Severely wounded veterans return to the States and find healing, hope in the game of golf
PGA Tour executive David Pillsbury will not soon forget the first round of golf he played with Dan Nevins, a severely injured Iraq war veteran who had lost his left leg below the knee -- and very nearly his life -- when the armored vehicle he was riding in during a routine patrol Nov. 10, 2004, was blown up by an improvised explosive device (IED).
Less than a year later, Pillsbury met Nevins at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The Baltimore native, now 35, was still in the midst of an 18-month rehabilitation from the amputation in the summer of 2005. Pillsbury toured the hospital one day bearing gifts of tour paraphernalia, hoping to put a smile on a few faces of so many catastrophically wounded warriors.
"You're thinking you'll go there with hats and try to make them all feel a little bit better," recalls Pillsbury, president of PGA Tour golf course properties and championship management. "The exact opposite occurs. By the time you leave, you feel so energized by their outlook, by their positive attitude."
Pillsbury met Nevins, a former high school lacrosse player, for the first time that day and learned he had played golf as a younger man and was using the game in his rehabilitation, often leaving Walter Reed to hit golf balls at Olney Golf Park. Mostly due to the efforts of head professional Jim Estes, the suburban Maryland practice facility already had begun opening its doors to wounded veterans. Range balls and swing tips were always on the house.
Pillsbury also learned that Nevins, an eight-year Army veteran and retired National Guardsman working as a pharmaceutical salesman, had relocated with his wife, Nicole, and 14-year-old daughter, Karyssa, to Jacksonville, not far from tour headquarters. Particularly taken with Nevins' bubbly personality and enthusiasm for the game, he arranged to play with Nevins at a fundraising golf tournament a few weeks later to benefit injured soldiers at the TPC Avenel in Potomac, Md.
"It was a very hot day, and we were having a blast," Pillsbury says. "We're out there telling stories, betting and pressing. Now we've played 15, 16 holes, and I'm getting a little tired in the heat, and I'm thinking to myself, 'You're such a wimp. You're playing with a guy using a prosthesis, and you're tired?'
"I'm drinking a beer, and Dan says, 'I think I'll have something, too.' He pulls out this lollipop, and not just any old lollipop. He tells me it's a narcotic and points to his good ankle. He says, 'I'm in such excruciating pain, I can't stand it.' Then he tells me it's been like that since the first hole. I asked him how bad the pain was on a scale of one to 10, 10 being the worst. 'Ten,' he says. 'How often is it a 10?' 'Most of the time.' When we finished, I'm saying to myself, 'Wow, this is really a special guy.' "
The two men stayed in touch. At about the same time, the tour was getting more involved with military outreach programs designed to provide support for the more than 39,000 injured veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, including its own Birdies for The Brave initiative. At one point it became obvious that coordinating those efforts was becoming a full-time job, and Pillsbury asked Nevins if he might be interested. Though it meant taking a pay cut, Nevins never hesitated.
"It was a dream job," Nevins says. "How could you say no?"
Still, even as he commuted to his new office, the nightmarish after-affects were still continuing for Nevins years after the massive injuries he suffered that fateful night in Balad, Iraq. A sergeant in the National Guard deployed in Iraq for 18 months, Nevins was on a pre-dawn patrol riding in a Humvee protected by armor on the sides, but with none underneath. The vehicle was struck by an IED less than a kilometer from the troops' home base; the explosion killed the driver, Nevins' best friend, Sgt. Mike Ottolini, and left Nevins on his back, with both of his badly bleeding legs still trapped in the smoldering wreckage.