg and his scarred left one, and gives the ball a good thwack.
Five months ago, when he first started making trips from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to the Olney Golf Park, Flowers was hitting the ball from a chair.
Golf, he says, is speeding his rehabilitation after 27 surgeries and bouts of rage over his life-altering injuries.
“Golf offered me a release,” said Flowers, 29, after driving a few balls down the fairway. “It was an opportunity to heal emotionally as well as physically. Just being out in the fresh air made a difference. I’m a Mississippi boy. I need to be outside.”
Flowers, an explosive ordnance technician who is still on active duty with the Air Force, is not alone on this morning. More than two dozen other service members in varying states of hurt are hitting golf balls at the range. Jim Estes, a golf pro and director of instruction at Olney Golf Park, confers with some of them, offering tips.
For Estes, who has played in four U.S. Opens and one PGA Championship, helping injured soldiers and veterans play golf—or play golf again—has become a mission.
Estes, who has no military background, got the idea in 2006 when one of his golf clients, a Vietnam veteran named Billy Bartlett, invited him to one of the weekly dinners he hosts for rehabilitating soldiers at a restaurant near Walter Reed.
At the dinner, Estes invited the wounded soldiers out to the Olney golf range and promised to help them get back in the game. It worked out well and a year later Estes founded the Salute Military Golf Association, which provides “rehabilitative golf experiences” to combat-wounded veterans.
Estes’ group provides free lessons by golf pros trained in adaptive sports to more than 400 combat-injured service men and women. It also has equipped more than 75 injured service members with properly fitted golf clubs.
Olney Golf Park owner Tim Landres provides his range free of charge, along with unlimited buckets of balls for wounded veterans.
“Golf is a complex game and without proper instruction, people quit,” Estes said. “I don’t want them to get frustrated. We work with them one-on-one with whatever adaptations they need to get the ball in the air.”
The golf outings, he said, are about more than skill: “It’s about camaraderie, sunshine, and meditation.”
The camaraderie is evident this morning. Army veteran Charles Eggleston never quite gets a golf club in his hands. A one-time regular at the Saturday-morning golf clinic, he is returning after several months recovering from back surgery. As he makes his way to the clubhouse, he is met with hugs and well wishes.
Eggleston, a staff sergeant who served 16 years in the Army, nearly died in the summer of 2005 on a rescue mission during his second tour of duty in Iraq. The blasts from two roadside bombs threw him out of his vehicle, leaving him the only one of seven to survive.
But his road to recovery has not been easy. He suffered extensive injuries to his back, leg and head. In addition to countless broken bones, he suffered traumatic brain injury and has struggled with post traumatic stress disorder. It’s taken nearly 50 surgeries to put his body back together. With his most recent surgery, a new state-of-the-art titanium stabilization device was built around his spine.
Needless to say, he’s happy to be back on the golf range.
Eggleston says he spent his days in the hospital angry, depressed and focused on what he could no longer do. When he first met Estes, he was skeptical.
Now he is a convert.
“My back may not bend, but I can still hit the ball 285 to 300 yards. Playing golf has helped with relaxation and concentration,” Eggleston said.
In his outreach to wounded veterans, Estes partners with Vietnam veteran Kirk Bauer. Bauer uses contacts at Walter Reed to identify soldiers in recovery who might benefit from some time on the links.
Bauer’s group, Disabled Sports USA, arranges the bus that transports Saturday morning golfers from Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.
When Bauer visits the hospitals, he makes it a point to wear shorts, no matter what the weather. He wants people to see his prosthetic leg, which replaces the leg he lost when he was hit with a hand grenade in Vietnam in 1969. It gives him immediate credibility with the patients.
Bauer remembers his days recovering in a military hospital in California as demoralizing. Then he was invited on an adaptive sports ski trip to Lake Tahoe. He was skeptical, but he gave it a try. It changed his life.
“Until that trip, I had spent my time in the hospital listing all the things I could no longer do,” Bauer recalled. “Getting on skis had a profound effect on me.”
Bauer went on to become a certified professional ski instructor and for 12 years was an active volunteer in the disabled sports movement. In 1982, he was hired as the first paid executive director of Disabled Sports USA. In December 2003, the group sponsored a ski event with a small group of soldiers in the first wave of those injured in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Since then, DSUSA has sponsored sporting events for more than 1,900 men and women wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq. The events include more than 20 sports, such as snow and water skiing, scuba diving, kayaking, fishing, rock climbing, cycling and surfing.
“We want them to be successful their first time out and that will have far-reaching effects to other achievements in their lives,” Bauer said.
Therapists say sports and competition can be a key to recovery.
“When patients participate in adaptive team sports, they increase their drive to complete rehab, to form bonds with their peers, and it reintroduces their competitive drive that was lost post injury,” said Tiffany Smith, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist at Walter Reed.
“Our patients, prior to being injured, were 100 percent physically fit. They were strong, competitive individuals,” added Harvey Naranjo, a certified occupational therapy assistant who is the coordinator of the adaptive sports program at Walter Reed.
“That’s why adaptive sports programs are a perfect fit during their rehab. They are working on their balance and strength and their mental fitness. They are out in the sun with friends doing something they enjoy. And that sport is taking them back to who they were before being injured,” Naranjo said.
“We had a triple amputee water skiing and scuba diving. With readjustments, there is really nothing they can’t do. Sports is the equalizer for people with disabilities.”
Ramon Padilla said learning to play golf is what helped him regain his competitive edge. In July 2007, when he was an Army sergeant in Afghanistan, Padilla’s left hand was cut off by flying shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade.
In the same attack he took a bullet to the right side of the head, lost a piece of his skull and suffered traumatic brain injury.
Now he works part-time in the pro shop at Olney Golf Park.
While recovering at Walter Reed, he remembers his reaction when he sat in on one of Bauer’s golf presentations.
“I said, ‘You’re crazy. I only have one hand’,” recalled Padilla, who had never played golf.
“I grew up in Los Angeles playing baseball and basketball. But Jim [Estes] had me hitting the ball 150 yards my first time out,” Padilla said. “Golf has become a passion for me. It’s helped me physically and mentally.”
Padilla makes his way through the Saturday morning clinic like a goodwill ambassador.
“I love to talk to the soldiers,” he said. “They look up to me because they see how far I’ve come.”
Nearly 38,000 service members have been wounded in action in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of the severely wounded have multiple traumatic injuries.
Recently, Padilla played in the Golf Channel Amateur Tour where he placed 13th in his division. He wants the same opportunities for other wounded soldiers and veterans. Besides being good for health and recovery, few things open doors in the business world like sharing a round of golf.
“Through golf, we can get the injured veterans back out into the community and networking with those in civilian businesses,” Padilla said. “This is how opportunities for training, education, and jobs arise.”
Padilla continued: “The chance to come out to the practice range and hit a golf ball changed my life. I want to pass it on. There will be more (wounded service members) coming in behind us. One year from now, they will still be coming. We have to be there for them and we have to be in it for the long-term.”
Ellen N. Woods, a former staff editor at Military Officer magazine, is a freelance writer living in Alexandria, Va.