Fairways for Warriors was conceived five years ago on a flight to Fort Bragg, N.C. Tom Underdown was sitting next to a sergeant on leave from Afghanistan, listening to the soldier talk about two comrades who had lost limbs.
Underdown had never been a soldier himself, but with both parents in the military, he had grown up at various Army bases in Germany and the United States. He knew the deadly toll that life in uniform could extract.
“My father served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam,” Underdown, 64, said recently. “I saw what post-traumatic stress did to him and his family. It was horrible, what he went through. He did what I call slow suicide - he drank and smoked himself to death.”
Underdown had gone into information technology, continuing his family’s military connection by having the Department of Defense as his sole client. But as he listened to the sergeant talk, business was the furthest thing from his mind.
“I don’t know why,” Underdown said, “I just felt like I needed to do something.” He persuaded some friends to visit one of the wounded soldiers. He called the mother of the other one. “I said, ‘I don’t know why I’m calling, but I just want to let you know that somebody cares. Is there anything I can do for your son?’”
“She said all he ever wanted to be was a soldier – ‘I know he’s going to be OK physically, but he’s never going to be OK mentally. He’s always going to have issues.’
“That really resonated with me. I found a program called Operation Warrior Golf at Fort Bragg that was started by a college student, Gretchen McClean. I got involved in that and I said if she can do that at Fort Bragg, why can’t I do that in Orlando? So I got some friends together and we launched Fairways for Warriors.
Today, Fairways for Warriors has expanded to four chapters – Orlando and Jacksonville in Florida, plus San Antonio, Texas, and Newport, R.I. Underdown is working to create a golf facility for the Orlando chapter, and hopes that eventually every chapter will have its own Warrior Golf Club.
“It’s been humbling,” Underdown said. “We’ve had probably well over 200 combat vets come through our program in Orlando, not including family members. I used to have to go out and generate interest in our program. Now I get word of mouth. I get at least three or four e-mails or phone calls every single week from people hearing about our program and wanting to be part of it.”
“We are lucky to have Tom Underdown,” said Navy veteran Luis Lorenzana. “Words cannot describe how amazing his soul is. Our society needs a Tom Underdown to understand what selfless acts are all about and what sacrifice really means.”
Fairways for Warriors’ mission is “providing hope, healing and camaraderie for combat wounded warriors and their families.”
“When a young guy goes into the military,” Underdown said, “he has a support infrastructure, he’s got his buddies, he’s got a unit, he’s got a first sergeant. He goes over to combat, he’s got a battle buddy. He knows this guy has his back. He gets injured, he gets medically discharged and he’s left out there all by himself.
“When you get out of the military, especially if you’ve been injured in combat, you don’t feel comfortable around civilians. They just don’t understand. Other combat warriors understand what you’re going through.”
Returning veterans “isolate themselves, they lose hope, they’re angry, they’re not sure what to do with their lives, and they drink and think too much. This program gives them that camaraderie that they had in the military, gives them hope and helps them heal.”
Juan Velazquez is a former combat engineer who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and came home with - among other wounds - a traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder. “I couldn’t even socialize,” he said. “For the first few weeks, even the first few months, I was a quiet guy, I was separate from everybody. I didn’t want to hear any stories, I didn’t want to tell any stories about me. And now it’s gotten to the point where I can socialize because I feel at home.”
Golf is an effective vehicle for healing because of the game’s social aspect and the concentration it demands
“It helps you focus, focus on the ball,” Velazquez said. “It’s a repeated motion that you’ve got to practice all the time. And it’s fun. It gets frustrating - don’t get me wrong, I do get angry a lot of times, but just one shot can change everything.”
Fairways for Warriors members Juan Velazquez (l), Jack Wiseman
“I believe it helps stimulate the brain, the thoughts, the soul to focus on the challenge of getting that small white ball into a small white cup up to 500 yards away,” said Lorenzana, who deals with constant pain from two unsuccessful lower-back surgeries. “The frustration of living with disabilities was given a new meaning when I started playing golf. What seemed impossible on the first tee looking down at the barely visible flag about 487 yards away on my first day of golf ever, now seems exhilarating. I can overcome anything. I can learn to adapt to my surroundings, be it life or fairways and bunkers.”
“It’s not just the physical and mental healing, it’s also spiritual,” said Robert “BJ” Jackson, a former member of the Iowa Army National Guard who lost both legs below the knee to a land mine in Baghdad. “It’s getting together, the camaraderie. The fellowship is the biggest part. Golf is an added bonus.”
Jackson met Underdown after moving to Florida in 2011. He became involved in Fairways for Warriors, “but once he told me the golf course idea, I had to step up a little. He thought about a friend, Chad Pfeifer, a veteran who lost a leg in Iraq, took up golf as part of his rehabilitation and became good enough to pursue becoming the first amputee to play on the PGA Tour. (Pfeifer, who was profiled by GolfChannel.com in December 2012, is one of the contestants on the current Golf Channel series, “Big Break: The Palm Beaches, Florida.”)
Jackson took to heart a message he got in a fortune cookie: “He who is afraid of doing too much, does too little." “So I stuck it in my wallet as a reminder and started asking Tom what I can do to help.”
Jackson appreciates the fact that Fairways for Warriors includes older veterans – “guys that came home to nothing and were treated horribly, that paved the way for men and women today to be treated like heros. We owe them to be better and also to recognize their sacrifice and service,” he said. “They are great mentors and friends to this era’s veterans.”
Jack Wiseman, an Army veteran who lost his left arm in Vietnam, is grateful for the opportunity to help. “For us older vets,” he said, “to help these guys out and give them something we never had when we come home, it fills my heart just to be able to be here and do whatever we can do.”