The way Angel Morales Jr. sees it, watching Golf Channel saved his life.
In July 2014 Morales was one of thousands of former veterans struggling to cope with becoming a civilian. His whole life had revolved around the military. His relatives had served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. When he had turned 19, “It was my turn.”
For most of the next two decades, he served in the Army. He was part of Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s and was stationed in Kosovo after 9/11. But a knee injury ended his military career. “The Army told me ‘You have to go,’” he said.
The knee was probably the least of his wounds. “I got scars and some injuries,” he said, “but my bigger injuries were the mental stuff, the friends that I lost.”
Civilian life was a mystery to Morales. He tried to go to school, “but I couldn’t finish it. I couldn’t focus.” He couldn’t deal with his own family. A sister took out a restraining order against him.
Feeling suicidal, Morales checked himself into a VA hospital, but returned to his downward spiral after being released. He had no job prospects and was abusing his pain medication. Thoughts of suicide were never far from his mind.
Watching golf on TV was one of the few things that gave him pleasure. On July 4, 2014, while watching “Morning Drive” in his Milwaukee home, Morales saw host Gary Williams interviewing Tom Underdown about his Fairways for Warriors organization.
“I saw Tom and it was like a light turned on,” Morales said. “He was saying how there was a place you can go, play golf, not just play golf but there’s a family there – you know, they take care of each other. And I said, ‘I need that.’”
He packed everything he could cram into his 2010 Toyota Corolla. What he couldn’t fit, he gave away to fellow veterans. A friend from high school offered him an affordable place to live near Orlando.
“The doors began to open,” he said. “I got here literally in a week. The first person I called was Tom. I explained my situation. He said ‘Come on down this weekend.’ We started playing golf, and my life has completely turned around.”
Like all of the Fairways for Warriors members, Morales can cite the Department of Veterans Affairs statistic on suicides by veterans – 22 per day. “I [would have been] one of them,” he said. “But through the Golf Channel, through Tom, through the camaraderie that we have with the other soldiers I was able to get out of that list.
“Since I’ve been here, the pain medications, I don’t abuse those, I’m clean from that; [I’m] alcohol-free, once in a while a glass of wine, but nothing like it used to be. I’m focused, I’m going to school, I just recently put in an application to work with Marriott Grande Vista.”
Morales is currently attending the Core Golf Academy at Orange County National, training to become a golf pro. The formal instruction he’s receiving is a far cry from his origins in the game.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, he lived in an area where there was only one course, and it was private. But the game fascinated him. He would press his face against the fence, watching the rich members swat these little white balls. “Sometimes they threw the balls over the fence and I kept them,” he said. He built his own mini-course in his backyard. “I cut the grass, I put a hole,” he said. He wasn’t able to pursue the game, further, though. “They didn’t have any golf programs in the school there,” he said. “It was only baseball.”
In the Army, he could use real equipment. “The first day I went out I chipped one ball in the hole and I was hooked for life,” he said. “I went and bought clubs, I got shoes, clothes, everything.”
Now Morales wants to combine his two loves – golf and his fellow veterans.
“I see the soldiers that come to Fairways for Warriors - triple amputees, double amputees, one of our guys is blind. I see them, I see hope. So now I’m committed to help – whatever it takes.
“My mission is to work [at the Warrior Golf Club] and get those [suicide] numbers down.”