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VA secretary stops in Iowa to see disabled veterans’ dreams come true

Denis McDonough, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs (Sarah Silbiger/Pool/Abaca Press/TNS)

Kevin Patton rolls onto the driving range at Riverside Casino and Golf Resort, where he meets PGA golf professional Brian Johnson for an afternoon lesson

Patton grabs his driver, addresses the ball and pushes a button on his all-terrain power wheelchair, which lifts the Air Force veteran into a standing position.

Patton, of Sacramento, Calif., is paralyzed from the chest down due a spinal cord injury he sustained in a car crash in 1986.

Gripping his driver with his right hand, Patton lines up his shot, takes a quick one-handed practice swing and then lets ‘er rip, sending the ball sailing 178 yards.

The adaptive golf cart, which Patton received just a few weeks ago, allows for unrestricted shoulder movement, providing better mobility and stability.

“My handicap has probably dropped by about 20 (strokes),” Patton said. “I’m hitting the ball farther and more consistently. My best is about 195 yards.”

But, more importantly, he said, it provides freedom and new opportunities for health and healing.

“It helps physically and mentally,” Patton said of the ability to join other veterans on the course.

“It was a little dark there for a while, but … I’ve come around … and developed a camaraderie with other veterans,” Patton said. “And adaptive sports programs really changed my life. … They’re making a difference in what we veterans need.”

‘You inspire me’

“Well, you inspire me,” said Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, who visited with Patton and other veterans Monday at the National Disabled Veterans Golf Clinic at Riverside Casino & Golf Resort.

Veterans from across the country with visual impairments, traumatic brain injuries, amputations and spinal cord injuries gathered for the weeklong adaptive golf program that is presented by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and DAV (Disabled American Veterans), with support from the PGA and the Golf for Injured Veterans Everywhere (GIVE) Foundation, a nonprofit that provides support for Iowa’s injured and disabled veterans who use the Des Moines, Iowa City and Sioux Falls VA health care systems.

In addition to adaptive golf, veterans will be introduced to other adaptive recreational sports. VA clinicians, recreational therapists, doctors, nurses and volunteers were also on hand

McDonough was joined by Iowa Republican U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson of Marion to see firsthand how the National Veterans Sports Program provides disabled veterans with opportunities to optimize their independence and improve their physical, mental and emotional well-being through adaptive sports.

McDonough thanked Hinson, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, for “making sure that we have the resources to invest in programming like this.”

Hinson said Monday’s outing was an opportunity to learn how Congress and the VA can “get this equipment in the hands of those who have served our country.”

“They’ve worked hard and devoted their lives to serving, and it’s only fair to make sure they have the tools and resources they need to live a good life and have a good quality of life,” Hinson said. “Some things transcend politics, and veterans and serving our veterans is one of them.”

‘Inspiring feeling’

McDonough, who took a swing using an adaptive golf cart belonging to Bryan McCrickerd of Bethlehem, Pa., said he was struck by the “bravery, the willingness to be vulnerable and the courage that our veterans showed” by participating in Monday’s clinic.

“That is critical to their quality of life, to their mobility and to them being in charge of outcomes for themselves,” McDonough said of the adaptive equipment provided through the VA.

“The fact that our vets can play golf out here is a reminder that we’re all free because of what they’ve done for us. The fact that they can have a taste of that freedom here on the course … is a very inspiring feeling.”

McCrickerd, an Army veteran with an incomplete spinal cord injury from back damage he traces to his years as a combat engineer in the early to mid-80s, said the ability to use an adaptive cart to once again play the game he loves standing up “is a dream come true.”

“The more active I am, the better off I am,” McCrickerd said. “If I’m not active, depression sets in real bad. During the winter, it’s very hard.”

But now, thanks to the VA, he spends the summer traveling to adaptive sporting events. In addition to golf, McCrickerd said he water skis and participates in sled hockey, wheelchair basketball, air rifle and air pistol, shot-put, discus, javelin and hand cycling.

He received his adaptive golf cart from the VA in February or March. Previously, he had to travel to Georgia or North Carolina to golf courses that had the adaptive equipment.

“I wish everybody that lost the ability to do something would find their way back to it,” he said.

Mental health

Hinson praised the “tenacity” and “focus” displayed by the veterans on the golf course and driving range.

McDonough noted September is suicide prevention month and the importance adaptive sports plays in disabled veterans’ mental health.

He said the VA plans to announce later this month new investments in local community organizations that “will help veterans struggling through hard times.”

“We are putting, as I said, not only years of clinical practice, but cutting-edge research to work every day to get vets the mental health care access that they need,” McDonough said.


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