SUMMERVILLE, S.C. | Here is the power of golf: Perry Green is the director of golf at the Golf Club at Wescott Plantation in Summerville, just a few miles north of Charleston, and he spends his days and weeks teaching others how to play the game. When he began working with a handful of Vietnam veterans 15 months ago as part of the PGA of America’s HOPE initiative, Green wanted to help these men who had given their bodies, minds and a portion of their souls in a war that ended decades ago for everyone but them. “At our second class in the heat last June, a guy came to class and he had been paralyzed and an operation had given him the use of his legs back,” Green said. “He was dealing with PTSD and he was essentially a shut-in. He would only go shopping at night because he didn’t want to meet people. “He came to class and loved it and started coming regularly. Later he told us, ‘I came to class that day and I only had one other thing to do that day: Commit suicide.’ He’s now a mentor and he’s still involved.” When Green and Wescott Golf Club hosted the third PGA HOPE session in April of this year, almost 50 veterans participated (only four were in the first session). VISIT CALLAWAY Green said the program, which includes free lessons once a week for all participants followed by a ninehole outing with the instructors at the end of the session, has been called the most successful of its kind in the country and PGA of America officials are using it as a model for other programs around the country. PGA HOPE, and the people like Perry Green who lead it, use golf as a foundation. What they’re building – or rebuilding – is people whose lives have been forever altered by what happened to them in places such as Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. “I was in Vietnam in 1968. That changed my life,” said Sam Smargissi, who spent 21 years in the Air Force, another four working at the Pentagon and now participates in PGA HOPE, an acronym for Helping Our Patriots Everywhere. “For 43 years, I’ve had counseling sessions. I’ve been hospitalized twice. I’ve dealt with suicide and drugs and alcoholism, all of that. “I moved to Charleston a year ago and I saw a newspaper article about (PGA HOPE). I’d never played a day of golf in my life. I received free lessons and another dozen Vietnam vets were there. I realized as time went on it really wasn’t about golf but about camaraderie. I was getting my game back in life.” As home to a joint Air Force and Navy base as well as a large veterans hospital, Charleston has a strong military presence and PGA HOPE seems to have found the right mix of people and place. As the program has grown, former Tour pro Ron Cerrudo has hosted the group at nearby Daniel Island and later this year, pro David Kite (son of Tom Kite) and the Links at Stono Ferry will join the effort. An outing in May raised approximately $23,000, allowing Wescott Golf Club to buy one paramobile cart to allow an injured vet to play golf. Green’s son is dealing with PTSD while working at a veterans hospital in Colorado. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of guys so appreciative of people doing something for them as these guys are,” Green said. “They love it. They love people helping them and they want to turn around and help others. They’ve been through it all. They’re all trying to play through challenges and they’re still trying to figure out what works. “I see my son in the ones who are younger. It’s fun to help. I didn’t fight in a war but maybe I can help these guys that did.” It’s not always easy. Instructors hit shots wearing prosthetic limbs or with one arm or with impaired vision to get a sense of who they’re working with. Then there are the mental and emotional issues that aren’t always evident on the outside but rage on the inside. Smargissi knows all about it because he’s lived it for decades. “We’ve picked up a few young guys from Afghanistan and Iraq. You can see in their eyes like you can see in our eyes what we lost,” he said. “There were a lot of things we were carrying when we came back. When we get on the course and we talk about it, it’s not like talking to a psychiatrist. It’s like therapy. “I play twice a week and hit balls on top of that. Now, instead of seeing a psychiatrist, I go hit balls then come home and talk to my wife and enjoy life.” Until a year ago, Smargissi never gave golf a passing thought. He often found himself angry at the world, spiraling into a dark place. Golf, of all things, has changed his life. “If you’d asked me if I wanted to play golf, there was a better chance of me becoming a priest than of me playing golf. Now you can’t get me off the course,” Smargissi said. “Now there is a purpose to life and it’s all because of one thing – golf.”
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