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.

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Timothy Bella is a journalist living in New York City.

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