Grant, Golf Helps Veterans Rehabilitate


By David Shefter, USGA - April 18, 2008


Temple Terrace, Fla. - David Windsor hovers over his pupil, issuing instructions in the kind of upbeat enthusiastic tone one expects from a teaching professional.

"Hit down on the ball... We don't want to scoop the ball... You gripped it too tight... I want to see that follow through... Sweep the tee... Good!... Great follow through there…Look at that. Great shot!"

The hyper-energetic Windsor, a 37-year-old from upstate New York who now resides and works in Sarasota, Fla., repeats this routine for the rest of the abbreviated round. Walking the course with his ball-picker, he is constantly chatting, whether it is rudimentary tips for his pupil or doling positive information about his special program to a visitor.

On this particular morning along Florida's west coast, the fundamentals being disseminated by Windsor are to a young man with severe disabilities who is using golf as a rehabilitation tool.

Michael Kuhn, a 29-year-old from Ocala, Fla., was on leave from the U.S. Navy when he suffered horrific injuries from a car accident. Currently confined to a wheelchair, Kuhn's speech is slurred and his fingers are slightly deformed, the result of traumatic brain damage that has affected his nervous system. Even before the accident, Kuhn had been drawn to golf by his grandfather and the two often played together.

But while the residual affects from the crash ambushed a lot of his physical ability, it didn't zap Kuhn's desire and passion to play golf again.


AGE Director David Windsor, left, has
been extremely pleased with the physical
progress Michael Kuhn has made on the
golf course over the last four months.
(John Mummert/USGA)


Thanks to Florida Adaptive Golf, and specifically the American Veterans Adaptive Golf (AVAG) program just outside of Tampa, Kuhn is again enjoying the game. His family makes the weekly 80-minute drive so he can participate. With the help of a specialized single-rider car and individualized instruction, Kuhn is slowly rehabilitating his body and muscle movements.

"If you could see Michael last November when he was here [for the first time] and then to see how much he has improved, it's amazing," said Windsor, whose energy could be slipped into anyone's coffee for a pick-me up. "He could only bring [the club] back this far (pointing to his hip) before he started his downswing. Now you can actually see he is taking the club further back. Right now he is hitting it good when he connects.

"His mobility is increasing and that is helping him function better in doing daily chores. Just when he goes to put on his shoes in the morning, it makes a difference. The guys here have made him part of the team. He feels great. And he wants to come here because this is where his friends are."

 

Getting Started

Meeting every Friday morning at the nine-hole executive Terrace Hill Golf Course, the USGA-supported AVAG program gives military veterans with disabilities - both physical and mental - the opportunity to receive free golf instruction and play the game. For some, it's a chance to rehabilitate. For others, it's a therapeutic social gathering, a chance to join a group with others sharing the same predicament.

For those who need them, equipment and single-rider cars are available. Many of the clubs have special shafts that make hitting the ball easier for those with disabilities. Ken Walters, the president of the Adaptive Golf Foundation board, also is a member of the Professional Clubmakers Society. He has used modern shaft technology to build clubs that better fit individuals with a disability.

Yet without the assistance of 52-year-old Terrace Hill head pro Ken Juhn and the cooperation of the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, AVAG never would have gotten off the ground. It now serves as an auxiliary to the pre-existing Florida Adaptive Golf program, which has been in operation since 1998 (it received non-profit status in 2006).

Florida Adaptive Golf is a byproduct of Adaptive Golf, the brainchild of amputee Sonny Ackerman. Ackerman started a program 16 years ago in Suwanee, Ga., and formally founded the organization in '96 (it received non-profit status in 2002). Since then, Adaptive Golf has expanded beyond Georgia. Ackerman died in 2006 and Windsor now acts as the executive director for both the Adaptive Golf Foundation and Florida Adaptive Golf.

With his Sarasota program now a major success - he received a $50,000 matching USGA grant in February 2007 for instruction, equipment and single-rider cars - Windsor took the necessary steps to expand. Last June, he wrote a letter to the Tampa VA hospital, explaining what Florida Adaptive Golf had accomplished over the previous nine years. A week later, he was put in touch with Steve Scott, the head of physical therapy, who in turn contacted Bob West, a Vietnam War veteran and amputee who volunteers as a counselor for hospital patients.

At the time, West was working with Randy Gallup, who had served in the Gulf War and recently lost his arm and nearly his legs in a motorcycle accident. His wife of three weeks also tragically passed in the accident, leaving Gallup in a depressive disposition.

Through the grapevine, West had heard about Windsor's special golf program. He knew plans were in the works to have a special day in November, but he was hoping to get a group of disabled individuals out to the golf course earlier. The ever-eager Windsor didn't hesitate to accommodate the request.

So on Sept. 28, 12 individuals participated in what has now become a weekly Friday session of lessons, golf and socializing.

That original group of 12 grew as plans were finalized for a special Veteran's Day weekend community day. Windsor worked closely with the hospital while also procuring sponsorship from SoloRider, a Colorado-based single-rider golf car company whose owner, Monroe Berkman, lives in Tampa and is a polio survivor. Judy Alvarez, a teaching pro in the PGA of America's Wounded Warrior Project, was also invited. In fact, it was Alvarez's program that was the genesis for Windsor to create AVAG.

Because so many military personnel from the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered physical and mental injuries, Windsor and others saw the need to use golf as the ideal therapeutic treatment.

 

Golf Therapy

More than 350 individuals - some from the VA and others that were not - participated, making the entire day an overwhelming success. The disabilities ranged from amputees to those suffering from strokes or mental traumas as well as other ailments such as cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis.

Program participants who never thought golf was a viable recreational opportunity now have discovered its inherent values, both spiritual and physical. Even those suffering from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) depart a Friday session with an entirely different outlook.

"They come back to the hospital talking golf," said Jim Switzer, the amputee case manager for James Haley Hospital. "Many can't wait to get back out again."

Windsor and Juhn never know how many in-patients are going to show from the VA on a given Friday. But they can always count on their regular out-patients, most of whom are Vietnam veterans like West and Jerry Lemoyne, who lost his right leg during combat. West had his left leg amputated due to Agent Orange exposure that eventually led to diabetes and later forced doctors to perform the surgery in 2001. In Vietnam, West started out in the infantry and was later transferred to the military police. He was in Saigon during the Tet Offensive and later served as the chief of security for the VA hospital in Palo Alto, Calif.

At a recent Friday get-together, West and his fellow cohorts are milling around the driving range, swapping stories and jokes. Many are impressed by Kevin Vigilione, a formal Navy man (1975-78). Up until a few weeks ago Vigilione had never picked up a club. He moved to Florida four years ago and last year broke his left leg doing construction work. The leg required amputation after developing a severe staph infection known in the medical world as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Before his injury Viglione was an avid recreational ice hockey player.

He discovered AVAG through the VA and decided to give golf a try. It turns out he was a natural. His easy, free-flowing swing gave the appearance of a 20-year veteran of the links, not someone playing for the second time ever.

"It's a nice group to be involved in," said Viglione, who still hopes to skate again. "We'll see how it goes. I'm not committed to [golf]."

The longer he spends time around people like West and Lemoyne, Viglione might find swinging a club more enjoyable than taking a slap shot.

West stood there sporting a freshly minted Florida Gators air-brushed tattoo on his prosthetic left leg. He played one year of freshman football at the school.

"We have a lot of fun," said the retired West. "I tell you what, I am hitting the ball farther now than when I had both legs. This program is helping tremendously."

Added Lemoyne: "[At first] I couldn't get the ball in the air for one thing. I am playing a lot better now."

West, Lemoyne and others have formed the American Veterans Amputee Support Team (AVAST). They serve as mentors to first-time participants from the hospital as well as other players with disabilities who discover the program.

That would include 60-year-old Al Landers, a non-veteran diabetes sufferer from St. Petersburg. The disease got so bad that doctors had to amputate several toes before finally taking his right leg. Three of his toes don't have any bones in them. Landers played before his disability and regularly shot in the high-80s. He found AVAG through a local amputee group and his outlook on life went from grim to exultation. And now, thanks to a single-rider car, he's able to enjoy golf again.

"I'm so happy," said Landers, trying to fight back emotional tears of joy. "I get choked up about it because I'm so excited with what is taking place. I don't feel handicapped at all. It's a little different playing this way, but it will always be different for me. You get used to it and go on from there."


Kevin Viglione, left, took quickly to
Terrace Hill G.C. pro Ken Juhn's
instructions in just his second visit
to the American Veterans Adaptive
Golf program in Temple Terrace, Fla.
(John Mummert/USGA)


Landers has since become an advocate for golfers with disabilities. He is trying to fight through bureaucratic paperwork to get the city of St. Petersburg to purchase a single-rider car for the Mangrove Bay Golf Course. The American Disabilities Act (ADA) requires all public and semi-public to provide handicap access, but that doesn't mean they are purchasing specialized golf cars or are required to do so.

On a separate note unrelated to ADA requirements, Berkman said all military golf courses - 165 are listed worldwide - plan to purchase at least two single-rider cars over the next few years so that individuals with disabilities can enjoy the game.

Not only does Berkman own SoloRider, but he also uses the product. The electric cars can be operated by hand and the seat swivels to allow for shots to be played while sitting in the vehicle. Using hydraulics, the seat is able to prop up and get the player in the proper angle and posture for a shot to be played. And the vehicles are safe enough to drive through bunkers or greens without causing any damage to the course.

"Look at me," says Berkman, now 67, "I've been playing for six years when I shouldn't be able to. With this cart, it's a source to continue playing."

 

A Ray Of Hope

Ray Garcia, 28, is charming and affable. He grew up playing football and baseball in his native Texas. On the surface, he looks like your normal military man replete with a tattoo on his left arm. Following high school graduation, he joined the U.S. Army and has since served four tours of duty - three in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

Everything about Garcia looks normal, outside of a couple of physical scars - on his arm and buttocks - the result of coming in close contact with an IED (improvised explosive devices) on five occasions.

Garcia is a mess mentally. While in Iraq, he watched in horror as insurgents shot up his gunner. His fallen comrade had already written death letters for his family, and Garcia had the unenviable task of mailing them back to the U.S. He also has killed.

This has caused depression and led him down a path of heavy drinking. It's also affected his family; Garcia is married with two daughters, ages 12 and 4.

Fortunately, Garcia still has the use of all his extremities. But his mental problems - he has PTSD - led him to be admitted to James Haley Hospital in Tampa. Through his therapy sessions, Garcia's doctors and therapists recommended AVAG as a rehabilitation avenue.

During the short ride from the hospital to the course, Garcia told his recreational therapist, Kathryn Bryant, that he wasn't sure if playing golf was a good idea. Like so many first-timers to AVAG, he had a pre-determined negative attitude toward the game. Then he met Juhn on the driving range and all the pessimism and anxieties were instantly swept away. Suddenly there was joy in swinging a golf club and making solid contact. Juhn then took Garcia out to play a few holes. At the short par-3 ninth, his second and final hole of the day, the free-swinging Garcia sent his tee shot onto the green, some 25 feet above the flagstick. He lined up his putt as if he were Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open, and just like the world's top player, he sent the curling right-to-left putt in the hole for a par.

Not long after the abbreviated round, Garcia was back on the practice range, hitting golf balls. AVAG added another patient to the hooked list.

"I can't describe the feeling I've got now," said Garcia, who was admitted on March 2. "It's phenomenal. Wow! I didn't think it was this easy."

Added Bryant: "This particular golf program is exceptional. It provides so many secondary and tertiary benefits. It's a real motivator. The community re-integration is a real motivator.

"[In Garcia's case], he was glad to get the lessons because now he has the confidence to get out there and try a new recreational pursuit."

 

Future PlansKevin Viglione

Long-term, Windsor is hoping to take AVAG to every VA hospital. Plans are in motion for programs to start in Gainesville, Fla., Denver, Colo., Portland, Maine, Syracuse, N.Y., and Rochester, N.Y.

"Nothing happens fast enough for me," said Windsor.

Windsor also has developed a training manual for all of his instructors on how to teach the various disabilities. Working with a stroke victim, for instance, is much different than teaching someone who has lost a leg or has cerebral palsy.

Led by Foundation president Walters, the board of directors is working diligently to have each program instructor properly certified. Consistency is the key, even if the teachers aren't PGA of America professionals.

In fact, Bob Howser, an original Florida Adaptive Golf participant in Sarasota, now is a mentor for 13 juniors who come regularly to the Bobby Jones Complex. He also has three more juniors in Venice, Fla., and a program is about to start in Bradenton. Howser, a World War II veteran, rose to sergeant major in the Army, which is the highest rank anyone can achieve without attending West Point. Howser was on the south shore of England during the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944.

"Dave saw that I had potential because I am a retired sergeant major," said Howser.

To successfully expand, Windsor understands the need to secure more funding. The USGA's financial assistance has provided a boost, but now he is looking beyond golf associations. Someday, he hopes to have major corporate sponsorship. But considering a year ago AVAG was a still a pipe dream, Windsor is seeing movement at warp-like speed.

Adaptive Golf Programs have launched or are launching soon in Greenville, S.C., Roanoke, Va., Overland Park, Kan., and Augusta, Ga.

If he were still alive today, founder Ackerman would likely be proud of what Windsor has accomplished in such a short period of time.

"I think this is going to end up more than just being a dream," said Windsor. "Big things like that (having a program in every VA hospital) I know can happen. They have happened. That's going to be our goal.

"I know the PGA wants more people involved in the game. Our Play Golf America initiative has focused on minorities, women and juniors, and now they are starting to turn to the disabled community. This is just a whole new segment [of players]."

Windsor likes to tell the story of Tom Boyle, who suffered a stroke while playing at the University of South Florida course. His buddies all thought he had passed out because of the heat, but it turned out to be much more serious. Boyle was paralyzed on his left side, leaving him the ability to swing a club with just his right arm. When Boyle first started in Windsor's program, he could barely get the club back. Through hard work and instruction, Boyle was able to finally make a strong shoulder turn.

A year after being in the program, Boyle was at a local course in Sarasota when he reached a par-3 hole. He took out his 7-wood and made perfect contact. The ball soared toward the flagstick and eventually into the hole for an ace.

"He ran into my pro shop at Foxfire and gave me a big hug," said Windsor. "He told me I wouldn't believe what he just did. He told me he could hardly play the last couple of holes. He was trying to call everybody. That's when I knew we were doing something special."

David Shefter is a USGA staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at dshefter@usga.org.