Golf Is Therapy For Injured Vets

By MICK ELLIOTT The Tampa Tribune - Published: Nov 25, 2007


TEMPLE TERRACE - Jim White, a gunner on a U.S Army Humvee, wasn't thinking about golf that morning in Arab Jabour some four months ago when hell suddenly rose up around him and two fellow soldiers, an improvised explosive device tossing their vehicle into a fiery, end-over-end tumble. If he had, however, it would not have been a surprise.

Mental images of playing the game were something White often used in an effort to hold onto any sliver of life's normalcy. "I never considered myself a great player, but I had a few good games here and there," said the 41-year-old Washington native who played for 10 years. "But I think it's one of the most fun games you can play."

The last time White hit balls had been maybe seven months earlier, shortly before being transferred to the Middle East. The next thing he knew, he was living and fighting in the world's worst sand trap and orders were to push south on a recon mission.

That's when life changed.

A rear wheel on the Humvee detonated the IED. The blast lifted the vehicle from the back, igniting the fuel tank and sending it into an oblong roll. All three soldiers lived, but their bodies were burned, broken and torn.

White sustained burns on 53 percent of his body. Both legs were broken, his left one shattered. Hunks of meat and muscle were ripped away from his lower limbs.

That explains why White now is receiving treatment at Tampa's James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital, where from waist down his body is wrapped in elastic support bandages and a torturous-looking metal contraption of pins and rods extends from his shattered left leg.

What White was doing earlier this month at Terrace Hills Golf Club's practice range with a club in his hands is a completely different story.

"The best day of therapy I've had," he said. "It was awesome."

White was there to attend a clinic hosted by Florida Adaptive Golf Foundation for injured military veterans. The nonprofit organization's goal is to offer physically challenged individuals an opportunity to participate in the game, handicaps be damned.

"James A. Haley is one of the top poly-trauma centers in the country now and more and more of our veterans are going to be transported there in the future," said Adaptive Golf director David Windsor. "We've already started a program for outpatients and we've got three or four who haven't missed a Friday since September."

If an injured veteran has lost an arm, the program provides instruction for hitting shots with one. If he or she has a prosthetic leg or legs, there's help with balance and technique. In worse cases, the SoloRider, a one-person golf cart that allows a player to be strapped into a seat that hydraulically swivels and elevates, will provide opportunity.

"We're altering grips, we're welding clubs, we're taping things," said Windsor, who is based in Sarasota. "We're doing whatever it takes to make it happen. Our mission is to get folks back on track."

Jerry Lemoyne, 63, of Apollo Beach is in the fast lane.

He was injured 37 years ago in Vietnam, eventually losing his right leg at the knee. A gregarious character with a shaved head and white Hulk Hogan-like mustache, the still rock-hard Lemoyne wears a prosthesis that features a red, white and blue collage of American flags.

"This is my good one," he said, pointing to the leg. "I got an old one to wear when I mow the yard."

Lemoyne obviously remained active despite his handicap, but until moving to Florida from Michigan two years ago, he had never tried golf. As a member of the Amputee Veterans Support Team at the V.A. Hospital, he learned about Florida Adaptive Golf's weekly Friday program at Terrace Hill and gave it a try.

Now Lemoyne and two fellow vets have become weekly regulars.

"We're laughing and just having a ball together," he said. "This is such a good opportunity for injured veterans to come out because even if you don't really learn the game of golf, you meet friends. From one amputee to another, it makes a big difference.

"I've seen guys on the battlefield and one minute they are standing and the next minute both legs were gone. That is really rough on the mind. So you are here with other amputees and share stories and everything. It's a big help."

That was White's original thought when Department of Veteran Affairs therapeutic recreation specialist Jennifer Day mentioned the Adaptive Golf clinic. The idea of getting outdoors and away from the hospital sounded good.

"I told them back at the V.A., you know, I just wanted to get out on the course and watch some guys hit a few," White said. "I didn't even think about actually swinging a club. I was happy just to get out of the hospital for a little while."

But that was before he knew about SoloRider, a company owned and operated by Tampa resident Monroe Berkman. An hour into the clinic, White had been helped from his wheelchair into the single-rider cart. An instructor teed up a ball. The hydraulic seat was adjusted. White took something of a one-handed swipe with a utility wood. The ball dribbled off the tee.

More adjustments were made. A little more coaching. Another swing.

Again. And again.

And then there was that clean and distinctive ping that golfers know comes only from the sweet spot of a club. The ball rose in a climbing line drive, straight and beyond the 150-yard marker.

"This is awesome!" White said. "I mean, I was hitting it basically standing up. With the cart I was able to take weight off my legs.

"You know, we go to classes with therapists and they're great, but we're inside. For me, being outdoors and having people help like that to crack a few balls … this is my best day of therapy."

Different people stopped to watch as White took another swing.

"You can play," someone shouted.

"You are so inspiring," someone else added.

Judy Alvarez, a teaching pro in the PGA of America's Wounded Warrior Project, stood to the side watching, a smile growing across her face.

"This can be therapy for emotional, social and physical reasons," Alvarez said. "They realize, hey, I can do this and all of a sudden their chests go out and their shoulders go back. It's more than hitting a stupid little ball with a piece of metal. It's the challenge of doing it and building self-confidence. They realize if I can do this I can probably do other things."

For more information on the Adaptive Golf Foundation, go to www.FloridaAdaptiveGolf.org or call (888) 364-3524.