There isn’t much evidence left that this land once was a golf course. Just some weatherbeaten stone tee markers rising from the weeds like miniature monoliths, and patches of pavement that used to be cart paths. But if Tom Underdown has his way, Bermuda grass will again grow here, as neatly trimmed as the haircuts of the men who hope to call this place home.
Underdown, 64, is no developer, and his vision is of no ordinary golf club. The Warrior Golf Club would be the home of the Orlando, Fla., chapter of Fairways for Warriors, a nonprofit organization founded by Underdown, both of whose parents served in the military, to help wounded veterans and their families.
Fairways for Warriors holds outings, tournaments and clinics at several courses in the Orlando area. But it has to shoehorn its activities into their schedules, which, especially during Florida’s snowbird season, are often full. “We can’t always do all the things we want to do or need to do for our soldiers and their families,” Underdown said.
“Having our own place, we could have our guys going there every single day.”
Fairways for Warriors is in negotiations to lease part of the former Meadow Woods Golf Course, which is currently owned by a church. Underdown envisions a driving range, a nine-hole course, a three-hole practice area, a short-game area and a clubhouse.
The facility is eight miles from a Veterans Affairs medical center which is scheduled to open this year. Underdown said veterans would be able to get from the VA center to the Fairways for Warriors facility via a light-rail system.
“We can provide jobs for these guys,” Underdown said. “We’ve got so many guys who are 100 percent disabled, sitting home every day - they could go to the Warrior Golf Club, they could volunteer for a couple of hours, they could hang out. The quality of life for them and their family would just escalate so much. We want to have seminars, activities, events at the clubhouse. We want to have a workout room, we want to have a library, a coffee shop. [It would be] so much more than just a golf clubhouse.”
Underdown said Hilton Grande Vacations “has stepped up to be our major sponsor,” and he hopes to get assistance from the PGA of America, but Fairways for Warriors needs more financial help. “We need $1.2 million for the clubhouse, about $1.5 [million] to redo the greens and fairways. We need more donations.” Once the facility is up and running, Underdown estimates, green fees and other golf-related revenues would make it self-sufficient.
For most golfers, the opportunity to play on any given day is a luxury. For wounded veterans, it can be much more.
Many veterans who went into the military as teenagers find themselves exiting to a civilian life they have never experienced as an adult. The most mundane activities can be furiously frustrating.
Fairways for Warriors member Eric Napier smiles when he’s asked about a scene in the Oscar-winning movie “The Hurt Locker.” The main character, a bomb-disposal expert, is back home in the U.S. and standing in the cereal aisle of a grocery store. The camera pans over dozens of cereal choices, then focuses on actor Jeremy Renner’s face, which registers – depending on your interpretation – frustration, disgust, anger, confusion. Renner’s character ends up returning to Iraq and his insanely dangerous job, which he prefers to the mundaneness of civilian life.
Fairways for Warriors members Eric Napier (l), Steve Allberry
“I told people about that,” said Napier, who spent nearly eight years in the Army and was deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Senegal. “I came home and was really stressed out from the minutia of everyday life. Some people didn’t get it. They said it’s nothing compared to what you’ve been through. I said it’s the fact that there’s so much drama over so little that’s so stressful.
“When we’re over there working, we really have a handful of priorities. They’re life-and-death priorities, but I’ve got a handful and I can check them off. When I get home, I have an armload of priorities that don’t matter whether they get done or not, but the world we’ve built around ourselves, it’s life and death if I don’t get to the dry cleaners and pay that cellphone bill.
“It’s easy to get frustrated – ‘Why am I so upset over things that hold so little importance in my life and my family’s lives?’”
Frustration too often leads veterans to an irrevocable decision – to commit suicide.
Every member of Fairways for Warriors can recite this key statistic from a 2012 report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs - every day, 22 veterans commit suicide.
Talking to Fairways for Warriors members, it’s rare to find one who hasn’t experienced suicidal feelings or known someone who has committed suicide. Underdown remembers a veteran who called him after learning about Fairways for Warriors, and wanted to join the group. “He was going to come out on a Saturday,” Underdown said. “The Monday before, he committed suicide.” Underdown can’t help but wonder if immediate access to a Fairways for Warriors club facility might have saved that veteran’s life.
Although it seems logical that once military men and women escape a war zone alive and return to their loved ones, their lives should improve, the sobering truth is that they still face life-threatening danger.
On the urban battlefield, the enemy hid in plain sight. Virtually any place, any person, might be concealing a bomb. Back in the United States, many of the veterans themselves have become time bombs, with potential detonators in their own minds and bodies: depression, pain, nightmares, rage, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The substances they often use to dull their pain – alcohol and drugs – become detonators as well.
A more effective treatment can simply be finding something to do and someone to talk to who understands what you’re going through. Through the vehicle of golf, Fairways for Warriors provides these two things.
“I was in a real bad place a little over a year ago,” said Fairways for Warriors member Steve Allberry, an Army veteran. “Once I got connected with Fairways, I sold my house and moved over here to be closer. This organization is one of the best things that’s ever happened. I can’t wait -I sit around the house looking at the clock wondering when’s my next tee time with Fairways. I’m ready to get out. Everybody in Fairways is my family. I’ll do anything for them because I know they’d do anything for me.”