By Tim Hipps
Special to American Forces Press Service
March 20, 2009 - The National Amputee Golf Association's First Swing program's mission is twofold: to help military golf instructors learn how to work with wounded warriors and to encourage wounded servicemembers to get back into the swing of an active lifestyle. The Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command has partnered with the United States Golf Association to take the tour to Fort Belvoir, Va., on March 22 and 23.
On the first day, military golf instructors will receive instructions on how to work with disabled athletes -- everything from dealing with psychological setbacks to overcoming physical challenges. On the second day, they will put their newfound knowledge into play by conducting a workshop for wounded warriors.
With more disabled servicemen and women remaining on active duty, more military professionals need training in areas that once were considered exceptional.
Amputees who formerly would have been discharged or forced to retire are continuing their military careers. The exceptions of yesteryear are flooding today's mainstream -- and the number of disabled soldiers in search of physical activities likely will continue to rise.
The First Swing program was designed to encourage wounded warriors to return to an active lifestyle as soon as they are capable by assisting them in adapting their golf game to compensate for their injuries.
"This program is to help give the soldiers an alternative," said FMWRC program analyst Trace Kea, a Professional Golfers' Association member who brought the First Swing program to the Army. "Rehabilitative benefits of golf can improve the mental and physical condition of each and every soldier returning -- not just those with visible injuries.
"I've seen nearly every type of injury on the driving range, from double- or triple-amputees playing with state-of-the-art prosthetics, to others with shrapnel wounds, spinal-cord injuries and neurological deficits. Seeing those men and women playing touched me, and I knew we had to get involved."
After launching a pilot program last summer at Fort Carson, Colo., FMWRC joined forces with the USGA and National Amputee Golf Association to open the 2009 First Swing campaign Feb. 2 and 3 at the Navy's Admiral Baker Golf Course in San Diego, followed by a clinic Feb. 21 to 23 at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Following the event at Fort Belvoir, more stops on the circuit are set for Fort Bragg, N.C., April 19 and 20; Fort Campbell, Ky., May 17 and 18; Fort Lewis, Wash., July 18 and 19; and Fort Jackson, S.C., Sept. 13 and 14.
The train-the-trainer portion of the program helps military golf professionals learn adapted techniques for teaching people with disabilities how to golf. It also offers tips on how to better communicate with wounded warriors, who many folks seem uncomfortable approaching.
First Swing instructors Bob Wilson, Rick Monroe and Marty Ebel are veteran amputees who can relate with wounded warriors, and they all golf better than most able-bodied hacks. They understand the challenges of golfing on prosthetics or with just one arm, or even from specially built golf carts that accommodate players without legs, like Ebel.
"I struggled for years learning how to golf as a disabled person," said Ebel, 50, a self-professed "cruddy golfer" who lost his legs after flipping a front-end loader while landscaping when he was 25. Seven surgeries later, both of his legs were amputated.
"I never broke 100 before I lost my legs, and the first 10 years [as a seated golfer] were just brutal," he said. "I tried everything and didn't do much of it well."
Ebel now scores in the 80s and inspires others to follow his path.
"I take it a little more seriously now because I don't have as many recreational activities," he said. "If I can help just one person with the frustration that I went through, to help them figure it out for themselves, then it's worthwhile. If one guy just decides not to give up.
"When we can help somebody new who is truly disabled play golf, and we see them strike the ball and make the ball go airborne for the very first time, the smile on their face is just wonderful."
Navy veteran Monroe, 57, of Austin, Texas, lost the use of one arm 30 years ago through an accident on the USS Enterprise. He said he derives more satisfaction from giving back to the troops than they could ever imagine.
"I always feel like I get more out of it than they do, absolutely, because if I can communicate anything to these guys, it is that a good life is still possible for them," Monroe said. "Obviously, golf is a great game, but it's also a lifetime game, so by communicating that they don't have to sit on the couch -- that they can be active, productive and live a good life.
"Bob and I are both disabled veterans, so we like to give back to that community."
Wilson, director of the National Amputee Golf Association, is a retired Navy lieutenant commander who lost both of his lower legs while serving aboard the USS Kitty Hawk.
"The pros have been very receptive to the training," said Wilson, who founded and remains the driving force of the NAGA. "I think it's something that they were really looking for, not maybe that they needed or wanted, but at the end of the day they realized that it was something they needed to round out their bag of tricks as far as being a professional golf pro and being able to teach. It just expanded their horizons as far as what they are able to do."
Wilson pointed out that there are 54 million disabled people in America, including 65,000 from the conflict in Iraq alone.
"We've got the program and we're here," he said. "We're inviting those guys to come out."
Wilson has worked with more disabled golfers than he can remember, yet he remains sensitive to instructors who are new to the drill.
"I can spot a leg amputee with long trousers on from about 15 miles away," he told the military instructors in San Diego. "But I've been living with it for 30 years, so I can see those things. But when you're interfacing with those guys, you're entering into an uncharted territory, so I would look at it as a learning process and just assume it that way."
Wilson also warned the instructors not to underestimate the wounded warriors.
"Amputees seem to be more intense about the game than say an able-bodied person," Wilson said of the whacky game that is a reflection of daily life. "They are more focused on getting better, whereas with an able-bodied person who is 50 or 60 years old, the drive may not be there to improve. They just use it as recreation."
(Tim Hipps works in the Army's Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command public affairs office.)