Program teaches golf to amputee vets

Army Staff Sgt. Alfredo de los Santos, right, a patient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, swivels while practicing his golf swing at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Md., as part of the Wounded Warrior Project.

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ROCKVILLE, Md. – David Flowers knew his right leg was gone as soon as he stepped on the mine.

“I saw this leg come off,” he said. “It came up and flew over me and splattered me with blood everywhere.”

“And this one,” he added, pointing to his damaged left leg, “one bone was sticking out from the leg that way and one the other way, and everything was shredded.”

Flowers recalled the violent day while holding a golf club at the driving range on a gorgeous, peaceful autumn morning at Woodmont Country Club, not from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He has been at Walter Reed for six months, ever since triggering a booby trap while trying to clear a weapons cache in what he described as “a little crappy house” near Bagram, Afghanistan.

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Air Force Staff Sgt. Dave Flowers, a patient at Walter Reed Army Medical Cente, waits as Dave Nichols, right, puts a ball on a tee. Nichols is a double amputee below the knee from injuries sustained in Vietnam.

Flowers and about a half-dozen other amputee veterans from Walter Reed took swings at the driving range for about an hour, then played a couple of holes in the afternoon as part of a program called “First Swing.” Some of the veterans were returning to a game they love. Some were trying it for the first time. All had recently lost at least one limb while serving their country.

Flowers sat in a specially designed golf cart, called a SoloRider. Operated with hand controls, the cart’s seat swiveled so that he could remain strapped in place while addressing the ball. The 29-year-old Air Force staff sergeant, who used to play four or five times a week back home in Diamondhead, Miss., was on a course for the first time since his injury.

“I can’t get a full shoulder turn,” he said after hitting a ball about 100 yards downrange on one of his first attempts. “But it’s not bad. I just don’t have the distance, but other than that I’m making contact with the ball. I’m used to playing with some better clubs. It’s not a big deal. I don’t care what they give me, just as long as I’m hitting the ball. I’m extremely happy they let us come out here.”

The program is a joint undertaking by Disabled Sports USA, the National Amputee Golf Association and the military. The goal is to give veterans a break from endless stir-crazy days at Walter Reed, where it can be all too easy to sit in a room and play video games or succumb to self-pity and depression. Instead they are shown that sports are not off limits to amputees.

“Some are really motivated and want to go do everything in every sport,” said Kat Poster of Disabled Sports USA. “Others, it’s very hard to get them out of the hospital. But what we find is we get them on one event, whether it’s a day of golf or a week of skiing, they’re hooked. They want to do more. If they can do one thing, they can do anything.”

Other programs allow Walter Reed veterans the chance to master kayaking, scuba diving and rock climbing, among other sports. Similar programs have been set up near other military bases and hospitals around the country. Veterans are encouraged to bring families along, with the goal of making sports an option for a family outing once they’re done with rehab and are back in civilian life.

Gabriel Garcia, who brought his wife, brother and son to Woodmont, needed some persuading to give golf a try. A strong 27-year-old Army staff sergeant from Yuma, Ariz., he was into more physical sports before losing his right arm to a suicide bomber in Afghanistan.

“I used to be a cage fighter. I used to do a lot of jujitsu. I used to compete in the army tournaments. I was the top guy at Fort Hood for my weight class. I was actually really good. That was my sport,” Garcia said. “Golf was never a thing I liked back in the day, but it’s ‘Go out here and have a good time.’ It’s what I’m going to be doing now. It’s one of the sports I can do.”

Naturally right-hand, Garcia had to be convinced that he should play left-handed instead of trying to hold the club with his prosthetic right arm. He took several awkward swings, saying “This is weird” before finally making contact, topping the ball a short distance.

“Twenty yards. Pretty good,” he said with a smile to his family. “Lucky bounce.”

For inspiration, Garcia can look to his friend Ramon Padilla, a true success story. Padilla had never played golf before he arrived at Walter Reed in July 2007, having lost his left arm when a rocket-propelled grenade blew up next to him while returning from patrol in Afghanistan.

“At first I’m like, ‘Are you crazy? I’ve only got one hand’ or whatever,” Padilla said. “They encouraged me to go, so I went, and as soon as I hit my first good ball, one thing led to another, and next thing you know I’m out there hitting thousands of balls.”

Padilla played the back nine at Woodmont while the others were on the driving range. He birdied the par-5 No. 10, the hardest hole on the course, and feels he can shoot a score in the 80s.

He helped steady his club with an ingenious homemade apparatus attached to his prosthetic left arm, something he calls “the pinch hitter.” It’s a piece of rubber attached to a huge ball bearing with a piece of a gasoline hose, and it gives him the flexibility to achieve something close to a standard two-handed golf swing. It was designed by several people, including his therapist and prosthetist.

“It’s probably going to end up being a marketed thing,” he said.

The 34-year-old Padilla spent two years at Walter Reed and retired from the army last month. Originally from Los Angeles, he is making Maryland his home with his wife and four children and wants to devote himself full-time to helping other amputee veterans.

“I feel I’ve still got to educate, mentor and support the solders that are coming in behind me,” Padilla said. “That’s actually my full-time job right now, golf as much as I can and take these guys out and show them how to network out here.”

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