By Bob Denney
Since the end of World War I, the “war to end all wars,” Americans have evolved in the manner by which they pay tribute to those men and women who served and paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Ninety years ago today, when “Armistice Day” was first set aside as a solemn day of remembrance, speeches and parades and ceremonies marked the time.
There is a group of Eastern Iowans who have made Veterans Day their daily routine, their passion. They formed a team chemistry that blends Iowa PGA Professionals, a generous host site in the Riverside Casino & Golf Resort and the Iowa VA Medical Center of Iowa City.
The trio has become a winning partnership, a model for the country in how to use the game of golf to restore mental health and add more than a ray of happiness to troubled veterans and their families.
Since the fall of 2007, Iowa PGA Professionals have worked with 190 veterans who had served from World War II through the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Golf for Injured Veterans Everywhere (GIVE) program has performed and has branded itself by providing hope, enjoyment in a game and for many a new chapter in life.
“The GIVE program emulates what good can come from partnerships between government, communities, and businesses in serving our veterans,” says Iowa VA Medical Center Director Barry Sharp. “The GIVE program changes lives, bringing families together in a social setting, and teaches them a sport that all members of the family can enjoy. The GIVE program model will work in any community in the United States if you have the right partnerships.
“While the acronym GIVE stands for Golf for Injured Veterans Everywhere, it is the strength of the partnership that is doing the giving, and as everyone who has supported this program has discovered – when you give you get far more in return. The GIVE program is an excellent way for communities to give back to our veterans for the sacrifices they and their families have made for the United States of America.”
The GIVE model involves participating veterans receiving the best in PGA golf instruction, donated golf equipment and free access to the practice facility and the nearby Blue Top Ridge at Riverside championship layout.
And, there is not one penny being charged to the Iowa taxpayer.
The GIVE program was the idea of Lou King of Cedar Rapids, a former PGA executive director and former senior vice president for Amana Refrigeration. The concept was embraced by Riverside Casino & Golf Resort’s brother combination of CEO Dan Kehl and Executive Director of Golf, Bobby Kehl, who have contributed to make GIVE grow.
“The veterans, many of them joined by family members, come here, go through the classes and leave as your friend,” says Bobby Kehl. “I can’t think of a better feeling inside for me than that.”
Dan Kehl said that he has added respect for the GIVE participants.
“I can’t walk away without feeling humbled by those who have done so much for our country,” says Kehl. “If it wasn’t for the veterans carrying the water for us, I may have been serving over there.”
The Iowa VA Medical Center teamed by screening applicants for the program, which has yielded dividends and a new set of success stories in the heartland.
“This program eased the burden for me of returning home,” says Julie Gorman of Cedar Rapids, a retired Sgt. E-7 after 22 years in the Army, who had returned from Iraq with a severe foot injury requiring two surgeries. She also was suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Today, Gorman, a longtime employee at Crescent Electric in Cedar Rapids, has been one of GIVE’s biggest advocates.
“At first, I did not want to be with any other veterans,” she says. “Now, I have found it helps me to be there to help others. It keeps me coming back. I think that the commitment those PGA Professionals and the resort has made is just wonderful.
Gorman says her personal recovery progress, aided by the VA Medical Center and GIVE, was underscored in her ability to say farewell to friends heading to service recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“A couple years ago, I would not have been able to do that,” says Gorman. “Now I feel differently about it. I have stood up to my demons and put it behind me.”
The success stories include Joe Corso of West Liberty, who served three tours of duty in Vietnam and did not leave his home for some two years. He also has contracted leukemia, yet has found himself.
“This program got me closer to my wife,” says Corso. “The pros I’ve met are not going through the motions. They look you in the eye; they care about you. I’ve built more trust. I feel born again.”
Vietnam veteran Larry Phillips of Anita, Iowa, 66, lives some 65 miles west of Des Moines, where there isn’t a GIVE program. So, he and his wife, Mary Lou, also a veteran, have driven three hours one way to Riverside three separate occasions to participate in the GIVE curriculum.
“We were met with open arms and I can’t tell you how that makes me feel,” says Phillips, who became a paraplegic in 1968, a year after his discharge from the Army.
“They found me a solo rider golf cart, where I could hit the ball from a side seat. I was a couple over par for the four holes I played. The PGA Professionals wanted to be there with us. They weren’t looking at their wristwatches. You know you face a three-hour trip, but there is something there that really leaves you feeling that you didn’t begrudge the long drive.”
Dr. Michael J. Hall, a neuropyschologist with the Iowa VA Medical Center, has been a keen observer of the GIVE success stories through his own patients.
“One of my concerns is that people say that this is just golf,” says Dr. Hall. “It is not just golf, it is more than golf. Golf is a venue again to create a positive environment, positive experiences. We have something good here, but essentially what we need to do is replicate what works and to not do what doesn’t work. This is something that works.”
By late today, the speeches, ceremonies, tributes and some TV documentaries honoring those who have fought for peace will conclude.
Yet there are those in Eastern Iowa whose counsel, friendship and a spirit of hope burns well past the 11th hour on the 11th day of November.
It is more than a charitable brand; it is what is right.
Bob Denney, formerly of Cedar Rapids, is the Senior Association Writer for The PGA of America