HARTFORD - There are very few parallels between a golf course and a battlefield, and thatâ€™s exactly what makes it an ideal setting for veterans to heal.
For the last six weeks, about 20 disabled veterans were bused from the Newington VA Hospital to Goodwin Golf Course in Hartford once a week, just to enjoy themselves. The Professional Golfersâ€™ Associationâ€™s charitable arm REACH provided free golf instruction to the group through its HOPE program, short for â€śHelping Our Patriots Everywhere.â€ť
Goodwin head golf pro Joe Mentz was honored to lead the Thursday morning visits. A 12-year veteran of the Coast Guard, Mentz said the cause was close to his heart.
â€śSome of these guys may not have gotten out at all this week, aside from today,â€ť he said on a recent Thursday, as Bill Long lined up his shot.
For Long, standing on his own two feet while straddling the ball, club in hand, is a rare treat.
â€śIâ€™m in a wheelchair all the time,â€ť he revealed. â€śThis allows me to play.â€ť
PGA HOPE provided him with a SoloRider adaptive golf cart, with a seat that swivels out and tilts down towards the ground, while keeping him strapped in comfortably.
This is a game-changer for the Army vet, who developed Parkinsonâ€™s disease after exposure to Agent Orange in Southeast Asia.
For many veterans, adaptive sports provide their first exposure to physical activity since returning home.
â€śIf we can get them out of the house, having a good time, moving around and meeting new friends, itâ€™s pretty gratifying,â€ť Mentz pointed out.
Then thereâ€™s James Norman, who was all smiles behind the wheel of his golf cart.
â€śI love this program,â€ť he said. â€śWhether youâ€™re a beginner or have some knowledge of the game, these instructors are patient, knowledgeable and they take their time to teach you.â€ť
Norman, who comes to the Newington VA from his home in Rocky Hill, served in the Navy His years included the Cuban missile crisis and the birth of the manned space program.
â€śI was there when we picked up the first astronaut,â€ť he said.
Some of the veterans would rather not talk about their service to their country, especially while playing a game of golf.
They have a range of physical and cognitive challenges, including traumatic brain injury, amputation, and post-traumatic stress disorder. PGA instructors are trained to work with them. All volunteer their time.
Middlefield resident Anne Begin was nervous on her first day on the course because she had never held a club in her hands. A few weeks later, she was hitting like a pro.
â€śThey made it easy,â€ť Begin said. â€śI love being outside and I love the smell of the grass.â€ť
After three weeks, veterans competed in a drive, chip and putt contest to showcase their skills. On the sixth and final Thursday, they enjoyed a celebratory lunch after coming off the course, and went home with â€śgraduation cardsâ€ť affording them golf-related benefits throughout the state.
Last year, 1,500 veterans participated in PGA HOPE nationwide. The goal this year is to introduce over 2,000 new veterans to the program.
â€śItâ€™s wonderful,â€ť said Shelton resident Mario Bonetti, who just completed his six weeks at Goodwin. â€śI hope to continue playing golf on a regular basis,â€ť he added. â€śIâ€™m really enjoying it.â€ť
PGA Connecticut Tournament Operations Director Dennis Dungee was impressed with Goodwinâ€™s course, where 27 holes allow veterans flexibility and space as they play.
â€śWeâ€™ll definitely be back next year,â€ť Dungee said. â€śOur hope is to grow the program and reach more veterans.â€ť
If youâ€™re a disabled veteran who wants to sign up for PGA HOPE, contact Dungee at DDungee@PGAHQ.com.
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.