The Dream Tee: Aaron Ojard's perfect foursome are the men who saved his life
He can feel it in his feet. Lieut. Aaron Ojard glances around and wonders if the other six people at the table can feel it.
Maj. Marc Dauphin is seated to Ojard’s left. He feels it too. Ojard would walk across any battlefield on earth to serve in Dauphin’s MASH unit. He looks up to Dauphin like a father, even though he towers over the Canadian doctor.
The feeling takes them back to Afghanistan, to another day in the suck, when that vibration meant birds incoming. Casualty reports came into Role 3 trauma unit at such a feverish pace that there wasn’t time to grab a piece of paper, so Dauphin scribbled notes on the back of his hand-lost eyes, lost foot, lost hand, shot head, shot foot.
As the helicopters approached, Ojard would crank the music on his iPod: “Jump Around,” the unit’s time-to-get-to-work song. The docs and the nurses bounced, hands in the air-get out ya seat, jump around. The birds were coming, another wave of casualties on the way.
“That’s where you feel it first,” Dauphin tells me as a waitress takes our dinner orders. “In your feet, and it shoots up through your gut. It’s not the sound. It’s the vibration.”
Across from me Ojard is wearing the suit he got married in back in December, and he’s looking around the Carolina Dining Room at Pinehurst Resort as if something’s happening that he doesn’t want to tell us about.
I pull the waitress aside, and though we’ve been given the best table in the house, I ask that we be moved. An air-conditioner is being installed in the basement, and a steady hum is buzzing through our table. She looks a little unsure, but then I tell her, “I’m dining with guys who were in Afghanistan, and the vibrations. . . .” There’s no need to finish the sentence. We are immediately reseated across the room, and are back in Pinehurst, N.C., a few hours removed from the greatest round of golf Ojard has ever played. We are not in the suck, a place that those who have been to never want to experience again.
It wasn’t the Dream Tee I expected. It was meant to be simple and even a little silly: If you could play golf with any three people, tell me who and why, and I’ll make it happen. Who to include in an ideal foursome-a “dream tee”-is common grillroom banter, and when I solicited SI readers for their bucket-list playing partners, the nominations came flooding in.
As expected, I received a lot of requests for Tiger and Phil and Arnie. I was amused by how many people wanted to get Obama and Trump together and surprised that Condoleezza Rice was such a popular choice. (The angle was that her green jacket would be the ticket to get on Augusta -National.) There were Fred Couples, Tom Watson, Ernie Els, Bill Murray and Tony Romo; the request for Soupy Sales, Buddy Hackett and Richard Pryor held intrigue but, well . . .
I set out to identify a trio of big names whose good humor and everyman-ness would be revealed through 18 holes with a regular one of us. I expected lots of laughs and wagers and a blushing beer-cart girl, with plenty of back-patting photo ops at Pebble Beach while I watched Joe Six-Pack steal a backside press from David Feherty. Then I came across a submission from a reader who wanted to play with three men whose names might as well have been taken out of a phone book. And everything I envisioned in a dream round changed.
Suddenly, the Dream Tee wasn’t simply cocktail chatter or a Christmas-card photo. It wasn’t much about golf, either. I set off to find entry number 56: an Aaron, a Marc, a James and a Jim, ready to offer the oppor-tunity to tee it up at Pinehurst No. 2.
He brought his golf clubs to Kandahar. He concocted a mat out of a piece of carpet and a wooden pallet and pounded balls into a net, or sometimes out into the minefields. After joking that he made the Taliban shag the balls, Ojard says a friend back home sent him a steady supply.
He was a neonatal nurse in the Bethesda Naval Medical Center before deploying to Kandahar and the Role 3 unit in March 2009. Role 1 was a sick -clinic-blisters, cuts, scrapes and the flu. Role 2 performed surgeries, but its job was primarily short-term stabilization. Role 3 took everything, and since it had a CT scanner, all the neuro-trauma landed there. During Ojard’s seven-month deployment Role 3 was one of the busiest trauma centers in the world.
It wasn’t the type of nursing he had studied at the University of Minnesota. He was never trained to clean mud off brain tissue after an IED took a chunk of a soldier’s skull and blew him into a river bank (he survived), or to mop maggots out of the head wound of a civilian. Aside from the flies and the TB (doctors had to assume all the locals had tuberculosis), it was a regular hospital. It might have even felt like a hospital back in the States, if it weren’t for Rocket Man.
Ojard wanted to reunite with (from left) Estes, Dauphin and Danaher.
He roamed the hills above the base, launching rockets at the facility up to three times a week. Other bases might fire back, but not Role 3. When the projectiles hit, Rocket Man was long gone. He’d set up hours in advance, using a bottle of ice for a trigger. When the ice melted and the contacts connected through the water-whooosh! The rockets came three or four at a time, and the alarms reverberated over the base, accompanied by the recording of a woman with a British accent and a reasonable tone: “Rocket attack. Rocket attack.”
Ojard has flashbacks at a craft fair in Maryland, with his two kids and his fiancée. They are looking at handmade soap when an alarm goes off at a nearby fire station-a dead ringer for the Rocket Man alarm. Ojard’s face turns ashen, and he starts to hit the deck. Another time, while making sloppy joes for his children, he freezes upon smelling the raw meat, an odor that takes him back to Kandahar. He becomes uncomfortable while playing in a scramble with a friend from Afghanistan near the Aberdeen (Md.) Proving Ground. Suddenly he is facedown in the fairway. Aberdeen is doing demo tests, and by the third boom Ojard is back on his feet and ready to run. His friend has to stop him.
Incidents such as that push him to stay close to people he knows, people who can remind him of where he is when those feelings sneak up on him-Rocket attack-and when he shudders, remembering the impact that knocked him ass over elbows on his way to Role 3 one morning. That near miss led to a neck fusion and 10 follow-up procedures, but Ojard feels lucky and blessed. His back problems are now confined mostly to the golf course-too much slide, he can’t quite turn through the ball at impact-and that would be a small problem, indeed, if he weren’t the type of person to drag his clubs to Kandahar.
Two days back in Maryland and Ojard is trick-or-treating with his kids, dust from Afghanistan still on his boots. He sleeps well for a while-from the -exhaustion-but the flashbacks and the nightmares start soon thereafter, his pager calling him back to Kandahar, to the trauma beds amid the screams and the scramble to determine who was missing what.
He stops going places. He stops spending time with the kids. He walks through his days like a zombie, and he wonders about the soldiers he treated. How badly were the memories and the injuries beating them, the guys Ojard and his colleagues had put back together and sent home?
What troubles him is hard to describe. As much as anything, it is not knowing what’s wrong. It’s being bothered by everything and not knowing why. It’s wondering whether the next day will be any different from the one he’s stuck in. It’s thinking that if this is what life is going to be like, what’s the point? It’s not asking for help-he is a -warrior-and it’s not a disorder; it is the norm. It’s PTS, drop the D.
I meet Ojard at an Italian restaurant in Baltimore. He sits with his back to the wall. His new wife is there, and while I’m not thrilled about his being accompanied for an interview, I soon understood Linsie’s presence. Ojard says nothing good happened to him after he returned from Afghanistan until he met Linsie. (He was looking for help with his two kids from a previous marriage when her dad introduced the two at church.) She tells me he didn’t laugh for a long time, but he is starting to. We talk for almost two hours, and she holds his hand almost the entire time.
Ojard is 6' 5" with broad shoulders and a shaved scalp that won him the nickname Shrek in Afghanistan. (He wore the tag battle nurse on his scrubs-no family names in Role 3, not when so many of the patients are Taliban.) Yet for all he has been through, there is something fragile about the way he holds the hand of someone so much smaller. I learn she is the reason he’s alive -today-with an assist from his golf clubs.
After four months of being unable to function, Ojard says he had finally had enough, so he reached out for help. He found a doctor who would see him on an hour’s notice and began engaging in the only real cure for PTS: talking. It is on the golf course where the words come the easiest.
Salute Military Golf uses the game to rehabilitate veterans, and the organization helped get Ojard out of the house and onto the course for a few minutes of practice. Minutes turned into hours-Ojard chasing his ball with other vets who understood why someone would always sit with a view of the front door in an empty restaurant. So many people take the game for granted, but it gave Ojard a chance. It gave him a chance to go back to work and date the girl of his dreams. Golf got his world moving again.
The clubs go everywhere these days, and Ojard has developed an antidote for his triggers: He picks up a golf club. When he’s pulling an overnight at the hospital-an endeavor he once thought he’d never be able to accomplish again-he calls Linsie and wanders the hallways with his 5-iron. The feeling of the grip in his fingers (Golf Pride, midsized) relaxes him. The world feels familiar again with a golf club in his hands.
Ojard learned he had won the Dream Tee at the reception after his marriage to Linsie, who gave him a reason to live.
I wanted a big reveal for the Dream Tee winner - You’re going to Pinehurst, with your buddies, on our dime! I snooped around and learned that Ojard and Linsie were getting married on New Year’s Eve. With Linsie’s blessing, I had the best excuse to crash a wedding. After the toasts I walked in from the lobby, grabbed the microphone and addressed a roomful of strangers.
“Great to be here tonight, thank you for having me. I don’t know anybody here-not even the bride and the groom! But, hey, it’s New Year’s Eve. What a night to crash a wedding.”
I let the moment get sufficiently awkward as Ojard’s expression went from polite to confused to Battle Nurse. Only when I said the words Sports and Illustrated did I see Ojard crack a grin. I explained the Dream Tee contest to the guests and told them that the winner was in the room.
The tears and the laughter that followed weren’t about winning the contest. They weren’t about being thanked for his service. Ojard is alive-he gives thanks to the guys who aren’t. They weren’t about a free golf trip or a big reveal. They were about the fact that a life had changed, a prospect once thought unimaginable. As Ojard held his new bride, there was hope all around.
Ojard can’t stay still. He is standing on the putting green at Pinehurst No. 2 on a Wednesday in mid-April, and he’s about to tee it up on the course that will host the 2014 U.S. Open. An unlit cigar dangles from his lips, and though it’s a breezy 50° day, he’s wearing shorts. He’s showing off the new golf bag that Tee It Up for the Troops shipped to Pinehurst for him - American flags emblazoned on the side and front, with land of the free and home of the brave stitched on the shoulder straps. Ojard is in the middle of a story when a voice calls from the edge of the green. “Aaron,” the stranger says. “Webb Simpson. Nice to meet you. Big day. How you feeling?”
Ojard freezes, then cracks a smile, and in a moment he’s small-talking with his new favorite pro. Simpson, the 2012 Open champ, poses for pictures and signs a hat for Ojard’s nine-year-old daughter, Riley, before going out ahead of us for a solo practice round.
Simpson, of course, is not a part of Ojard’s Dream Tee. Neither is the course. As much as I had tried to glam up the day with a Tour pro and an ultra-exclusive venue, the reason I wanted to do this becomes clear. It’s that golf is the best excuse in the world to get four people together who need one another.
James Danaher is the man who sent the shag balls to Afghanistan. The two met in 2007 when Ojard started at Bethesda Medical. Danaher was his instructor in the neonatal ICU, and the two became fast friends. He is Ojard’s confidant and his golf-addiction- enabler, the two of them sneaking away for a round whenever Ojard needs to talk. Danaher plays Pinehurst with the quiet focus of a golf lover consumed by the setting, grinding out a solid 93.
Jim Estes is a straight-up stick. Playing from the back tees, the onetime Tour pro fires a 73 with three birdies and a half-dozen more left on the lip. He’s gearing up for a run at the senior circuit, but his training isn’t -conventional-he spent a month swinging on his left leg so he could teach a right-leg amputee how to hit the ball. He has also learned how to swing with one arm, because most of his students come from Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda Medical. He is cofounder of Salute Military Golf, and Ojard tells me Estes has saved more lives than he will ever know.
As for Dauphin, the sense of humor that Ojard says buoyed Role 3 is on display on No. 2. His strategy for golfing his ball around Pinehurst is “forward good, backward bad.”
Dauphin and Ojard are a long way from their introductory meeting. On his first day in the trauma unit in Kandahar, Ojard walked through the doors, turned a corner and froze. A young soldier was hysterical. He was covered in blood, three limbs missing. Ojard couldn’t move. In marched Dauphin, ER doc and officer commanding of Role 3, who told Ojard in very clear terms - not barking orders and not –cheerleading - how to proceed. This is your job. You’re the ICU nurse. This is what you need to do to save a life. So Ojard did his job. And he helped save a life.
Dauphin knows better than anyone what his colleague has been through. He walked with Ojard through the most rewarding and damaging months of his life. He was Big Pop in Afghanistan, the straight shooter Ojard could talk to like a friend. He was part comedian, part boss, part therapist, now retired from the military and making art and writing novels in Quebec. But when the wounded came through the door, Dauphin was ice. He showed Ojard how to survive the daily routine of death and pain. Dauphin kept Ojard sane.
When he saw Dauphin for the first time since Afghan-istan in a hotel lobby in Pinehurst, Ojard embraced his friend and barked out, “Get over here, you crazy Canadian!” It had been five years, and Ojard seemed as excited to see Dauphin as he was to introduce him to Linsie, as if to tell her, This is him. This is the guy. From Kandahar to North Carolina, from the suck to the fairways of –Pinehurst - what a strange, wonderful life.
It’s only appropriate that Ojard marks the reunion by playing military golf-right, left, right-but for a round that means so much to him, the scores couldn’t mean less.
Linsie soaks in the round from a distance, snapping photographs and quietly pulling for Ojard. Riley walks with her father, holding her doll from the gift shop in one hand (she named it Carolina) and clutching her dad’s hand in the other.
In my many lifetimes’ worth of golf, I had never seen a player hold anyone’s hand on a course. It is an enduring image. Because what I am watching at Pinehurst is a guy who’s getting better. On this day, he is thriving. Battle Nurse has found the courage to stick out his hand and let somebody take it.
Aaron Ojard's Dream Tee entry:
Name: Aaron Ojard<> Playing Partners Marc Dauphin, James Danaher, Jim Estes
Why: Marc was in Afghanistan with me. He helped me leave that place alive. James is like an older brother to me. He helped me through a bad divorce and was there for me when I got back and needed an ear to bend. Jim took me under his wing (though he needed a step stool because of the height difference) and renewed my ability to enjoy the game, which keeps me motivated to help others get through the difficulty of being injured in war, mentally and physically. A happy reunion on the course would give me the opportunity to explain how they truly saved my sanity, renewed my view of morality and kept me from taking my life.
Tom Coyne is the author of the NYT bestseller A Course Called Ireland, and the upcoming A Course Called the Kingdom. He teaches at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.