Golf course provides special place for veterans

RSS

LAKEWOOD, Wash.'Joe Jackson takes one final puff from his yellow-labeled Dominican cigar before placing it gently on the tee, a few yards from where his ball is waiting.
 
In this moment, Jackson is simply another golfer. With a typical C-shaped whip swing, he cannons 300-yard drives down the middle of the fairway. Not bad at all.
 
His back story is what makes the drives amazing. The four times his vehicles were hit by roadside bombs in Iraq. The post traumatic stress disorder that clouds his thoughts. The medications he must swallow each day simply to function.
 
None of that matters here. When Jackson arrives at American Lake Veterans Golf Course'a haven for military veterans from World War II to Iraq that sits a short distance from Fort Lewis'Jackson is another hacker, trying to use his passion for smacking around a little white ball to help him cope with the aftermath of tours in Iraq.
 
Its really nice having a place to go out and not be looked at as being different than anybody else, said Jackson, who goes by Spc. Jackson when hes on base at Fort Lewis, working in the Warrior Transition Battalion. Ninety percent of the guys out here are wounded veterans from World War II all the way up to now. We all deal with similar limitations and just get out there and have fun.
 
The fact Jackson and his comrades have American Lake as a sanctuary is thanks to the yeomans work of some determined veterans, who wouldnt let the tree-lined course about an hour south of Seattle become a pasture when Congress cut funding to all military golf courses in 1995.
 
Nearly every veteran who walks onto the course has an ailment of some sort: an amputated limb; a noticeable limp; those who are blind and those who cannot walk.
 
Here, they can relax and make friends, sharing their military experience as a bond.
 
I prayed for death pretty much every day after I got out. I felt pretty much useless, said Dave Best, a veteran of the Iraq war who is now the operations manager at the course. Hes also the treasurer for Friends of American Lake, the nonprofit that handles fundraising for the course. (Then) I came out here to this support group.
 
Best and Jackson certainly arent alone in seeking help on the course.
 
Take, for example, Staff Sgt. Travis Spradlin.
 
Spradlin was hit in the shoulder by a sniper in Iraq in August 2007. For a time, he lapsed into a coma.
 
Now he has turned to golf as a coping mechanism in his recovery. Once nearly a scratch golfer right-handed, Spradlin was forced to switch to lefty because of his injuries'relearning all the basic muscle movement that once came so naturally. With help from Pepper Roberts, a soon to be 77-year-old who has helped the course survive and thrive, Spradlin quickly picked up the game from the opposite side.
 
It can be (hard). It all depends on the person, all depends on where they are in the continuum of healing, said Kristine Goedhard, program manager for Rehabilitation Care Services at VA Puget Sound Health Care System. Some youll find that if they were really good at something before an injury occurs, its really hard for them to try it if theyre not as good as they were before. Some are ready right away after an injury.
 
Spradlins reliance on golf as his therapy was evidenced on a recent Monday. After finding out he would no longer be on active duty during a midday meeting, Spradlin was back at the course that afternoon.
 
After my injuries and the severity of what its like to be in Iraq, and the day-to-day business of being over there, this is someplace we can come and play golf thats relaxing, Spradlin said. You dont have the high pressures of military life.
 
With the likes of course manager Mike Kearney working tirelessly, the course stayed open long enough for Roberts to arrive seven years ago.
 
Roberts was a former golf coach in the nearby Clover Park School District and Jim Smith, then the course manager, was a friend who asked Roberts to help with clinics and sit on the golf course board of directors. Smith promised it would take only one day a month.
 
That was the first lie he told me, Roberts cracked.
 
Roberts became the catalyst for a plethora of improvements at the course and many others in the planning stages. He was astonished the first time he came to American Lake and realized a course designated for military veterans was only accessible for the able-bodied.
 
I was always a little bit amazed that the only people that could play the course were those that could walk it. They had no carts, none of that stuff, Roberts said.
 
So he got to work, writing grants, seeking donations, helping to form the nonprofit corporation and asking for all the help he could garner.
 
Through the groups fundraising, the course acquired a handful of SoloRider golf carts that allow severely disabled, or even partially paralyzed golfers to still swing a club. The cart swings the seat and can physically support someone who otherwise couldnt stand themselves, allowing a chance to swing and putt.
 
The greens and bunkers of the course were redesigned or replanted, allowing the SoloRiders to be driven into the traps and onto the putting surface. A three-hole short-course was built within the driving range, keeping the nine-hole course open for the regular stream of vets that cycle through.
 
Pat Gailey, the course project manager, estimated that $360,000 worth of work has been donated by local contractors wanting to help out.
 
Its easier to get $8,000 or $10,000 worth of work donated than a check of $2,000, he said.
 
A covered driving range was constructed with stalls large enough to accommodate wheelchairs. Theres also an A-framed picnic area, and a new clubhouse is next on the docket.
 
The ultimate dream for those in charge is constructing another nine holes and creating an 18-hole complex. Rough sketches are already in place, courtesy of Jack Nicklaus design group'a favor that was called in.
 
Thats the benefit of having Ken Still, a former Ryder Cup teammate of Nicklaus and close friend, on the American Lake board.
 
There is a difference between having a cookie bake sale and the type of money well need to build it, Roberts said. I need a little bit bigger donations than the cookie sale.
 
Whatever American Lake becomes, the basic principle still remains fellowship and a different type of rehabilitation.
 
Maybe Russ Carlson tells it best. A Vietnam vet who lost his left leg, Carlson once attempted suicide'unable to handle the idea of becoming a civilian believing he was a freak. Now hes one of the first to greet every new face that walks onto the course property.
 
Things that Ive seen, I dont want it to happen to these guys, Carlson said. I dont think it would be fair to them. I think they deserve more than what the government is giving to them. So every little bit we do we try and help. Thats what were there for.