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Veteran reclaims his passion after 12 years paralyzed with PGA Hope Charleston

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Josh Swindle, golf pro Perry Green and Fred Gutierrez at Wescott Golf Club Friday March 30, 2018. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

A man rode his wheelchair into the cart barn at the Wescott Plantation Golf Club and came out driving something entirely different. 

Sitting inside the specialized hydraulic cart was Josh Swindle, a former first responder with the Coast Guard. An accident had left him paralyzed from the waist down.

For 12 years, he was unable to stand and look at someone directly in the eyes. He also was unable to do one of his favorite activities: golf. 

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Rich O'Brien congratulates Josh Swindle on his driving range held at Wescott Golf Club Friday March 30, 2018. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

But that has changed because of this specialized cart and PGA Hope Charleston, a local chapter of a national program that offers golf lessons to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and other disabilities.

For some, golf can be a traumatic and stressful sport. But for those who have confronted real trauma and stress, golf can heal.

A lesson in patience 

The veterans at the Wescott Plantation Golf Club vary in age, some as young as 28 and some as old as 70. Most are veterans of the Vietnam War and a more recent pair of Gulf wars.

“I mean, you know, the stories of veterans being spit on when they got off the plane, it was stuff like that,” said the golf instructor Perry Green, harkening back to Vietnam. “They were not treated well at all. And they saw some horrific things over there. And they came home dealing with a lot of things that the VA was not prepared to help them with.”

Tom Rader is a certified golf pro who helps instruct programs at Wescott, including PGA Hope as well as “The First Tee” children’s program. He began a recent Friday’s program by discussing the day’s core value: patience.

“What happens when you’re impatient?” he asked the group. Some veterans looked knowingly at each other. Road rage was mentioned.

Perry Green, the director of Wescott, jumped in.

“Muscles get tight, swings get short,” he said, “and the results are not good.”

Rader nodded his head.

“Patience isn’t just about the tempo of the swing, which does take patience,” he said. “You don’t jump in front of somebody because you're anxious to hit your next shot. There’s a lot of ways that golf teaches you patience.”

An Air Force veteran, Rader served in the electronics division from 1966 to 1970. He never entered combat, though, and for that he considers himself lucky.

“Those were rough times,” he said. “Vietnam was going hot and heavy.”

Rader was stationed in Denver, Germany and Sacramento. In 1972, Rader, who was neither disabled nor afflicted with the types of PTSD that riddled combat veterans, became a PGA golf pro.

He works at Wescott five days a week helping Green as a program instructor.

“And I’m just getting used to it,” he joked.

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Doug Robertson high fives friend Bill Burge during an afternoon PGA Hope clinic held at Wescott Golf Club Friday March 30, 2018. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

'Dreaming about golf shots'

After Rader's lesson on patience, the veterans divided themselves into four groups: driving range, pitching station, chipping and putting.

Doug Robertson, a tall man in a navy blue tracksuit and a ball cap, followed Rader to the pitching green. He tightened his white leather golf glove and took a practice swing with a lob wedge. 

Robertson was never supposed to get drafted, he said. The 70-year-old was enrolled in his freshman year of college with a full basketball scholarship when he was drafted on Dec. 8, 1968, ending up in the combat zone in Vietnam.

The Army realized its mistake and removed him six months later but later sent him to Korea where he stood at the DMZ border. He continued his military career and later become a basketball coach at Towson University in Maryland. When he retired he moved to Charleston seeking good weather and good jazz. Until he found golf, Robertson said, he struggled with PTSD.

“When I came out, I had anger problems,” Robertson said. “Now I say I’m enjoying life.”

On the driving range, John Bradley teed up a practice ball and stepped back, took his stance and swung hard. He didn't look like much of a golfer in a black turtleneck and blue jeans. But the former baseball player, now a self-described scratch golfer, sent the ball soaring. 

After returning home from Vietnam, Bradley suffered from restless nights where he slept, at most, three hours a night in-between recurring nightmares and flashbacks. At his wife’s urging, he swung a golf club for the first time a few years ago. Since then, he said, he has had only four nightmares. 

“Now, I’m dreaming about golf shots.”

20 veterans a day 

Bradley said he still suffers from PTSD but he said he has learned to manage. He avoids triggers.

If there’s a car wreck on the news or a movie that he knows will show scenes that depict loud crashes, he turns off the TV. 

PTSD is characterized by a re-experiencing of a traumatic event, and avoidance of events or activities that bring back those feelings is a symptom, said Dr. Peter Tuerk, a psychologist who oversees PTSD treatment at the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs Hospital.

A crowded store or watching "M.A.S.H.," could be activities that trigger a flashback. 

"The trauma is unfinished business," he said. "That's one of the reasons why our brain keeps throwing it back up."

The VA supports recreational therapy, such as PGA Hope and sailing and surfing programs, but evidence-based treatments — cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy — are the most effective means of combating PTSD, Tuerk said.  

"All of these activities push people out of their comfort zone at first and make them more comfortable," he said. "We're 100 percent for that. The danger is that people start saying, 'Oh well I'm going to golf and that'll cure my PTSD.'" 

The VA estimates that there are about 22 million veterans alive in the U.S., 30 percent of whom suffer from PTSD, according to VA spokeswoman Tonya Lobbestael.

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Doug Robertson, who served in the Army, hits balls on the driving range at Wescott Golf Club Friday March 30, 2018. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

Each day, about 20 veterans commit suicide. 

Bradley, Robertson and Rader are just three of about 142,000 South Carolinians who served in the Vietnam War. Of the Palmetto State's 403,900 veterans, about 44,600 live in the tri-county area. 

Only four veterans showed up to the first PGA Hope practice at Wescott during a sweltering 102-degree summer day. The practice was short. 

Partially paralyzed, one veteran was quiet. He was someone who didn't deal well with the public. He often went shopping at 1 a.m.

He confided in Green that his plan on that day was to commit suicide. But he heard about a free golf lesson for veterans, so he opted for that instead.

"That guy didn't do it that day because he liked the golf program," Green said. "And he came the next week because he liked the golf program. Two weeks later, he was calling me up asking if he could volunteer to help in some of my other clinics."

'They're survivors'

By the end of 2016, PGA Hope Charleston was up to 44 veterans — a number that put Wescott over the top as the largest chapter of PGA Hope in the country. 

That year, the program raised $16,000 during a fundraiser tournament and received other donations to purchase a $22,000 paramobile. 

The following year, the program raised $90,000 — enough to buy two more paramobiles and expand to golf courses on Daniel Island, Stono Ferry and Red Bank Plantation. The program currently serves more than 100 veterans. 

In the past three years, eight veterans have told Green that they are alive because of PGA Hope. 

"They’re survivors," Green said, "or they wouldn’t be here." 

This spring, Green trained golf pros at Kiawah in how to teach with paramobiles.

As the program grows, Green is seeking both money and more people who are qualified to help instruct veterans.

In a few weeks, the spring 2018 PGA Hope golfers will graduate and participate in a nine-hole tournament. The third annual “Chip in for Veterans” Charity Golf Classic, sponsored by Hardees, will begin at the Daniel Island Club on May 7 and end at Wescott Golf Club, a public course owned by North Charleston, the next day.

'That was good!'

About 15 of the PGA Hope Charleston graduates returned to serve as peer mentors for other veterans. They come to practice more than 30 minutes early and take practice swings on the range. 

And the hope is that these sorts of interactions will produce more moments like the one that unfolded at Wescott on a recent Friday afternoon.

Fred Gutierrez, 62, grew up in Summerville, enlisted in the Navy and served from 1974 to 1978 in a submarine off the West coast of the United States. He was a control technician who let oxygen in and out of the submarine's tank. 

When he returned home he was so riddled with PTSD that he shot himself in the head with a .38-caliber pistol.

Gutierrez survived, sought treatment and began to realize he suffered from a condition with which millions of veterans also fight. Over time, he learned that one medicine that helped him recover wasn't a pill he could swallow; it was a ball he could hit.

He eventually co-founded PGA Hope Charleston with Green and Stand Up and Play Foundation Lowcountry Director Rich O'Brien.

On this Friday, Gutierrez donned a blue-collared shirt and sunglasses and watched as Swindle lifted himself up and, at the perfect angle, swung his driver and sent the ball soaring more than 200 yards.

"Oh, that was good!" Gutierrez whooped, as he gingerly bent down with all his weight on his right leg and teed up another practice ball for Swindle. 

Reach Hannah Alani at 843-937-5428. Follow her on Twitter @HannahAlani.

Hannah Alani is a reporter at The Post and Courier covering race, immigration and rural life across the Palmetto State. Before graduating from Indiana University and moving to Charleston in 2017, her byline appeared in The New York Times.