By Joni Williams
For most golfers, the sport offers friendly competition, a little exercise and a great way to spend a leisurely day on the greens. But to the combat veterans who are a part of Fairways for Warriors, it’s all that and more.
The Orlando‑based nonprofit uses golf as a healing therapy, and for some veterans, its effectiveness has been nothing short of life changing. Now, thanks to the start‑up of a local chapter, its services are available to heroes along Florida’s Panhandle.
“It’s only fitting that Fairways for Warriors would start a local chapter here,” says founder Tom Underwood. “I used to be up there in the Panhandle all the time. I’m real familiar with the area.” Underwood acknowledges the area’s high military population and numerous golf courses. Putting the two together fits the nonprofit’s mission to a tee—it seemed almost inevitable for a local chapter to take hold.
Underwood came up with the idea of utilizing golf for its therapeutic benefits after witnessing his own father struggle with what is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after serving in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. But because he was unaware of the diagnosis, much less any effective treatments for it, he instead took to self‑medicating with alcohol and heavy cigarette smoking—vices Underwood believes significantly shortened his father’s life.
More than that, Underwood became convinced his father’s downward spiral could have been eased with non‑traditional therapy—one that provided social camaraderie and all around good times. Then he had an idea. “He loved golf,” Underwood writes of his father on the organization’s website. “And if there had been a program to incorporate this therapeutic sport into his journey towards healing, I think his life story would have had a dramatically different outcome.”
Since launching in 2010, the nonprofit has come to incorporate additional therapies into their strategy for healing. One of the most promising is ART (Accelerated Resolution Therapy) that has shown encouraging results in initial research tracking its effectiveness as a treatment for PTSD.
“It’s amazing how well it works,” says Underwood. “Many of our combat veterans were helped in their first session.” He was equally enthusiastic about Panama City Beach therapist Dale Heppe, who works with vets locally. “The cool thing is, he’s not just a therapist, he’s also a veteran who likes to play golf.”
Golf is still front and center at Fairways for Warriors and participation is high, even among the staggering number of veterans who’ve lost limbs to combat, women as well as men. Kelly Smith, for example, was shot five times resulting in the loss of her left arm. Yet she’s learned to adapt and enthusiastically hits the links on a regular basis.
Fairways for Warriors partners with courses to make the game more affordable, too. Locally, Tiger Point offers warriors a special, discounted rate of $15. And a Crestview course has a $10 price point in the works. Enthusiasm and participation has been strong as golf serves as a pleasant diversion while giving warriors a chance to socialize with other combat vets who can readily relate to what they have gone through. And perhaps, most importantly, continue to struggle with.
“Sometimes the physical injuries are the least of it,” says Underwood, discussing the psychological fallout many vets experience after surviving combat. “You can get a new limb but you can’t get a new mind.”
He tells of one vet, Juan Velasquez, a proficient soccer player who almost went pro. Instead, he served his country in Afghanistan as an Army engineer and not only sustained injuries, but also lost three of his buddies. Upon his return to the states, he became reclusive and withdrawn to the point that “his neighbors thought his wife was a single mom,” says Underwood. “He just never left the house.”
All of that changed with Fairways for Warriors, which offered therapy and support for Velasquez as well as his family. As Underwood points out, “It’s not just the vet who’s affected, it’s the whole family.” He also stresses that Fairways for Warriors is a fully comprehensive veterans association.
That means frequently going the extra mile whenever possible, working to secure housing for homeless vets or providing vehicles to those lacking transportation. “Golf is just a vehicle to get the (vets) together,” says Underwood. “We do so much more than that.”
Often, combat veterans who have successfully sought the services of the organization pay it forward by becoming counselors themselves. “Because we have so many who are helped by our program, a lot of them want to give back,” says Underwood.
The organization depends on donations and special events, like an upcoming Atlanta golf tourney in April, for funding. Overhead is kept low by utilizing donated professional business services such as advertising, and a staff largely comprised of volunteers.
And that includes Underwood. Though working tirelessly for the organization since its inception in 2010, neither he nor his wife draw a salary. Paid staff consists of two recent hires, both part‑time. Underwood says this is how Fairways for Warriors is able to spend only five percent of its income on operations, with the remaining 95 percent going directly to the vets.
To donate or learn more, visit fairwaysforwarriors.org.