PGA HOPE: ‘Trading nightmares and flashbacks for golf dreams and friendships’
Today there are over 3.5 million disabled veterans in the United States and, according to the Charleston Veterans Association, an estimated 40,000 disabled veterans live in the Charleston area.
For many of these veterans, living a normal day-to-day life is difficult due to post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, lost limbs and other disabilities. Simple daily tasks become challenging and anything beyond that, impossible.
Enter PGA Helping Our Patriots Everywhere (HOPE), whose mission is to positively impact the lives of youth, military and diverse populations by enabling access to PGA Professionals, PGA Sections and the game of golf, according to the organization’s website. The program is an extension of PGA REACH, the charitable foundation of the PGA of America.
“PGA HOPE introduces golf to Veterans with disabilities to enhance their physical, mental, social and emotional well-being,” the website states.
In the summer of 2015, PGA HOPE made its way to Charleston. At that time, there were four veterans in the program and it has since grown to one of the largest chapters in the country. Today, there are 97 veterans in the program across four locations, including one at the Daniel Island Club, according to Rich O’Brien, one of the founders of the Charleston chapter.
“It’s been an amazing thing to see the program develop and the camaraderie of the veterans,” said O’Brien. “Many of the veterans have post traumatic stress. That’s our biggest challenge that we face. With this program they’ve been able to trade nightmares and flashbacks for golf dreams and new friendships. It’s really been amazing to see that happen.”
In 2008, O’Brien suffered a catastrophic injury, breaking his neck, back and obtaining four skull fractures. With damage in every lobe of his brain and on his death bed, he learned how to walk and talk again, making a full recovery in four years.
Through O’Brien’s miraculous recovery, he explained, one unexpected person found inspiration.
“When I recovered from my injuries, a friend who goes to my church, Fred, who is paralyzed on the entire left hand side of his body, asked me to teach him how to play golf,” said O’Brien. “It took us about a year and I taught him how to play. He does a 36 hole marathon walking now.”
This inspiring story caught the attention of the Golf Channel and then the PGA of America. Upon seeing their story, PGA REACH contacted Fred and O’Brien about championing a PGA HOPE chapter in Charleston.
“The program that started with Fred and I recovering has now grown to be this,” said O’Brien. “I have post-traumatic stress. I had all of these injuries and overcame an addiction to pain meds as well. I now can teach them lessons along those lines.”
Specific to Daniel Island, PGA HOPE hosts two events each year—one in the spring and one in the fall. The most recent event took place on Monday, Sep. 18.
The events are free for all veterans and include eight sessions provided by golf professional Ron Cerrudo, who is also Director of Instruction at the Daniel Island Club, stated PGA HOPE mentor and spokesperson Sam Smargissi.
“He gets with us and teaches us the game of golf, how to present ourselves and how to address the ball,” said Smargissi. “Most times, you have to understand that these veterans are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, they have traumatic brain injuries, lost limbs, so a lot of them don’t understand the fundamentals of the game because they’ve never played it before. We’re out here, fellow men and women, getting together once again to show our love for the country, but more importantly, getting back into life.”
Many of the veterans who are involved with the program are from the Vietnam era and unfortunately were not welcomed back from service in the past, explained O’Brien. Because of this, many have had to suffer in silence for a number of years. But with PGA HOPE, the veterans now have an entire community for support.
“A lot of them have struggled for 40 or 50 years without a support system,” said O’Brien. “Their families didn’t know how to deal with post-traumatic stress. They say, ‘get over it.’ Well you can’t get over post-traumatic stress. But it’s been a really wonderful thing to see how the veterans themselves wrap their arms around each other…And then also watching all of the veterans in the community that may not have had a injury, illness or a challenge, coming to volunteer, as well as the PGA professionals in the area wanting to help and participate. It’s been a great community effort.”
For veteran Bill Burge, PGA HOPE and its community “means everything” to him.
“In 2015 I was addicted to opiates and going through PTSD classes at the VA,” said Burge. “I ran into a guy and he told me about PGA Hope. Because of my struggles, my wife had to go back to work and about a week later, she runs into Rich. I’m a Christian, so I don’t believe in coincidences. The rest is history. I’ve been to rehab. This program means everything to me. These guys, they’re all amazing. When we all come out here, we come out here for a reason.”
Marty Houston, a veteran of the first Gulf War who suffers from PTSD, explained that the program saved him from falling back into his addiction to alcohol, as well as provided a place to meet people with similar experiences.
“The guys are all veterans, most of them are combat veterans to boot,” said Houston. “It’s easy when you have a bunch of guys that basically have the same experiences…I’ve been dealing with my issues for a long time now, and even though I may not be all together all the time, sometimes I can help others. After my divorce, I stayed in my house for almost a year and almost started drinking again. I had given up drinking 15-16 years ago, but I found a good distraction. It’s all about coming out and hanging out with these guys.”
Cerrudo, who has been involved with PGA HOPE of Charleston for three years, emphasized that the program is extremely rewarding for both the veterans and those who volunteer.
“I just think anybody that can get involved with this should, and it’s spreading all over the United States from what I’m reading,” said Cerrudo. “All you have to do is get involved one time and you’re stuck in a good way. You love the guys and the camaraderie. Just to see the look on their face, especially with fellas that have PTSD, is so gratifying. I’ve read that 25 vets a day commit suicide. That’s just unbelievable and when you can see something like this that can change their perspective, it’s fantastic.”