By Bob Denney
Senior Association Writer
The PGA of America
RIVERSIDE, Iowa – The cold, fickle November weather which Iowans have come to expect has done nothing to disrupt the mood among 17 veterans gathered indoors for one of the most memorable classrooms ever assembled in Iowa golf history.
The 17 students, who had served from World War II through Iraq, were the first student/participants in the inaugural Golf For Injured Veterans Everywhere (GIVE) Foundation program. The 17 were busy completing their seventh session on Nov. 12, a day after the country took pause for Veterans Day. A week later, they would celebrate the end of their golf “basic training.”
The program was conceived by Louis King, a veteran and former executive director of The PGA of America. King believes that golf could be an important part of an injured veteran’s recovery. King was asked by Dan Kehl to bring together the Iowa PGA Section and the VA to form the partnership at the Section’s new on-course home – Blue Top Ridge at Riverside. King was named president of the GIVE Foundation.
The Iowa PGA Section, in partnership with the Veterans Administration Medical Center of Iowa City and host Riverside Casino & Golf Resort has made this classroom possible. The partnership is unique for many reasons, but not without its undercurrent of selflessness among all parties.
Twenty-five Iowa PGA Professionals who have volunteered to give free instruction to injured veterans, giving them a new lease on life. And, the professionals also are learning from their students, many of whom brought their spouses to the training program.
“We’re not here because we’re getting paid,” said former Iowa PGA President Ken Schall of Des Moines. “We’re here because of the veterans, and what they have done for us. We’re lucky in our Section to have so many who may come and help. We’re a close-knit group. This is an ongoing program, where the ultimate goal is for all veterans to enjoy the game. I’ve seen so many good things take place already, and we’ve yet to take these veterans to the range and eventually play the course.”
The Veterans Administration has received 62 registrants, eager to join the GIVE project.
So, there are 17 who will become the first “graduates.” They have receiving training in all aspects of the game of golf – from the game’s timeless Rules and etiquette to all phases of shotmaking. Once the training is completed, the students were fitted for their own set of free clubs. PGA Professionals analyzed each veteran’s swing/abilities and customized the clubs to accommodate the player’s injuries.
Joe Corso of West Liberty, Iowa, is one of the GIVE “pioneer” students. The 63-year-old former E-5 Sergeant, has coped with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) since his last day of three tours of duty in 1969. He also learned late last summer that he has the early stages of leukemia.
Corso said that he had not left his home in a couple years, but now has reason to feel good again about fresh air and meeting new faces, including fellow veterans. He was joined in the classroom by his wife, Linda.
“This program has brought me closer to my wife,” says Corso. “The pros I’ve met are not just going through motions. They look you in the eye; they care about you. I’ve started building a little more trust; I feel born again.”
The warm feeling that Corso and others in the classroom feel would not be possible, however, without the other piece of the program fitting so well.
The Riverside Casino & Golf Resort, home of the Rees Jones-designed Blue Top Ridge, is a study in the commitment of Dan Kehl and his brother Bobby Kehl. Together, they founded the GIVE Foundation as a timeless service to all veterans. The resort soon will have a training center completed that will support year-round practice.
Iowa VA Medical Center Director Barry Sharp praised the program calling it a “truly unique partnership.”
“What excited me is that we have a partner giving a program to our veterans that previously didn’t exist – and at zero cost to the VA or the taxpayer,” said Sharp. “The support has been overwhelming. Our goal is to get it right in order that we may help other VA centers and many more veterans around the country. And, we have come a long way so far. There was a standing ovation for the vets at one of the meetings and I heard one vet tell me, ‘I can’t believe someone doing this for me!’ They are overwhelmed.”
Sharp oversees 1,200 employees at VA clinics in 32 counties in Iowa and 14 in western Illinois serving some 43,000 veterans. In addition to the Iowa City Veterans Medical Center, the state also has VA hospitals in Des Moines and Knoxville.
“We could not be more pleased to have the Iowa Veterans for Golf Program start in Iowa City,” said Sharp. “It shows a commitment from Iowa businesses and organizations to our veterans. It will bring great enjoyment to our veterans, their families, VA staff, PGA staff and Blue Top Ridge at Riverside staff.”
When Blue Top Ridge at Riverside opened on Aug. 1, a grand opening fundraiser raised $65,000 that day for the GIVE Foundation.
“It’s a start, a good start,” said Dan Kehl. “Golf might be one small way we can repay the debt all of us owe these great Americans. But, it doesn’t end there. We have many more miles to go.”
“He’s got big plans,” said Sharp of Kehl’s program. “What is so wonderful is that we have all the players that can make this happen.”
To “get it right,” as Sharp, the Iowa PGA and Kehl agree, there must be training for Iowa PGA Professionals to adapt to teaching both physically disabled as well as those suffering primarily from PTSD.
The Iowa PGA invited PGA/LPGA Professional Judy Alvarez of Palm City, Fla., to teach a class. Alvarez is The PGA of America’s National Trainer for the Wounded Warrior Program, and has led similar clinics nationwide.
“The Iowa VA and PGA officials were very open, very professional about their goals,” said Alvarez. “I was very impressed, and you know I also learned a lot from the speakers joining me that day – including a psychiatrist and one representing Family Wellness.
“It’s one thing to teach a veteran to hit a golf ball, but it’s another to understand what life is like for him or her before they arrive on the practice range. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder usually adds strains on a family, and many times the spouse has had to get another job to support the family after the veteran returns; there is a loss of intimacy and the spouse basically becomes a full-time caregiver for the kids.
“Golf is a program that is so much more helpful than we may realize. People escape to a golf program. When working with PTSD vets we learn that we sometimes have to repeat the information we give to veterans, to get them to focus. We may not give a full-fledged golf lesson, but we have to anticipate that and be patient. There is so much good being accomplished, and I applaud Iowa for what it has done and the great support it has received from both the facility and the VA.”
The GIVE Foundation program, administered by the Iowa PGA, has four phases of training for veterans to enhance their mental, social, physical, and emotional well-being and improve their quality of life: Introduction to Golf (rules, equipment, dress, scoring, etiquette, etc.), indoor instruction, outdoor practice at Blue Top Ridge and finally, golf rounds at Blue Top Ridge.
“This is as rewarding as heck,” said PGA Professional Jerry Johnson of Marshalltown, a past Iowa PGA Section president. “There are great people involved on both sides of this – the veterans and my fellow professionals.”
Katherine Sampica of Onslow, Iowa, 28, served in the Army Reserves from January 1997 through March 2004. Eh spent six months in Iraq and returned home with severe PTSD.
“My psychiatrist called me and gave me the information about this program,:” said Sampica. “I have always wondered about golf and I got jealous when my boyfriend and my oldest brother got to play. I said, ‘Where do I sign up?’”
Hank Britton, 50, is one of the GIVE graduates in the classroom. Britton spent 8½ years in the Navy, serving in Vietnam and later working with the physically and mentally disabled in Iowa. In 1996, he suffered a broken neck in a vehicle that was rear-ended while at a red light.
The County Home where Britton was employed as a bus driver closed its doors and he was without health care benefits. Britton has made a slow recovery from the accident, with limited mobility. To make matters worse, he contracted diabetes and began losing his vision three years ago. He has undergone 28 laser treatments to retain a minimal level of vision.
“I got a call from a VA coordinator in Des Moines who had picked up on my depression,” said Britton. “She said there was this program that I might be interested in attending. I ended up going to the Tee Tournament for the blind. I had kind of given up, but I really found that I could surprise myself. I was missing so much in my life. I know that this program has given me my life back. My friends saw a difference in me. I never thought I would enjoy golf. I was waiting to die, but that has changed.”
Joan Mulvania of Fulton, Ill., 44, served from 1986 to 1996 in Korea and also suffered from PTSD.
“I’m a former softball player and had never played golf before,” she said. “I have had so much fun here and this is something I can enjoy. I can see my friends and this program has been good to meet the veterans.”
PGA Professional Dave Schneider, the director of golf and general manager at Wakonda Club in Des Moines, had never taught a disabled student to play the game.
“This program is so far ahead of the curve,” said Schneider. “It is tremendous. It gives the student a completely new outlook on their psychological therapy. Golf transcends that. I believe that you are communicating with students as never before. I was nervous before I arrived. I did not want to fall short as a teacher.”
Julie Gorman of Cedar Rapids, 47, a former E-7 Sergeant, spent May 2003 through May 2004 in Iraq. She was “amazed” at how the PGA Professionals could reach all levels of disabled veterans with the game’s fundamentals.
“My injuries, from two surgeries on my feet, bursitis and PTSD are not what others have dealt with. I’m having fun trying to get back the joy that I had in things before. The day you step into Iraq is the day you step out of what you have enjoyed. I can tell you that we got down and kissed the ground when we came home.”
Two days before Thanksgiving, the “graduates” were fitted to new equipment by the Iowa PGA Professionals and each presented a complete set of clubs donated by Iowans at Iowa City, Coralville, and Cedar Rapids Hy-Vee Food Stores. Hy-Vee also presented each graduates with a Thanksgiving turkey.
“It’s incredible!” said Kirt Sickels, public relations officer for the Iowa City Medical Center. “We had a meeting recently and a physician came in and said, ‘I don’t know what’s happening with this patient, but all he wants to talk about is the GIVE program.
“For so long he had said how badly he was treated, but now all he can talk about is what he can do next with this golf program.”
Sickels said that veteran, Bob Briggs of Mount Pleasant, had come to the VA Center with a severe spinal cord injury and a traumatic brain injury to one side of his face.
Briggs was the victim of an explosion from a roadside bomb in Iraq. Briggs now limps and has only partial use of his right hand, and walks with the aid of a cane to the golf classroom.
“His wife, Betty, was overcome with emotion about seeing what she said was the new Bob,” said Sickels. “He is definitely one of the great stories in this program.”
There are more challenges ahead as Iowans receive more veterans to their communities and local VA clinics or hospitals.
“We have had some veterans who get in a car to come to this program, but get halfway and turn around,” said Sickels. “They don’t want to be pitied and have others looking at them any differently. Our goal is to get those people to come and experience how special things are here.”
Bob Denney is the Senior Association Writer of The PGA of America