On Sept. 27, 2009, Sgt. Aaron Silton was three months into his fifth tour of duty in Afghanistan when he was shot in the face.
“When I got hit, I was straddling a little irrigation ditch and my feet got caught in the mud,” said Silton, who became a fifth-generation soldier in 2003. “There were thorns all over the place, hornets all over the place. I touched my face and my hand was completely covered in blood.”
As three fellow soldiers extracted Silton, he dislocated his shoulder and tore his labrum, but was still able to run to the back of the line. The bullet entered Silton’s jaw, pierced his tongue and exited out the neck. Choking on blood, he was immediately administered a tracheotomy before being medevaced to Kandahar, where he suffered a massive stroke during surgery.
The long rehab process began in Bethesda, Md. Silton’s shattered jaw was wired shut for five months so he couldn’t speak.
“I was like: ‘What do I do? How do I communicate,’” he recalled. “I was very frustrated and angry at the world for no reason. Why’d that happen to me?”
That’s when Silton found golf.
Continuing therapy at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command member received a senior set of Adams clubs from the Wounded Warrior Project. He’d check into his unit every morning, rehab from 7 a.m.–12:30 p.m. and then head to Marine Memorial Golf Course for a standing tee time.
“I went out and played and was terrible, shooting in the 130s and 140s, and then I did that five days a week for five years,” said Silton, who played soccer, hockey and lacrosse during high school in Westford, Mass.
With a strong athletic background, Silton eventually became much better, but he’s never been concerned with his score.
“It helped me in not just the physical aspect following the stroke, but golf really helped me mentally get back over here because after five combat tours, everything’s just a little different,” he said. “Rehab was hard and just to be able to get away from that helped me get back. When you’re playing golf, you’re not really thinking about anything else.”
Silton’s love of the game has become a career. For the past three years, he’s worked as an assistant professional, fitting clubs and giving lessons at Carlsbad Golf Center in Southern California.
“Golf has done so much for me,” Silton said. “Besides being a good player, I really liked how it made me better mentally, and I just want to pass that on to whoever will listen.”
Silton teaches students of all ages and backgrounds, but he has a special affinity for fellow veterans.
“When they’re frustrated and down on themselves, I tell them: ‘I was there. I’ve been in your shoes. Let’s go out and play a round and have fun and not even keep score,’” he said. “Golf gets them out of their own head. So many people are focused on the number. I honestly don’t care about that. I would rather them ask, ‘Did you have fun?’ That’s what it’s about.”
Jordan Schwartz is the creative and content lead for the USGA Foundation. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.