Golf means many different things to many different people. For some it’s a hobby, for others it’s an escape. For the lucky few, it’s a career.
In rare cases, however, it is more than that: it can make the difference between life and death.
Bob Epperly, PGA, has seen it firsthand. For the past seven years, he has cared for hundreds of men and women through the PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere) program, one of the PGA of America’s community organizations that aims to heal US veterans with physical and mental wounds through golf to find. In many cases, the game is a lifeline for these brave warriors.
One story Epperly tells is about a Vietnam veteran who pulled him aside at a HOPE session. The man said to him, “Before I came here, I hadn’t heard birds chirping for two years, I hadn’t smelled cut grass for two years, and I hadn’t seen the sun for two years except when I went to the doctor.”
This veteran, like so many others Epperly has met, has struggled mightily with PTSD. For decades he rushed into his job trying to repress the negative emotions, but after his retirement he was left with no coping mechanism. Golfing with fellow veterans gave him a reason to get out of bed and at least offered respite from the painful memories.
“When a man or a woman tells me stories like this, not a single eye stays dry,” says Epperly. “You share deep, deep feelings. You cannot understand it until you stand there and experience it. “
Perhaps one reason veterans believe they can open up to Epperly is because he knows their victims. He is a veteran himself and has served in the California Army National Guard. His family ties to the military are also deep. His brother served in Vietnam, his father fought in World War II, and his grandfather served in World War I.
Another reason is that Epperly is a patient, caring, and skillful teacher who goes to great lengths to make adjustments for his HOPE students so that everyone, regardless of the circumstance, can enjoy the game of golf.
For example, if a participant has a prosthetic leg, Epperly will recalibrate their swing to include more wrists and elbows. If someone is using a wheelchair, Epperly can equip that player with a shorter stick and lift the ball on a high tee so that it can be hit from a sitting position. When it comes to getting the ball down the fairway, Epperly could completely rethink the game and have these players aim at short range goals he constructs. Whatever the challenge, there is always a solution. But golf is only part of the equation.
“The comradeship” [between the veterans] is by far the No. 1 success story, ”says Epperly. “Golf is the entry point, but it’s really about camaraderie.”
Because of this, Epperly and his HOPE partner in the Northern California section, Suzy Schneider, have partnered with courses in their area to set up game days for veterans so they can cultivate those relationships well beyond the six-week HOPE sessions.
“If you can get a veteran on the HOPE program for a week or two and they see that it’s a comfortable, reliable, and safe place for them, you’ll love it,” says Epperly. “Not everyone holds out, but it’s shocking to me how low the drop rate is.”
This hook, as Epperly puts it, goes both ways. His message to other PGA pros is: Consider spending your time and talent on PGA HOPE, because once you see a veteran smiling in a dark place on a golf course, it is more than worth the time and effort .
“There are 22 veteran suicides a day,” says Epperly, citing a dismal national statistic. “I don’t know how many we saved in our program, whether ‘saved’ is the right word, or helped or did something, but I know those who have spoken to me, it’s a similar story. HOPE has given them value again. “