In Florida, Amputees Find Normal Life on the Golf Course

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They've lost limbs and earned Purple Hearts for their service. Now an academy in Tampa is helping them regain what they want most: an everyday existence.  

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Army Sergeant Joel Tavera gets ready to swing at the Adaptive Golf Academy as his father, Jose, looks on. Timothy Bella

His 12-foot putt trickles past the cup, a late break in the green dipping the ball to the right. It's a hazy, slightly windy Friday morning on the first weekend of March at Terrace Hill Golf Club in Tampa, Florida, and Joel Tavera's instructor at the Adaptive Golf Academy tells him he likes his swing. A couple people on the putting green stop their putting sessions only to watch Tavera putt. His head covered under a blue bucket hat, Tavera cracks a couple of jokes, likening his golf game to Tiger Woods sans the women.

But look closer and you'll know that the scene of regular, everyday normality didn't come easy. After 76 surgeries, Tavera, 25, remains in active duty until he finishes his operations, which he hopes will end after another nine or 10 surgeries.) Third- and fourth-degree burns cover more than 60 percent of his body. He is totally blind. Most of his fingers had to be cut off as they had been reduced to straight bone, "practically charcoal," Tavera recalls. He's missing a piece of his skull on the right side of his head, which will lead to surgery number 77 in September.

On March 12, 2008, Tavera, an Army sergeant just 12 days shy of his 21st birthday, was inside an armored SUV in Tallil, Iraq, about 160 miles southeast of Baghdad, when five enemy rockets fired at the vehicle. The blasts killed three of his friends inside the SUV and left him in an 81-day coma, his life in jeopardy.

"I was so fucking dead that I couldn't even stand," says Tavera, who was in a wheelchair for the first year and a half, also trying to redevelop his speech. "I learned that that's life because it's not going to change. I wanted to appreciate the simple things in life." 

Perhaps forgotten amid Tavera's battle scars is the fact that he's also an amputee, having lost his right leg as a result of the attack in Tallil. Seeking a physical outlet, Tavera turned to the Adaptive Golf Academy, a school recognized for helping amputee, disabled and PTSD veterans learn golf as part of the rehab process. Since the academy was officially established in 2007, the school has helped a bevy of amputee veterans and active-duty soldiers -- as well as those who've suffered physical setbacks such as result of a stroke or a car accident -- use golf in one of the more advanced and consistent weekly adaptive programs in the country.

For a game that has been historically important for returning amputee war veterans, the sport continues to be a crucial rehab tool, a refuge for the recent wave of 20-something veterans and active-duty soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan looking to regain some semblance of regular civilian life. "They just want some normalcy, just want to be like anyone else," says David Windsor, founder and CEO of the Adaptive Golf Academy. "If there's a double amputee, a fella from Iraq, he doesn't want to be in the news all the time. At the end of the day, he just wants to be a 'normy.' He wants to have that pride from his wife and kids. Just getting out and being able to take part in golf has been big."

On this particular Friday session, more than 20 amputee and disabled veterans from James A. Haley Veterans Hospital join Tavera. Some of their service goes as far back as Vietnam. Others only recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan. They are led by Windsor, 40, who wears a bucket hat similar Tavera's and is smiling from ear to ear.

Members of the Amputee Veterans Support Team, who are regulars to the Friday sessions, are teeing off from their SoloRider golf carts: adapted single-rider golf carts with swivel seats that allow the amputees to hit the ball as they're sitting down. Others are walking around the tees and adjacent putting greens, offering guidance to the new faces at the course. "We're going to have an introduction to show you how easy this game is," Windsor says to the group of visiting veterans and active-duty soldiers, all of whom initially look hesitant but won't remain that way for long.

In January of 2000, Windsor was a PGA of America professional at a local club when a physical therapist asked him whether he'd be interested in helping a small group of physically disabled golfers, some of whom were veterans. Although he was more than happy to help, Windsor wasn't quite sure what he would be able to offer. "I just remember people seeing getting out of their vans or cars with their spouses or caregivers and I'm thinking, 'Holy cow,'" Windsor says. "I remember thinking, 'How am I going to live up to their expectations?' There was an intimidation on my part of how I could help these guys."

The early days of the program gave way to primitive technology. Limited funding forced Windsor to use duct tape to manipulate the angle and handle of the golf clubs for some of the amputee golfers. Through several PGA and USGA grants, along with word of mouth, the academy began to build itself into one of the more recognized physical rehab programs for amputee veterans. Returning troops and older vets began traveling there from across the country as well as from nearby Tampa and Sarasota. Windsor's Friday sessions, with amputee veterans from as far back as World War II, help the new wave of Iraq and Afghanistan amputees understand that they're not alone.

"A lot of the young guys think they'll never walk again," says Rudy Salas, president of AVAST, the veterans support group that comes out every Friday. Salas, 65, is a Vietnam vet of the Marine Corps who lost his left leg during service in 1967. (Vietnam veterans suffered 5,283 amputations, the second greatest number among American conflicts.) "By them seeing us play golf as well as we do, they see that there is a future being an amputee veteran and it's not on a corner selling pencils."

***

What's happening at the Adaptive Golf Academy is part of a larger evolving story. The rate at which soldiers have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan as amputees is greater than for any previous war, even while the number of wounded and deceased has been on the decline. It's been a daunting challenge to quantify just how many amputees have come home from the current wars, but brand new data provided by Dewey Mitchell, spokesman for Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, helps paints a more comprehensive picture of what's going on. From December 2001 through March 1 of this year, there have been a total of 1,443 amputee patients from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom treated in military facilities. (The numbers account for members of all the military services.) Among the 1,443 recorded amputee patients, 1,187 -- or 82 percent of the cases -- involved lower-body extremities. Last year, the amputation rate in Afghanistan reached its highest number with an average of 17.2 amputations a month, according to data from last month's Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center's medical surveillance monthly report.

But other research indicates that the amputee numbers could actually be slightly higher. In July 2009, there were at least 1,112 amputees among active-duty soldiers from Iraq and another 112 from Afghanistan, according to research from Michael Carino, senior health systems specialist for the U.S. Army Office of the Surgeon General. In a March 2007 TED talk, inventor Dean Kamen shared information a senior Department of Defense official had given him: 1,600 military personnel had come back from Iraq or Afghanistan back missing at least one full arm. [Note: This figure is indeed the one reported by Dean Kamen, but an Army medical official sent the following message after this article appeared: "Inventor Dean Kamen received bad information. There have been a total of 1,448 amputee patients treated in all military facilities, 258 of whom have had upper extremity involvement."

In sheer numbers, these figures are significantly lower than those from other wars. But that's because far fewer American soldiers have served and died in Iraq and Afghanistan than in the World Wars, Korea, or Vietnam. What's striking is the percentage of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan who have needed amputations. These two conflicts have had the highest amputee-per-wounded soldier and amputee-per-deceased soldier rates in U.S. history, according to Carino's data.

In Afghanistan, where soldiers on foot patrol are especially vulnerable to improvised explosion devices, the amputee population of returning U.S. military has seen a significant uptick since the surge. "If you look at those people who lost multiple limbs, that number has tripled from 2009 to 2010 as we went to Afghanistan," says Kenton Kaufman, director of the Mayo Clinic's biomechanics and motion analysis laboratory. He adds that the number of soldiers losing at least one limb doubled during this period.

Even with well-funded programs such as AVAST supporting amputee veterans and local VA groups, there is some concern about the resources made available for prosthetics and prosthetic upkeep -- especially for a crop of especially athletic service men and women. "In Vietnam, a lot of the people who were injured were not exactly the cream of the crop as far as being good athletes in high school," says Richard Holt, a retired U.S. Army surgeon who served as a civilian adviser in Iraq for the Medevac of wounded service members during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Holt, a head and neck surgeon at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, understands why younger amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan would turn to golf: this all-volunteer army has been more athletically engaged from the get-go than veterans from wars that required drafts. "When they come back, they want to continue. They don't want that disability to limit their life."

Currently, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs is looking at the VA's budget request for 2013. It sets aside nearly $2.6 million in obligations for prosthetics--an increase of 11 percent from 2011. says Congressman Bob Filner (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat for the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. The budget request also factors in $583 million for VA medical and prosthetic research, as well as an additional $165 million to augment medical care accounts. Filner says these figures are being reviewed carefully, and that the committee will do what it can to fully support amputee veterans with the appropriate resources.

Yet, there remains skepticism as to how much of the funding for the amputee vets and active-duty soldiers will be sustainable once the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan become distant memories. And this calls into question services and future grant money for programs like those at the Adaptive Golf Academy.

"After wars have faded from the public's memory, Congress tends to be less generous with funding to provide healthcare and other services to veterans," says Dave Autry, deputy national director of communications for Disabled American Veterans. "All these folks coming out now have these wonderful benefits, but how much longer is the government going to be that generous?" Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the number of pending veterans' claims at VA for all periods of service has seen a 99 percent spike between March 2003, In March 2003, there were 568,711 claims, according to a recent quarterly report from Veterans for Common Sense, a nonprofit veteran advocacy group. In December 2011, there were more than 1.13 million.

***

Historically, golf has played a substantial role for amputee veterans and active-duty soldiers returning from war. As a resident of southwest Florida, Windsor knows this well. Now, more people are taking notice. Shortly after the session, Windsor talks about adaptive golf programs based on the Adaptive Golf Academy that he's helped implement in Atlanta, Greenville, South Carolina, and Roanoke, Virginia, as well as others to be developed in upstate New York and Tennessee. (And that's not even including the National Amputee Golf Association, which is built more on regional tournaments for amputee golfers, or the Salute Military Golf Association, which focuses on wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Windsor is, for a lack of a better word, downright giddy. Questions about VA politics and future grant funding aside, Windsor, at his core, cares about what golf can do for others. He scours a group of roughly 30 to 40 clubs donated to the school, looking for a just a couple of suitable ones amid the vast pile of irons and woods dumped on the floor of an equipment shed. He resembles a kid on Christmas morning who spreads out all his toys in front of him, only to give them away five minutes later.

"These guys are broken," Windsor says. "They're missing something. They have new scars to think about because everyone is watching them. They're going to question themselves. But when they get here, it's a whole new brotherhood."

Tavera never expected to turn to golf. In high school, he didn't want to bug his father for a set of clubs, as he saw golf as an activity played by people at his school who came from money. Life is different now. Tavera is now a national spokesperson for Building Homes for Heroes, a nonprofit aimed at home projects for severely wounded and disabled veterans and their families. He can appreciate the simple things -- hitting a ball straight off the tee, standing for nine holes, coming to the course every Friday morning with his father. He is calm, never getting too high or too low, understanding where he came from a little more than four years ago.

"I come out here and don't think about what's going on anywhere else," Tavera says. He adds, "Amputation numbers are getting higher and higher and higher. Depression haunts a lot of guys after their amputations. It's crazy. I have found other ways so that it doesn't quite plague me or haunt me like it does for other guys I know. I had a second chance."

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Timothy Bella is a journalist living in New York City.

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