Ask most any golfer, and they'll tell you there is no feeling quite like hitting the perfect shot. Whether it's tagging a drive, pulling the string on a wedge or making something from nothing, the feeling -- a mix of adrenaline and achievement -- is hard to otherwise reproduce.
Ask most any soldier, and they'll tell you there is no feeling quite like war.
For a civilian, that's a jarring sentiment. The kind of people who don't feel called to serve in the military don't understand, or at least struggle to relate to, why someone would enjoy getting shot at, never feeling truly safe from their first battle to the day they die or, frankly, killing the enemy. However, one veteran after another I've spoken with said they would deploy tomorrow if the U.S. military let them -- even if war has left them mentally scarred and physically damaged, to the point that their own body is now a mix of God-given flesh and man-made prostheses.
Veterans feel a sense of duty to their country, yes, but they're also adrenaline junkies. They're looking for the high of taking on a daunting task. They've seen the power of war and strife to force trust, teamwork and brotherhood, to the point that soldiers who have never served alongside one another could form a life-long bond in minutes of sharing their front-line experiences.
Golf is not war, not even close. It is, however, a different kind of struggle. It's yourself against yourself. It's you against the course. Sometimes it's you against an opponent. Golf is lot of waiting for small bursts of excitement. The bonds golfers form extend well beyond the course and can be transformational in terms of kinship and networking.
Jim Estes dawned on the parallels between golf and military service somewhat by accident back in 2005, when, as a golf instructor at Olney (Md.) Golf Park, he offered free range and lesson time to a group of veterans at Walter Reed medical center in Maryland. Those first experiences led to the creation of the Salute Military Golf Association, formally earning an IRS 501(c)3 letter in April 2007 to serve as a non-profit which today offers golf lessons and other programming to post-9/11 veterans who have been wounded or injured "while conducting a military operation." Scores of veterans from 48 states have experienced SMGA programs, including their American Golfer program, which is a series of eight free, rudimentary golf lessons that culminate in SMGA awarding a veteran with a set of custom TaylorMade Golf equipment.
Nick Thom joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2008, training in San Diego before stationing in Camp LeJeune in North Carolina -- just as his father did when he was young -- for an 18-month workup. He was deployed to Afghanistan in February 2010. Just two months later, Thom was injured in Kandahar Province, the victim of a remote-detonated improvised explosive device (I.E.D.). Thom bounced around a little in U.S. military hospitals in Germany before coming to Bethesda Naval, with some time at the now-shuttered Walter Reed interspersed.
Chris Bowers, a buddy of Thom's and now a SMGA board member, suggested Thom give golf a try through SMGA clinics. At that point, Thom, despite working on a North Carolina driving range when his dad was in the service, was apprehensive.
"Being a double above-knee amputee, I said to Chris, 'I don't know, maybe golf isn't my thing. Maybe something more seated is my game,'" Thom said with a laugh.
"After trying it and seeing what could be of the game, though, that kept me playing."
Thom used a Paramobile, a three-legged cart that allowed him to stand and swing with physical assistance. While the device removed a fundamental barrier to playing golf, Thom still struggled.
"The first six months was trying to figure out how to swing and hit the ball," he said.
At first, Thom didn't even really keep score. It was just about hitting the ball. Now, he can shoot around 120, and he can play all 18 holes on his prosthetic legs. Golf isn't physically painful, Thom said, even if it's frustrating. Thom has a long-term goal, too: qualifying for the annual Simpson Cup, a competition pitting American wounded veterans against their United Kingdom counterparts in a Ryder Cup-style competition.
The goal-setting golf offers is important.
"I see golf as a tool (in rehabilitation) that I can use for years to come," he said.
Were it not for Bowers and SMGA, Thom said he never would have gotten his formal introduction to golf.
"SMGA is a great organization," he said. "They have a really good idea of what a veteran is rehabilitating actually needs outside of the hospital. Getting outside the hospital and doing something is a lot better than sitting inside, or waiting for their next appointment or getting poked and prodded."
Brian Lowen has been poked and prodded a lot for the last dozen years.
Lowen served in the United States Army for 18 years with a seemingly insatiable appetite for deployment. In 2005, Lowen was in Iraq when an incoming mortar exploded near him and blew him back into his truck. Not only did Lowen suffered his first of two traumatic brain injuries, but Lowen said the blast "tore everything in [his right] leg."
Fortunately for Lowen, his career progression required him to leave the battlefield and go through military schooling to advance. He would work through the training and get his new rank before undergoing surgery to fully repair the damage to his leg. Unfortunately, Lowen underwent the procedure at Womack Army Medical Center on Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, a facility, Lowen said, that didn't have the best reputation for cleanliness. Lowen got a Staph infection in his leg, which he had to fight for two months.
Undeterred by the experience, Lowen deployed again and re-injured himself. This time the fix was plates and screws in his leg. Another two deployments ended in re-injury. Somehow, Lowen deployed three more times. Then in 2012, the pain had become too much. Lowen sought a total knee replacement. Military doctors told Lowen he was done deploying and that all they could do for him for now was a knee brace and bottles of pain pills. He wasn't about ready to quit yet, so he went and deployed one last time. He ruined his knee one more time. Lowen was done, and the doctors told him his next surgery would be an amputation.
It was around that time that he learned of SMGA through a friend. He signed up for a clinic at Ft. Bragg, and he was hooked. Lowen took lessons through PGA of America instructor Brad "Puzzle Duck" Clayton, a teacher in North Carolina who works with wounded veterans using his own therapeutic approach. Clayton opens his at-home driving range to any wounded veteran, and that experience has been tremendous for Lowen, who played down to a 14 handicap index.
The SMGA has been big for Lowen for many reasons, including the opportunity to take up an expensive game on an inactive serviceman's budget, which is about half their active duty pay. The more important piece for Lowen is the camaraderie within SMGA and the relationships he has built with dozens of ex-military through the game.
"One of the things that's special about SMGA, it's not a one-and-done deal," Lowen said. "With many of these wounded-warrior groups, you go, you hang out for the weekend and you're done. You'll never see those guys again."
Lowen admits that he likes playing with former soldiers who have experienced similar trauma.
"It's important playing with other guys who are f'd up, too," Lowen said. He added, "These guys are all battle-tested, hard dudes who have experienced some shit. The bond between those guys is hard to put into words. Just to talk with them and hang out with them. A lot of it is an unspoken kinship that you can't explain."
Not only is there an instant bond, but these connections are also a WebMD come to life, of sorts.
"Guys exchange info: medicines, treatments, doctors," he said. "I've learned more from these events than from the VA (Veterans' Affairs), Walter Reed or any other that stuff."
Last summer, Lowen finally had the amputation. It's been life-changing for him, in a good way. Within two months of the procedure, Lowen said, he was off the mountain of pain pills that got him through each day. He hasn't played much golf since the surgery, just a couple of rounds, but his goal is to get into single-digit handicap territory. He'll start working with Clayton again on learning key components of his mechanics again now that he has a prosthetic leg.
"It's a huge limitation," Lowen said.
While Lowen is overcoming physical limitation, golf has been crucial in helping him recover emotionally from tour after tour, a pair of traumatic brain injuries, some 13 or 14 surgeries and some symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The golf course is a sanctuary.
"I'm fairly emotionless, except for anger. I have an abundance of anger," Lowen said. "If you play golf angry, you're going to suck. So it kind of teaches you to take a deep breath, think about what you're doing and let the other stuff go. You're not thinking about the deployments, or what this guy or that guy did to me. It just helps with letting things go."