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Soldier On Golf comes down to the fundamentals of life

He stood at the podium, ramrod straight as only soldiers can, and surveyed the gathering. Soldiers, veterans and golfers, mostly male, their raucous beer and wine fueled conversation echoed through Aurora’s prestigious Beacon Hall Golf Club, recalling the exploits of stupendous drives, approach shots that hit the pin, successful putts from another time zone whose twists and turns on the way to the cup grew more exaggerated with each retelling. Jokes, laughter, sun tanned faces with wide white tooth grins filled the room.

He should have been nervous, not by the presence of General (Ret) Rick Hillier and other officers in the room, but because of what he was about to do. He should have been nervous or even afraid, because he was about to go back to revisit the dark places he had dragged himself out of with dogged determination over the last eight years. He should have been nervous because of the hell on earth he had visited; the front lines of a modern battlefield in Bosnia, the desolate war ravaged country where an unseen sniper fired a bullet through his spine and into his left lung, left kidney, and spleen leaving him paralyzed and near dead.

But instead of nervousness, he was confidant because of where he had been; the life he had almost lost; the permanent incapacitating wounds he had suffered; the terrible depths of depression, loneliness and failure he had experienced.  He was confidant because he had overcome the mirages of alcohol and drugs where the relief he sought never materialized but instead, made his situation worse.

He was ready to thank some of the people who had helped him on his journey back; who cared about him and the plight too many other veterans of armed conflict still fought.  He was here to tell them how important their work is; how difficult it is to make the journey back to life and how many, many veterans are lying by the wayside, waiting and needing their help.

When he stood the noise and laughter faded.  As he began to speak, all heads turned to him. You could hear a pin drop as he told the story. He and his troop were in a town called Illijas, Bosnia. They were placed between two warring factions to stop them from mortaring each other’s school yards when school children would come out to play. Then the fateful bullet, the bullet that should have killed him, was fired by the concealed sniper.

After returning to Canada, Armoured Warrant Officer Tom Martineau, a battle hardened soldier and a competitive biathlete and participant in 16 sports a year, nearly gave up.

It wasn’t just the physical injuries that were hard. He had to deal with the psychological injuries as well. “It seems strange to say, but when you are shot you feel like a failure.--like you have somehow let your buddies down,” he was quoted as saying.

Back in Canada, the psychological wounds worsened.

"I attempted suicide twice. I didn't know how to run away from my own mind. I couldn't unhook my head and put it on the night-table, go to sleep, and put my head back on," Martineau said. "I became a hard-core alcoholic, hard-core drug addict, and those are co-morbidity skills which aren't healthy. But it's how somebody deals with this -- especially from the culture of the military: there's a way to do things, you've got to do it right, ethically, morally, value-wise, leadership-wise, you've got to do things the right way,” he told Jon McCarthy of the Toronto Sun.

"When all of that is ripped away from you, you're basically left on your own to deal with it. No disrespect to the Canadian Armed Forces or the military, but at the time we weren't good at taking care of our ill and injured back in 1994. Today it is much better," WO Martineau said.

WO Martineau was speaking to the closing banquet of Beacon Hall’s Soldier On to St. Andrews golf tournament. It was the fourth year for the charity event at Beacon Hall that caps off a week of lessons and golf for military women and men who have served our country. Some of them will later visit St. Andrews in Scotland thanks to the work of the St. Andrews Legacy Foundation (SAL) program.  For most of the veterans, this was the end of a week-long introduction to or rediscovery of golf on host golf courses around Aurora.

The week brings together veterans, a few with injuries you can see, but most with ones you can’t. For some, this camp is the first step in a lifelong recovery. Going from the figurative darkness of your mind and the literal darkness of your basement to a golf course with 60-odd civilian strangers is a significant step.

Sgt. (Ret.) Ken Denchant, a 23-year Canadian Forces veteran who served in Rwanda, Bosnia and Afghanistan, fell victim to post traumatic stress disorder upon his return. When he heard about the Soldier On golf event, Denchant, now 57, saw an opportunity. He said his wife was surprised when he decided to participate because with anxiety disorder you are reluctant to leave the house. His wife was worried about how he would deal with strangers. “Because it is other soldiers, I thought it would be a good chance to meet people and learn a little golf. The week was excellent. It’s definitely provided me motivation to get out doing more and back to being around humans.”

 “It is hard to hear these compelling stories first hand and not feel a sense of pride in helping these people get their lives back after their tremendous sacrifice,” said PGA President Steve Wood.

Soldier On is a Canadian organization dedicated to helping military veterans adjust to life after war through the social and physical interaction of sports. Started by Sgt. Andrew McLean and the Canadian Paralympic Committee, Soldier On has programs involving many sports.

The Soldier On to St. Andrews golf program came into being in Canada following a phone call from Graham Proctor of SAL to Major (Ret) Jay Feyko who heads the program. This was followed by a meeting between the two in Toronto to discuss details. When PGA CEO Gary Bernard met Graham Proctor at the British Open the idea of using the Royal and Ancient Golf Club’s Old course to spark interest in golf among Canadian veterans, the idea received enthusiastic support. In July of 2013, three U.S. and four Canadian veterans went to Scotland and Soldier On to St. Andrews was born.

Graham tells the story of how the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (est.1754) goes out of its way to support SAL’s work with veterans.  “We had two U.S. vets delayed because of airline difficulties so the R & A kindly rescheduled the tour of the clubhouse from Monday to Friday,” Proctor recalls. “We had hoped to tour the R&A on Friday at 11:00 AM. Following a late flight arrival, the R&A then suggested 2:00 PM.  Unbeknown to us, the R&A engineered our tour of the clubhouse to finish at the same time that President Obama was in the clubhouse at the end of his round.  The President showed up, greeted the staff and met all 8 Canadian veterans thanks primarily to the antics of U.S. participants Jimmy Ochan and Jose Ruiz. There were pictures of each veteran holding the original Claret Jug, (after the President of course). “

It was a stellar moment for those present and a legend of Soldier On Golf. But behind that event is a growing success story “that would not have happened without the dedication, generosity and compassion of Jim Mitchel and Phil Hardy of Beacon Hall and the entire committee” Major (Ret) Feyko said. Both from hospitality and a funding perspective from Beacon Hall. The golf tournament culminates a week of activity in which many veterans are given lessons from local PGA of Canada members and access to area golf courses. On the final day, the vets gather for the tournament at Beacon Hall along with notables from golf and other sports and senior officers of the Military. Some of the veterans in attendance may go on to St. Andrews, to play famous courses like Crail, The Dukes and others including the storied home of golf, the Old Course.

Major (Ret) Feyko reports that golf is the fastest growing sport within Soldier On He mentioned that one veteran member, who sustained numerous injuries during a parachute jump, became a PGA of Canada professional after the injury. He now volunteers his time to grow the sport in Canada with ill or injured members.

“When you come face to face with the conditions, the commitment and the sacrifices people in the armed forces make to defend our way of life, no effort seems too much as a means of thanking them,” Steve Wood, President of the PGA of Canada said.

‘I am hopeful that the PGA of Canada through its members can help to grow Soldier On Golf and make it available to veterans across our country. As an organization, PGA of Canada supports this program and will continue to support it.  But active involvement of our members in organizing local events would significantly expand the incredible benefits and social therapy Soldier On Golf offers to veterans.”

I was struck by a comment Warrant Officer Martineau made when asked what he liked most about the program. Without hesitation he said “Peace and quiet.  When you are out on a golf course, there is silence. You can hear the birds. That doesn’t happen in a war zone,” Wood recounted Martineau saying.

“When General (Ret.) Rick Hillier was introduced as a Canadian Hero, the first words out of his mouth were, ‘I am no hero. The veterans in this room: they are the heroes.’ He got that right.”


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This story orginally appeared in the summer issue of PRO:FILES magazine.

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