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

June 16, 2012

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.

Callaway also gives custom-designed clubs to Wounded Warriors, with its own special twist. "We'll get 'em in a hat, get 'em out on the range, next to Jim [Furyk], next to Phil [Mickelson]," says Callaway tour manager Dean Tekyl. "Then we'll take them through a fitting like we'd do with the guys we pay to endorse our products. It's an honor and a privilege to work with these guys."

At the Transitions Championship in Palm Harbor, Fla., in March, one of the Warriors was moved to tears by the generosity of the Callaway crew. "He hadn't played before he got wounded," says Tekyl. "He had taken up golf because it was the only game he could play with his kids."

"But if you cry, we're all going to cry," warned one of the Callaway guys. He did, and they did.

Some of the soldiers who've given the most want the least in return. Mark Holbert is a former Green Beret who returned from Afghanistan without both legs up to his hips. His missing right thumb is almost an afterthought.

"A lot of people want to help me, which I really appreciate," he says. "But my feeling is, let me figure this out myself."

He remembers being loaded onto a helicopter in Afghanistan. "A nurse told me she was going to put me to sleep." It was Aug. 16, 2010. "I wake up in Walter Reed, and they're telling me it's the last week of September." He was severely septic. "They had him on crazy doses of antibiotics," recalls his friend and fellow Green Beret, Joe Diaz. "There were questions about whether he was going to make it."

Doctors may have expects him to die, but Holbert, it turns out, is a contrarian. Less then two months after his last surgery and against the better judgement of his medical team, he was part of a 12-man, 200-mile relay from Gettysburg to Washington, D.C., after which he raced the Army Ten-Miler and the Marine Corps Marathon — all in his wheelchair.

He has less use for the chair on the golf course. While many double amputees play by strapping themselves into a miniature cart called a Paragolfer, Holbert prefers to stand. With a cane in his left hand providing a third point of contact with the ground, he takes a robust cut at the ball with his right hand. He is consistent and suprisingly long off the tee — between 175 and 200 yards. He also hits it straight, still something of a novelty for him. Diaz gives him grief about a round the two played at Fort Bragg, when Holbert took out the windshield of a moving vehicle with one of his epic slices.

"My goal is to not be in that chair anymore," says Holbert. "When I fly, and they offer me a wheelchair, I say, 'No, thank you, I'll walk onto the plane.' "

The doctors and therapists and counselors "do great stuff," he acknowledges. "But they always want to be sure it's safe and structured and, like, nuturing. Some of us want to be pushed. I would like to be pushed."

As he works his way through a large bucket, his angelic, four-year-old daughter, Isabelle, sits in his wheelchair like a tiny princess on her throne.

At least someone's using it.

Army Spc. Nathan Kalwicki was shot four times last Christmas Eve by an Afghan soldier whose unit was training with his platoon. The assumed undercover Taliban was quickly shot dead, but not before wounding Kalwicki and several platoon mates. Kalwicki went through 47 units of blood. The docs saved his life, but they couldn't save his right leg.

He turned 21 last week. "I was old enough to get shot," he quips. "Now I'm old enough to buy a beer." Kalwicki was a member of the golf team at Griffith Institute High in Springville, N.Y. He was also an avid weight-lifter. Before he was wounded, he was a buffed out 190 pounds. Returning to the driving range in March, he weighed 150. He was whiffing, uncomfortable, frustrated and cold.

Slowly, with the help of his SMGA-assigned pro and a prosthetic featuring, among other things, a "golf mode" (it bends during his backswing and follow-through), he started to find his old swing. "I'm actually hitting it pretty well now," says Kalwicki. He's uncomfortable in bunkers — "I'm sliding all over the place" — and can't his driver. Then again, he never could. But he's happy to have this game, this familiar touchstone, back in his life. Usually. At the last clinic, someone to Kalwicki's left kept shanking balls in his direction, even grazing his back on one occasion. Kalwicki was not amused. After what he's been through, he says, "I don't feel like getting hit by a golf ball."

Bates has philosophical about his missing limb. "I didn't have to go to Afghanistan. I volunteered. I transferred to that unit so I could go over there. It's a hazardous job. It happens. So I kind of accepted it and immediately moved forward."

He adds, "I was more upset that I wasn't able to continue the deployment with my dudes than I was at getting blown up."

They are beyond stout, the bonds born of serving together. Kalwicki missed the last clinic: He was at Fort Carson in Colorado to greet returning members of his platoon. Diaz and Holbert are inseparable: They were in the Special Forces together. And one of the reasons Travers loves the golf clinic, she says, is that it gives her a taste of the camaraderie she experienced in the Guard. "I feel comfortable because there are Wounded Warriors here going through the same s— as me."

One of her tribulations was a frustration at her inability to get back to her active lifestyle. Before the Ping/Warfighter/SMGA clinics, Travers joined some soldiers at a driving range, whiffed five straight times and said the hell with it. "It filled me with the feeling of, 'I can't do it.' And I f—— hate that feeling, 'cause I was always athletic."

So she went into a shell, and stopped taking chances. "I doubted myself, and I got embarrassed easily." On her first day on the range with the Wounded Warriors, adaptive instructor, PGA pro and SMGA founder Jim Estes put her at ease. "You can do it," he told her. "You're going to do it."

She did it. As Travers launched a series of straight drives at the clinic, a few fellow Wounded Warriors complimented her on her game. Others had nice things to say about her outfit. They couldn't help noticing how the pink laces in her golf shoes matched her pink Oakley golf shirt. "Yeah, f— the golf," she wisecracked. "I'm in this for the clothes."