The Healing Game: Wounded Warriors take on golf with help from manufacturers

Breinne Travers
Erica Lansner
Travers is happy to be home, but will never forget those with whom she served. See more photos

Even before she became a piece of work -- with her reconstructed face and new teeth and the acrylic eye she may yet send back for repairs " 'cause it looks like I'm giving people the stink-eye" -- Breinne Travers was a piece of work, a feisty, funny and remarkably profane young woman who signed up for the National Guard as a junior at Norton (Mass.) High in 1997.

"One of my dope friends said, 'Let's join the Army!' " she recalls, so three of them did, though within a year the other two had left the Guard and Travers was on her own. For the first couple of years she dreaded spending that one weekend a month with her unit in Buzzards Bay on Cape Cod. Slowly, she made friends, and it got easier. "I got so used to bitching about it," she says, "I didn't realize how much I loved it, and how much I loved my guys and my unit."

Fifteen years after joining the Army, she is sitting on a lawn chair near the practice green at the Olney (Md.) Golf Park, 11 miles north of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where she has undergone 20 surgeries over the past two years. In an hour or so, she'll talk part in an adaptive golf clinic designed for Wounded Warriors, hosted by the Salute Golf Military Association. She'll stand at the range and fume a bit after hitting a few worm-burners, but she won't mention the nerve damage in her neck and right shoulder or the problems she has with depth perception. She'll allow herself a smile after cranking a series of arrow-straight drives. "I'm still pissed off," she'll say. "It's just a more relaxed kind of pissed off."

It's nice to see her smile. Travers has been in a dark place for a while. Golf helped her escape it.

Around 11 on the night of Aug. 3, 2010, Travers was driving an MRAP All Terrain Vehicle in a convoy out of Forward Operating Base Shank in the Logar Province of Afghanistan. The M-ATV is up-armored to protect against improvised explosive devices, which is why the Taliban hiding 30 meters from the roadside aimed his rocket-propelled grenade at the passenger's side window.

Shrapnel tore into the right side of Travers's face, knocking her unconscious. The truck plunged 15 feet into a ditch, the impact crushing the left side of her face and dislodging her eye from its socket. The 15 or so ambushing Taliban were swiftly routed by fire from a nearby Apache helicopter. When Travers came to, she was in a hospital just a few feet from where doctors were working to save the lives of two of the enemy who had attacked her.

Her misgivings that night ("Let 'em f-----' bleed to death!") have given way to a more high-minded persepective. "Just one more reason to be proud to be an American," she now says. "We'll whup your ass, and if we don't kill you, we'll help you get better, so you can feel the pain."

In the room next to her at Walter Reed was Jason Hamilton, who had lost a leg and had an eye injury similar to hers. "Both of our eyes were f-----," se says. "So we had this battle going of whos [intraocular] eye pressure was better." One week his was measured at two, while hers was 12. "I was like, 'Dude, you suck at this.' " In the end both lost sight in their injured eyes.

Their sightless eyes will gradually shrink and lose color until doctors decide to remove them. "Now we have a new bet," says Travers. "Whoever gets the ice cream scoop fist has to pay the other 20 bucks."

Kirk Bauer lost hist left leg to a grenade in Vietnam. He still remembers his exhileration, early in his rehab, when his dad and a few cronies basically snatched him from the hospital and took him on the golf course. With no prosthetic, he would hop out of the cart, balance on one leg and take a cut at the ball. To his surprise, Bauer recalls, "I could actually hit it O.K."

He's now in his 30th year as executive director of Disabled Sports USA. The DUSA includes a branch called Warfighter Sports, which administers adaptive clinics like the one at Olney Park. Golf can serve as an ideal diversion for Wounded Warriors, Bauer notes, "to keep them from dwelling on their disability." The same, of course, can be said about kayaking and mountain climbing. (Bauer, 64, spoke to SI between training sessions for his mid-June attempt to summit 20,320-foot Denali Peak in Alaska.) Golf's advantage, he says, is that it can be introduced early in the rehab process.

"It really brightened my spirits," says Marine Capt. Antoine Bates, who stepped on an IED in Sangin, Afghanistan, on June 25, 2011, and had his left leg amputated below the knee. "It gave me something to look forward to." Before he was wounded, Bates played occasionally. "I sucked," he says. "I had the slice from hell." His lower left leg is gone. Somehow, so is his slice. "The PGA guys teaching us are so good," he says, "I now have a chance not only to play golf but actually be good at it."

No sport has embraced Wounded Warriors like golf. Birdies for the Brave, created by Phil and Amy Mickelson to support troops injured in combat, has been subsumed by PGA Tour Charitities Inc. Many of the sport's major equipment makers -- Bridgestone, Callaway, Cleveland-Srixon and TaylorMade, among them -- donate generously to similar causes. Ping, meanwhile, has gone all in, partnering with Warfighter Sports to design eight-week courses offering Wounded Warriors instruction from PGA pros specially trained in adaptive techniques. Candidates who complete at least six sessions get a set of custom-fit Ping clubs. The company gives out around 80 full sets a year. It's worth noting that like most of the other equipment manufacturers who work with the military Ping chooses not to publicize those efforts.

By its count Callaway has donated almost 81,000 clubs and countless balls to military locations around the world. At many of the crude driving ranges set up by soldiers in the Middle East, balls are hit only once. "Too dangerous to retrieve them," says a company exec.
 

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