Nov 08, 2013

Whitley Writes: Golf Tips And Life Lessions From Wounded Warriors

Patrick Wickens adjusted his cap and surveyed the putt. He bent his knee and propped most of his body weight on the crutch under his left arm. The crutch under his right arm splayed to the side.

Once steadied, he stroked the golf ball through the spider-web shadows and past the tombstone. The purple carpeting seemed to grab it as it approached the hole.

“Go. Go!” he yelled.

The ball must have had ears. One final rotation and… doink!

“I’m on a roll!” Wickens exclaimed.

He’d just made a hole-in-one on the treacherous 9th hole at the Haunting of Ghostly Greens course. Wickens wasn’t the only golfer to get an ace Thursday night at the Florida Citrus Sports Orlando MINI Open, a fundraiser for the FCSports Foundation. Judging from the whooping that echoed through the Hollywood Drive-In miniature golf course, there were a lot of them. Some were probably even legit.

But it’s safe to say few of the golfers had to do it on one leg. Or in Louis Puertas’ case, no legs.

“Don’t we get a handicap?” he joked. “We have four guys and four legs.”

I had two of them, so I had no excuse for putting like Charles Barkley. Everybody else in our foursome did better, though we still finished about 25 shots out of the lead.

My guys could have blamed it on the tricky greens, the fireworks or too much horseradish in the roast beef sandwiches. But Wounded Warriors aren’t into excuses.

“Can’t beat this,” Wickens said, holding out a blue can. “Free beer.”

When you think FCSports, you think football. But a lot more goes on than a couple of bowl games. Nothing that happens on the football field in a few weeks will have quite the visuals of this fundraiser at Universal CityWalk.

The Wounded Warrior group was invited by the FCSports Military Affairs Committee. Col. Pat Connors and his wife, Karen, started the group in 2006. Central Florida was always a favorite spot for veterans to retire, but it was getting a surge of younger soldiers who’d served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They are everywhere, and often you don’t even know it. You do when you see 20-somethings walking the mall on prosthetic legs.

Connors wanted to reach out to them. So the first year, one family got tickets to the Champs Sports Bowl (precursor to the Russell Athletic Bowl). Now a half-dozen families get full VIP treatment at both bowls, and Wounded Warriors are invited to every social function.

They laugh and tell stories and talk football just like everybody else, only they’re not. They obviously have deeper stories to tell, though modesty or humility or their military mindset often keep the stories inside.

If Josh Ben wanted to impress me, he could have told me about how he lost his right leg. After the round, Connors gazed over at Ben in admiration and filled me in.

He was in a tank in Baghdad. A rocket-propelled grenade tore into the right side. Ben scrambled to get out as the tank erupted in smoke and flames.

He lunged out backward, but what was left of his right leg got caught in the hatch. Ben hung upside down as enemy gunmen closed in. He jerked at his right thigh until it unsnagged, and he tumbled to the ground.

An insurgent with an AK-47 fired 11 shots at Ben. Eight hit in the protective vest, one hit the tank, one hit him in what was left of his right leg and one hit him in the side.

It sure put my colonoscopy story to shame.

Ben met Puertas at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. They’d never met Wickens before Thursday night, which was part of the point. Connors said it’s therapeutic for Warriors to get together.

I felt like I didn’t deserve to be among them. There’s obviously an unspoken bond with such men. They didn’t even bring their wounds until the 12th hole. Puertas casually asked Wickens what happened.

“RPG,” Wickens said.

“We didn’t have many of those where I was,” Puertas said.

He was riding in Humvee through a bad part of Baghdad on Sept. 20, 2006. An improvised exploding device detonated as he rode past.

“It was instant amputation,” Puertas said.

What does a 21-year-old do when he suddenly faces a life with no legs? He gets up.

Puertas was walking in two months. He was running in six months. Eight months after the explosion, he ran in a 10-mile race.

The irony is he’d never done much running when he had legs. Now it’s his passion. Puertas took three gold medals at the Warrior Games. Connors told me that, since Puertas apparently didn’t want to brag.

He did tell me he qualified for the Paralympic World Championships in Lyon, France, three months ago. He made the finals of the 200 meters.

If Puertas had worn long pants Thursday night, I would have never known that underneath were two high-tech prosthetics. He got around the course more smoothly than 90 percent of the people there. Though recovering and adapting physically is just part of the battle.

According to the Wounded Warrior Foundation, about 400,000 veterans suffer Traumatic Stress Disorder. Though he was up and running in a few months, Puertas admits his emotional recovery lagged. Every morning he woke up and suddenly remembered he couldn’t hop out of bed anymore.

“You go, ‘Oooh,’” he said. “But we always want to do better. We want to overcome.”

You might see other Wounded Warriors at FCSports events during the bowl weeks. They won’t get the attention that players or coaches will. Kids might not line up for autographs, or even recognize that there’s something special about them.

But they have a message that applies to football and a lot more.

Try to do better, and you’ll always stand tall.


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