Friday, May 30, 2008

GI’s, Guts, Golf …

November 10, 2004, on a routine pre-dawn patrol less than a thousand yards from his base, Sgt. Dan Nevins’ Humvee was struck by an IED. The vehicle, armored on the sides but not on the floor was ripped from underneath and took the life of the driver, Nevin’s best friend, Sgt. Mike Ottolini. Evacuated to a nearby hospital Nevins lost one leg and the doctors made their best effort to save the other. Complicated by severe shrapnel wounds the remaining leg developed a series of painful infections. Last November he elected to give up the right leg as well.

In 2005, PGA Tour Executive, David Pillsbury met Nevins at Walter Reed Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. He had gone to hand out some hats and lend encouragement. He freely admits he went to “make them all feel a little bit better.” In contrast, he said after the experience, “The exact opposite occurs. By the time you leave, you feel so energized by their outlook, by their positive outlook.” That first day, he met Dan Nevins and found him, a former golfer, using the game as rehabilitation. He also learned that he was working as a pharmaceutical salesman in Jacksonville, Fla., near tour headquarters. Impressed with his outlook and “bubbly” personality, he arranged to play a fund raising tournament with him, for the benefit of injured soldiers at the TPC Avenel in Potomac. Md.

Pillsbury, getting tired and uncomfortable in the heat, after about 15 or 16 holes, found himself thinking, “You’re such a wimp. You’re playing with this guy using a prosthesis, and you’re tired?” He decided to have a beer and Dan said, “I think I’ll have something too.” He pulled out a lollipop. He pointed out it was not ordinary but rather a narcotic to alleviate the pain in his remaining ankle. He remarked that the pain had been excruciating since the first hole. When asked “How bad on a scale of one to ten?” Dan reported a “ten.” Pillsbury left the experience with the conclusion he had just played with a “special guy.”

They stayed in touch, and later the tour became more interested in participating in programs of support for the 39,000 other injured vets of both Iraq and Afghanistan and its own program, Birdies for the Brave. It became obvious that coordination was becoming a fulltime job. Pillsbury offered the job to Nevins, and despite taking a pay cut he took it without hesitation.

The November 2007 amputation of Nevins remaining leg freed him from the near constant pain of the previous three years. Two months later, he was back at Olney Park, now on two prosthetic legs under the tutelage of Jim Estes. Estes has a well earned reputation as a former tour pro who can bring the game within the grasp of just about any sufferer of any injury not matter how grotesque. A key feature of the rehabilitation is the emotional high received common to ablebodied golfers; to watch that ball soar down the fairway the way it was planned and executed.

Estes was working for the non-profit Salute to Military Golf Association. They worked in concert with other groups to secure reduced or free fees at courses, raise funds, gain access to private facilities and locate specialized equipment such as clubs and carts to fit the specific needs of individual wounded veterans.

Although Walter Reed and other military hospitals perform a work and a wonder for the vets, recovery is often a long and tiresome process. For many, having the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and having folks interested in providing enjoyment of the game within the range of each individuals level of ability is a welcome treat.

Less than four months after his second amputation, Dan Nevins has a solid 16 handicap, who often scores in the mid-eighties, and can punch one down the fairway 275 yards. After a 39 on front nine at a 6,300 yd. track in Northern Virginia recently he harbored the hope of breaking eighty. Just like many other golfers, he found two double bogeys on the back nine to wash away that hope.

I have personally found God unreceptive to prayer on the golf course. In Dan’s case I don’t think it would be out of line to pray for his approach shots to hold and for his putts to always find the “line.” A prayer of thanksgiving for men like Pillsbury and Estes who recognize the needs of others would be in order as well.

In His abiding love,

Cecil Moon

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