USGA Teams With Ft. Carson Army
Base In Colorado For Disabled Golf ProgramAugust 28, 2008
By Erica Goodman, USGA
In his pants pocket, Staff Sargent Matthew Nicodemus
carries pictures of his brain. The scanned images are mostly
white - normal blood flow - and speckled with rainbow bursts.
Red and orange, he explained, were positive whereas blue and
black show a lack of or negative blood flow. He pointed to a
large black spot. "You see, my brain is not
normal," Nicodemus chuckled as he
brushed off comments from his fellow soldiers regarding the
normality of his mind.
The 34-year old Iraq veteran from Altoona, Pa., has no
visible impairment. Nicodemus, however, served in
reconnaissance for 14 years with the United States Army and
has symptoms of a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, after
surviving two dozen improvised explosive device exposures. He
must take medication in the morning to stimulate his brain
and other medication at night to slow his mind enough to
sleep. Other pills combat vertigo and imbalance.
And recently, Nicodemus found therapy in the least likely
of places - the golf course. "I use golf as a tool to
get my hand-eye coordination back during my rehab and also to
deal with emotional issues of readjustment," he said.
"Since then, the golf course is my safe place.
Nothing blows up on the golf course."
|NAGA instructor Rick Monroe (right)
works with Bill Majure, a retired PGA professional who is
paralyzed on his right side from a stroke.|
The towering Nicodemus, who watches PGA Tour player Retief
Goosen on television to pick up swing pointers, is the
perfect role model to assist in a military golf partnership
with the United States Golf Association (USGA) in Colorado
Springs, Colo. In 2006, staff members at Cheyenne Shadows
Golf Club at Fort Carson Army Base were inspired to purchase
two single-rider golf carts for returning soldiers suffering
from physical injuries. At the same time, the USGA was
working with Bob Wilson, executive director of the National
Amputee Golf Association (NAGA), to introduce golf as a
rehabilitative tool at select military bases throughout the
Founded in 1954, NAGA has more than 2,500 members
worldwide who share a common bond. "Golf is the most
adaptive game in the world," said Wilson. "It can
be played by anyone, regardless of ability or
disability." The NAGA conducts First Swing Clinics
throughout the nation while also sponsoring numerous
tournaments for amputee golfers.
With the support of the El Pomar Foundation, the USGA
connected with Fort Carson to launch a military golf program
through a two-day training session at the base. In this
month's first phase, Wilson was joined by Marty Ebel and Rick
Monroe of NAGA to teach golf instructors, therapists and
volunteers strategies for using golf in rehabilitation. The
trio's method is experiential. Each an amputee himself, the
NAGA instructors required their trainees to hit golf balls
with one arm, standing on one leg, or seated in a
single-rider golf car to get a sense of what challenges their
future students might face.
The mere presence of Wilson, Ebel and Monroe creates a
hush among the people in the crowd. The skill and precision
of these golfers are great examples for the trainees. Both
Wilson and Ebel lost their legs, and Wilson wears
prosthetics. Monroe lost his right arm and, much to the
surprise of the clinic attendees, remains a right-handed
"It's enlightening," said Mark Bacheldor, who is
finishing up a professional golf management program at the
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. "It's a new
way to learn golf and to teach golf."
But this education is only as valuable as its
The true test arrived on day two of the program. Wilson
welcomed the hybrid group from the driving range. Before him
stood the 20 trainees whom had spent the previous day
teaching others how to work with physical disabilities.
Beside them were approximately 20 young soldiers between the
ages of 19 and 33 with various levels of TBI and post
traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), primarily cognitive
disabilities. The trainees appeared flustered. They had
prepared for physical, not mental injuries. "You must
focus on the person first," reminded Wilson.
"Instead of focusing on the swing first, focus on the
Nicodemus pulled the trainees aside and exhibited the
colorful images of his brain to the crowd. The impact of
these young men's injuries was similar to squeezing a hard
boiled egg, he explained. The shell is easily damaged once
there is a crack and each new force creates more cracks.
As a result, these young men are highly medicated to combat
dizziness, anger, and anxiety, their brains affected by
numerous contacts with enemy fire.
|NAGA Executive Director Bob Wilson
addresses the soliders at Fort Carson in Colorado
After a spirited "Huah," trainees and soldiers
sauntered out to the range and exchanged handshakes with
their partners. After the initial, tentative greetings,
soldiers who had hesitantly agreed to spend their
rehabilitation time hitting golf balls were feverishly
working with golf instructors until their hands were spotted
"Golf is something I like. I can do it with other
people," said a vibrant Richard Hunt. The 26-year-old
private from Olatha, Kan, acquired PTSD following an IED
explosion in May 2006. As a result, Hunt shies away from
large groups of people. "When I go home, I close the
blinds and don't answer the door," he said.
Private Hunt has worked with psychiatrists and attended
relaxation classes in an attempt to ease his nerves. He left
the military golf clinic, after hitting a golf ball for the
first time, with a new sense of hope. "Golf is the first
thing I have come across that has worked like this," he
offered. "You are not thinking about anything but the
ball. You, the club, the ball. That's it."
Specialist Robert Hooker, 22, of Denver, Colo. added,
"It is tough getting close with people and then losing
them. Almost everybody comes back different. Every aspect of
your life is different once you get back." While
stationed in Iraq, Hooker partnered with Nicodemus to set up
a makeshift driving range at a dusty outpost, the pair
risking sniper fire each time they ventured to retrieve
balls. The terrain was far from the smooth fairways of
Augusta National but Nicodemus improvised, using a small
piece of cardboard to provide a softer turf. "[Golf] is
a really good stress relief and a lot of people in our cases
need it," Hooker said.
The game seems a natural fit for the men and women serving
our country. "Golf is a disciplined game and these are
disciplined guys," commented Major General Mark Graham,
Commanding General of Division West, First Army and Fort
Carson. "This shows their perseverance," he beamed,
"to get going and to keep going."
Some of the soldiers were long time friends, but for the
most part, the military golf program was their first time
together. Regardless, the men were far from a group of
strangers. "What is unique about bringing soldiers
together is that it's like going to a class reunion,"
explained Wilson. "They've all been in the same
situation before." Wilson, along with Monroe, is a
As the day came to a close, soldiers and instructors parted
ways with a mutual sense of respect. "It puts into
perspective what these guys have gone through,"
Bacheldor commented, who, at 22 is about the age of these
soldiers. "Golf provides an opportunity for them."
The two-day program served as a pilot for military
installations throughout the country. PGA instructors from
Fort Bragg, Fort Hood, and the Air Force Academy were all
present for the training. After the success of the
initiative, the USGA will continue to work with Fort Carson
to develop a structure for an extended program which, in
addition to the NAGA First Swing Clinic, will serve as a
"This program needs to happen," remarked
Nicodemus. "Not just for the soldiers but for the
families and friends that are impacted by the environment
they live in everyday. From anger or confusion or depression,
the time on the golf course lets it all go away."
For these soldiers, the field of play has truly become
their sanctuary from the field of battle.
Erica Goodman is a USGA fellow who works at the
Association's Foundation in Colorado Springs. E-mail her
with comments or questions at