Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center
Augusta Veterans master self, golf in PGA-partnered program
March 1, 2017
A Veteran receives instruction from a PGA pro during a session February 17. (Photo by Christopher Harper/Department of Veterans Affairs)
by Mark Karmin
Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center volunteer
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Augusta is a world-renowned venue for golf due to its position as the annual location of the Masters Tournament, one of the most important competitions in golf. But the Augusta National Golf Club is not the only course in town, and experienced players are not the only ones playing golf.
In collaboration with the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center, the Professional Golfers Association-Helping Our Patriots Everywhere (PGA HOPE) program encourages Veterans with a disability to seek rest, relaxation, and a reprieve from what ails them on the course at Jones Creek Golf Club.
Held three times a year, PGA HOPE is an eight-week activity to help former service members from Georgia and South Carolina in the Central Savannah River Area seek recovery and recreation on the golf course. Augusta was one of the flagship locations for the program in 2015.
Reggie Harrison, a transition patient advocate at Charlie Norwood, has acted as the facilitator between PGA HOPE and the VA for three years. According to Harrison, the partnership has been “very successful.”
“It has been the best [partnership] yet ... really, we can’t thank the PGA enough,” Harrison said.
Harrison also noted that Veterans who participate also receive special recognition of their service and achievement.
“Every Masters Monday, we do a welcome home event for our Veterans. We give out certificates or other gifts to show our appreciation, Harrison said, adding this year they held a raffle for tickets to the Masters.
This year, sessions for PGA HOPE 2017 started Feb. 9. Each Thursday morning from 9:30 to 11:30, Veterans learn from PGA pros, using professional equipment Jones Creek offers to them for free. The sessions end March 30.
Veterans chip on to the green during a session Feb. 17. (Photo by Christopher Harper/Department of Veterans Affairs)
Therapeutic Benefits for PTSD, TBI
PGA HOPE, which has shown promising therapeutic benefits for disabled Veterans, is intended to not just help Veterans learn a sport, but also to revitalize their attitudes. Harrison believes that the program has a recognizable effect on Veterans suffering from mental health conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.
“We’ve found the biggest success PGA HOPE has provided … is to [Veterans] with PTSD, TBI, or other mental conditions— ‘hidden’ disabilities,” Harrison said.
According to VA estimates, 10 to 30 percent of former combat Veterans experience these conditions. Mental trauma can cause a Veteran to become reclusive and distant from sources of care and comfort. Harrison said PGA HOPE gives Veterans the opportunity to break out of these unhealthy tendencies through group activities.
“Some of those Veterans have benefits from the individual aspect of golf … and the collective group activity. They’re working on different things like putting, chipping, and driving,” Harrison said. “There were a few Veterans who would go to their appointments, go to their groups, but didn’t want anything to do outside of the house. Once they were convinced to try [golf], they’ve been coming out there and they have excitement when they talk about the program.”
Harrison believes PGA HOPE “absolutely” helped Veterans in group settings, including those among their peers. Current research on PTSD from the American Art Therapy Association supports the theory that since trauma experienced in combat is often sustained as part of group, efforts to treat it are best pursued in groups as well. By associating group experiences with fun and companionship rather than whatever triggers their condition, healing can follow.
A PGA pro helps a Veteran with his golf stance during a session Feb. 17 (Photo by Christopher Harper/Department of Veterans Affairs)
‘Participating in it saved my life.’
Bobby Stephens, who has been participating in PGA HOPE since 2015 says without the program, he might not even be here today.
“Participating in it really saved my life,” Stephens said. “All I was doing was sitting at home reminiscing every day, and just thinking about the war. Sometimes I was contemplating suicide. [PGA HOPE] has given me something to do. When I get home I definitely have a different mindset, but when I’m aroused or agitated now I go out into the backyard and I try to take some golf swings.”
Doug Cameron is a professional licensed PGA trainer, and a key partner on VA Augusta’s PGA HOPE effort. He and a few colleagues volunteer their expertise teaching chipping, putting, pitching, driving, and other fundamentals of golf.
Cameron echoed Harrison, saying that Veterans who played were “happier and healthier” after participating. He believes that the program does a great job engaging Veterans with their peers, giving them a vital boost to self-confidence and feelings of accomplishment.
Cameron credited PGA HOPE with making itself as accessible to as many disabled Veterans as possible. He and his fellow pros can help anyone play golf, regardless of age or medical condition. Cameron was excited that at Jones Creek Veterans can use a "solo rider cart," which allows people with mobility disabilities or no use of their legs to play without leaving the cart.
Veteran Ingrid Scurry, who suffers from back pain, said when she first came into the program, she had no idea how to play golf, but with PGA HOPE, has developed an appreciation for it.
“When they asked, ‘do you want to try to learn golf,’ I laughed. I didn’t even know how to hold the club. I was holding it like a baseball bat. They teach you how to play the game of golf, but they can also adapt to your [specific] disabilities,” Scurry said.
Not always ‘one and done’
For Veterans who participate, PGA HOPE is not always a ‘one-and-done’ affair; some Veterans return to continue their rehabilitation -- and have some fun in the process.
“Over the last three years, [we have Veterans] who have consistently participated in the program from the beginning… It’s allowed them to deal with their disabilities through this therapeutic measure. It’s been good! You see a smile on their faces. These Veterans are very excited about the program, and the benefits they’ve gotten out of it,” Harrison said.
While Harrison and Cameron are excited about the program’s growth over the last several years, and expect to see it continue, both want to see enrollment in PGA HOPE increase. They are eager to see a few new faces. They also hope the program would encourage interest in similar programs which serve the larger community.
Harrison said that it may not be the Masters, but to the disabled Veterans who have achieved physical accomplishment or mental liberation through it, PGA HOPE demonstrates our community’s devotion to serving those who have served our country.