UP TO PAR: Injured vets find camaraderie at Aurora golf event

Aurora Sentinel | By SUSAN GONZALEZ | 

AURORA | Carlos Rivera served in the military for 16 years, 9 months and 24 days.

“But who’s counting?” Rivera said with a chuckle while hitting a few practice balls at CommonGround Golf Course in Aurora.

Rivera was among those teeing off at a three-day golf event for injured veterans sponsored by the Semper Fi Fund and America’s Fund, organizations that provide resources and support for injured military members.

“All of them are post-9/11 injured service members, and golf is a great way to rehabilitate their mind, recover their body and take their mind away from a lot of the bad things they deal with on a daily basis, and put that into something good they can do the rest of their life, like golf,” said Casey Fisher, the senior manager for the Team Semper Fi/Team America’s funds.

Rivera, who suffered a spinal cord injury in an aircraft accident while deployed in Iraq, said without programs like this, he wouldn’t get much of a chance to be active. Without the use of the lower half of his body, Rivera typically needs special equipment to partake in sports — equipment he often can’t afford.

“In my case, because I’m handicapped and in a wheelchair, it’s kind of hard for me to do stuff,” said the 45-year-old. “I cant go to Walmart and get a $200 bicycle. The one for handicapped people is $9,000. Everything for handicapped people is stupid expensive. People like me that can’t afford it depend on programs like this.”

The Nashville resident was able to navigate the green on a SoloRider, a specialized golf cart that allows him to pivot his seat, assists him with standing up and keeps him strapped in.

But physical benefits aside, the event also gave the attendees a chance to hobnob with other vets, something that is often critically needed for former service members.

“We get camaraderie out of it and we get an outlet,” said Gerson Toc Gonzalez, who served in the Marine Corps. “Some of us are angry or depressed or lost. We find people that are close to us.”

That’s one of the reasons Steve Bultje, who lost his right leg in an IED explosion in Afghanistan, attended the event.

“Within a day, we’re all joking with each other and having a blast,” Bultje said. “There’s that common experience we all share.”

But more than that, Bultje said being fairly new to the game was also a draw for him. For some service members, trying to play sports they did before they were injured can be frustrating, he said. At this event, most of the vets were completely new to golf.

“I think what I like about this so much is I never golfed before I was injured, I don’t feel like anyone here has a leg up on me just because they have a leg up on me,” the 27-year-old said with a grin. “So when I play basketball, I always compare it to how I played before with two legs, and I’ll never be that guy again. But with golf, there’s nothing to compare it to. There’s no huge adaptations.”

David Dunn, who has post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, also finds relaxation in a new but still comeptitive sport.

“I can see something in this,” Dunn said as he swung with full force, sending a golf ball carryining into the distance. “Just being out with good company and being competitive, I can see this working for me.”

At one time, Dunn was homeless and going through a divorce. But by going to events for vets, he found that others returning from war often experience the same issues, and that camaraderie was important to him getting back on his feet.

“I love hanging out with older veterans and hearing their stories,” said Dunn, who went through two tours in Iraq. “What it comes down to, is it’s almost the same experiences and that’s where you connect, when you have people go through the same struggles.”