LORTON, Va. – The U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship acted as a vehicle for healing earlier this week as a group of Wounded Warriors from nearby Fort Belvoir took in the action.
Having suffered injuries on the battlefield, the soldiers are a part of the Wounded Warriors Transition Battalion at Fort Belvoir, an Army post in Fairfax County, about 8 miles south of the Pentagon. Today, Fort Belvoir includes a state-of-the-art hospital and the Warrior Transition Complex, which is designed to treat military personnel returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The facility is also intended to help soldiers reintegrate into society.
Civilian Steve Smutack is the site coordinator for the military adaptive sports program, which allows the Wounded Warriors to take part in golf and other activities at nearby Fort Belvoir Golf Club. Wheelchair-bound since he was injured in a car accident at age 2, Smutack participates in adaptive sports and knows how important it is for the soldiers to transition back into society.
“Adaptive sports has played a huge part in my life, so I know exactly what it does for them in helping them to heal and integrate back into family and community,” Smutack said. “Still, being able to play golf and take in the APL has filled a need.”
Getting around the course and watching the players during the first round of match play at the APL was the perfect facilitator for those seeking a sense of hope.
“It’s amazing to watch them heal and get through the challenges and the struggles they’re going through now,” Smutack said. “When they get better, they participate more and to see their families interact with them – it’s a healing process. It’s really awesome, it really is. It’s very rewarding.
“We have a lot of Wounded Warriors who love golf.”
Sgt. Donjuan Graham is one of them. He is rehabilitating a broken right foot and leg he sustained after landing awkwardly from a night jump while preparing to go into combat. Graham’s steps are understandably precarious. His condition is such that he could fall over at any time. But his love for the game isn’t dampened by the instability he feels in his right foot.
“It does get me out there,” said Graham. “Every time there’s an opportunity to play golf, I’m out there. Part of the recovery process is playing golf.”
For servicemen such as Sgt. Kyle Braman, healing time is more protracted. In 2007, he was injured in a rocket attack that badly damaged his spinal cord, causing spinal channel stenosis, resulting in a constant feeling of numbness and discomfort in his back that lingers today.
Braman shows uncanny grace and determination. He’s hopeful for a return to the game, but when asked about playing again, his feelings flood to the forefront and he can only offer the words, “Miss it,” when talking about being away from golf. Taking in the APL, though, provided his mind – and soul – with a semblance of renewal even in the steamy weather.
What may seem fairly routine to an ordinary citizen can sometimes represent huge progress for someone returning from war, given the side effects, which include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other injuries – both mental and physical.
While flying military helicopters in Afghanistan, Sgt. Paul Melanson contracted a virus that damaged one of his ears. The side effects have included feelings of vertigo, and there is a chance he’ll never fly again. Being at the APL helped him get reconnected to the game.
“I like to play – love to play.” said Melanson, who entered the program a little more than two weeks ago. “I was looking for places to play golf. I heard they are having [the APL at Laurel Hill] and a member of the Wounded Warrior program told me they’re going to the tournament.”
Sgt. Barry Mitchell’s military vehicle rolled over during his tour in Afghanistan. He landed on his neck, leaving him in a wheelchair when he returned to the U.S. on Jan. 15, 2012. Though he has progressed and now uses a walker, Mitchell does physical therapy two or three times a week in hopes of regaining some movement in his neck, which he can barely turn.
“Things are going pretty well. I’m getting back,” he said. “They’re trying to help me get back. We’re working on my mobility and balance.”
One of the individuals responsible for ensuring that the soldiers undertake and maintain a therapy schedule is Staff Sgt. Maderice Hamm. A 15-year veteran of the post, he knows firsthand what many of the soldiers are going through. In 2005, he suffered a terrible back injury while in Iraq and went from being completely self-sufficient to requiring a specialist’s help at nearly every turn for more than two years.
“It was different. I wasn’t used to being hurt – a bump and bruise here and there – but when you need help getting out of your bed… it gets to be depressing,” he said. “I knew what it was like to be that guy and now I want to help that guy.”
He knows how much the soldiers’ visit to the APL meant in their pursuit of gaining a feeling of well-being and self-worth.
“Getting out of the barracks and away from the base – giving them something different to do other than going to the doctor – the change of pace does a lot for their morale and psyche,” Hamm said. “Everyone’s transition is different.
“I love taking care of soldiers. To see them go from where they can’t do anything – from depression to the feeling they can’t accomplish anything – to make trips like this makes my job worthwhile.”
Their service and sacrifices hit home for some APL competitors, including Addison Lambeth, a lance corporal in the United States Marine Corps.
“They’re the ones who’ve sacrificed everything,” said Lambeth, who is stationed at Quantico, Va. “If we can provide anything to help them or give them entertainment, I think that’s a fantastic thing to do and I support them wholeheartedly. I admire them a lot and they make it possible for me to do what I do.”
The USGA, as well as affiliated state and regional golf associations, continue to support various initiatives involving servicemen and women. The USGA, The PGA of America and allied partners have been a driving force in encouraging members to participate in Patriot Golf Day, a fundraiser for the Folds of Honor Foundation, which provides postsecondary educational scholarships for the children and spouses of military men and women disabled or killed while serving our nation. In the last six years, golfers nationwide have helped raise more than $17 million through Patriot Golf Day events. Patriot Golf Day will again be held this year over the Labor Day weekend, Aug. 30-Sept. 2.
Andrew Blair is director of communications for the Virginia State Golf Association. He is assisting the USGA this week at the APL.