VA, para-mobile partners help Veterans swing for the greens

Paralyzed Veterans learn life lessons from golf


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“If golf was easy, we’d all be bowling.”

So says Trevor Hazen, a golf pro and director at The Turn and North Olmsted Golf Club, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Maybe that’s why it’s the perfect sport, even for Josh Maley, who never thought he’d swing a club again. After a rare form of multiple sclerosis confined him to a wheelchair, he gained 170 pounds and slipped into a deep depression.

Maley was busy making an Air Force career as an F-15 mechanic at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, when the disease attacked.

“I was told it was an extremely rare form. My legs got really weak and vision really blurry. When I got the first diagnosis, I figured it wasn’t that big of a deal. The hard part was the second relapse. My doctor said the odds were I had better chances at winning the lottery than a second relapse.

“It was really hard for me, really hard for me. I went through a really dark point in my life. It was an easy couple of years I stayed there. Didn’t leave my room in my house. Didn’t socialize.”

His weight ballooned from 180 to 350.

“Yeah,” he chuckled. “I was a big boy.”

Still in a deep funk, Maley knew he needed to do something.

“It started with my diet program and I lost so much weight,” he said. “I wanted to continue working out. Rec therapy asked if I wanted to go to the National Wheelchair Games. At one point I wanted nothing to do with it. But I went and instantly fell in love.”

Recreation therapists Aubrey Lash and Nicole Zillich saw the opening and pushed him further.

“Josh, give it a chance,” Lash told him. “Don’t tell us you can’t, or you won’t, until you at least give it a try. Cause I guarantee you will like it if you give it a chance.”

They introduced him to bowling and tennis. He replaced bicycling with a handcycle.

“Our job is to give somebody a sense of their life back,” Lash said. “Whether it’s enjoying the adaptive sports, the socialization or the camaraderie.”

But there was one sport Josh never thought he’d do again–the one he honed since he was 4-years old.

“I still have my first golf club,” Maley said. “It comes up to your kneecap. I grew up in a golf family. We golfed at least twice a week. I went through that patch where I swore off everything. When I got involved in the national games, I figured I’d have to relearn everything from scratch, I might as well try sports I was never good at, but never thought golf would happen again.”

That’s where Hazen and The Turn comes into the picture.

Adaptive golf for everybody

Hazen’s been golfing for 35 years, but never thought this would be his career path.

“Honestly, 20 years ago, adaptive golf was not on anyone’s radar. It never crossed my mind,” Hazen said. “As a golf pro, I teach everybody how to golf. But the first time I was asked to do a clinic for a group of stroke survivors, I was very hesitant.

“That changed my life that day. Now, I can’t see myself doing anything else.”

And, he said, there are some life metaphors in the game.

“It would be boring if it was too predictable,” Hazen said. “I teach people–especially my Veterans–it’s not supposed to be easy. The beauty of golf is it is hard. The difficulty and the bad shots make you appreciate the good shots.

“That philosophy helps people relate to life. Life isn’t easy, life isn’t fair. Golf isn’t easy, golf isn’t fair.  When you start accepting the negative in golf, you start accepting the negative in life.”

But with costs for a new para-mobile in the $30,000 range, it’s not a cheap metaphor to learn.

Using grants and donations from the community, PGA’s Stand Up and Play, and the Northern Ohio Golf Charities, Hazen and the crew from The Turn start offering golf to those who never thought they’d golf again. He first got connected with the blind rehabilitation Veterans at the Cleveland VA Medical Center, before expanding to spinal cord-injured and others in a wheelchair.

“We had one para-mobile at the time. We had one donor who saw this and she said, ‘This is a game-changer, isn’t it?’ She wrote a check right there. She couldn’t write that check fast enough.”

Now, with a grant for $16,000 from the National Veterans Sports Program, The Turn offers even more opportunities to Veterans like Maley.

It still took some convincing.

The para-mobile straps paralyzed Veterans in, and then electronically lifts them to a standing position.

“I’ll go, but I’m not going to like it,” Maley said.

“I can still remember that day a couple years ago,” he added. “Standing up the first time. They said I would probably have to swing one-handed. That’s a common drill for golfers and I used to do it all the time. I took a couple practice swings, put the ball down, hit it, and all I could think was, ‘Man, I waited way too long to get into this.’

“I felt like an idiot waiting so long and being so stubborn.”

Now that he has his own para-mobile from Stand Up and Play, Maley is back on the greens four days a week. He’ll be at the Wheelchair Games July 11 to 16 in Louisville, Kentucky, and hopes to make it to the TEE Tournament in the future.

But there’s a bit more.

He started dating Melissa after his weight loss. The two knew each other since he was five.

“I was best friends with her little sister. She used to hate me.”

She changed her mind. The two married in 2016.

“It’s all been pretty awesome,” Maley said.

Hazen feels the same.

“Our volunteers, they thank me. These Veterans, they thank me. But they are helping me as much as I am helping them. That’s the true beauty–people helping people.”

Author

Gary Kunich

joined the U.S. Air Force in 1986 and served for 20 years in public affairs. He is now the public affairs officer for the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, VA Medical Center, and is detailed to the National Veterans Sports Program.