HARTFORD – Connecticut Veterans with disabilities are finding faith and mending in a different way this year, on the fairway. Through a free program held at Goodwin Park Golf Course in Hartford, there is a six-week session funded by PGA H.O.P.E (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere), the military program of PGA Reach. Which is the charitable foundation of the PGA of America.
The ones selected are trained by PGA professionals, who introduce golf to veterans with emotional and physical disabilities. They strive to improve their physical, mental, and emotional state.
On Thursday mornings from 9 a.m. 11 a.m., about 15-to-20 military veterans are transported from the Newington VA Hospital and given golf instructions, course access, and accommodating equipment when necessary. The veterans can vary with their disabilities. A range of physical or mental impairments, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and amputees.
Thursday’s event at Goodwin focused on hosting a drive chip and putt contest for the military veteran participants.They split the veterans into two groups, experienced and novices, and one group does the driving range and the other does putting and chipping. They switched courses once each group’s contest ended.
The rapport between the instructors and veterans is one of the biggest highlights of the program. The amount of laughs and smiles from both sides displayed the joy and relaxation which is what the program wants to see for the veterans. Goodwin Park Head Golf Pro Joe Mentz expressed his delight with the results of the program.
“We’ve seen people with PTSD get out of their homes,” Mentz said. “Their lives changed, they’re happy and we take their mind off their disabilities. They are able to create new friends and relationships that will hopefully last a lifetime.”
But it is not only the veterans who are getting something out of this program. The instructors are basking in the interactions and feel great about helping out the participants. Take John Nowobilski, a member of the PGA of America for 35 years and head pro at Tallwood Country Club in Hebron since 1982, is now retired and takes pride in helping out.
“To see the enthusiasm and enjoyment from the veterans is special,” Nowobilski said. “I’ve got two good legs, two good arms, a good back and I whine about missing the three-footer. Then you come here and you see they want to learn, it is priceless. To be able to get them out here and build a rapport with them is such a great feeling.”
Every veteran has their different reasons for participating in the program. Veteran Ron Maeby, from Hamden, who was in the reserves for 29 years and served in Iraq, utilizes the event as a therapeutic session for his PTSD.
“I think this is a nurturing type of environment, it is very relaxing,” Maeby said. “This helps with some of my symptoms and stressors. The instructors are very professional and work diligently for us.”
It also exposed Maeby to the game of golf, which he never played before.
“This has helped me as a beginner and realize the importance of the sport,” Maeby said. “I’ve seen Tiger Woods on TV but golf was never my game. Being out here in the elements is very comforting and I do enjoy it now.”
Will Gutierrez, a native of Norwalk and former Armed Force and Marine Corps member, one of his biggest takeaways from the program is enhancing his golfing technique.
“I’ve learned the things I was doing wrong,” Gutierrez said. “For instance, today I was not trusting my knees because I have bad knees. One of the tips the instructor, gave me was to straighten my body and swing with my upper. Once she gave me that tip and I applied it I noticed I had better contact with the ball.”
Gutierrez also emphasized the social part of the program and how caring everyone is despite not knowing each other that well.
“I told one of the gentlemen helping me out about my situation and the first thing he said to me was ‘you know who to call.’ So right there he opened up his home to me, and I take that very seriously,” Gutierrez said. “We met only four weeks ago and he opens up his home. What more can I say?”
At the conclusion of the six-week summer program, participants will celebrate with golf, lunch and a free equipment giveaway. They also will receive a graduation card that gives them an array of golf perks in the local area. Two sessions remain on Aug. 23 and 30.
With the turnout and success of the program people like Mentz believe other facilities will want to get involved and help veterans. They expect next year’s event to be bigger with more participants and volunteers.
For more information about the program, contact Dennis Dungee at email@example.com.