Every veteran has a unique story. Here we spotlight some of their rocky journeys after serving their country, and how they have found hope, courage and ultimately change for the better.
The way Angel Morales Jr. sees it, watching Golf Channel saved his life.
In July 2014 Morales was one of thousands of former veterans struggling to cope with becoming a civilian. His whole life had revolved around the military. His relatives had served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
When he turned 19, he knew it was his turn. For most of the next two decades, he served in the Army. He was part of Operation Desert Storm in the 1990s and was stationed in Kosovo after 9/11. But a knee injury ended his military career. “The Army told me ‘You have to go,’” he said. The knee was probably the least of his wounds. “I got scars and some injuries,” he said, “but my bigger injuries were the mental stuff, the friends that I lost.”
Civilian life was a mystery to Morales. He tried to go to school, “but I couldn’t finish it. I couldn’t focus.”
Feeling suicidal, Morales checked himself into a VA hospital, but returned to his downward spiral after being released. He had no job prospects and was abusing his pain medication. Thoughts of suicide were never far from his mind.
Watching golf on TV was one of the few things that gave him pleasure. On July 4, 2014, while watching “Morning Drive” in his Milwaukee home, Morales saw host Gary Williams interviewing Tom Underdown about Fairways For Warriors.
“I saw Tom and it was like a light turned on,” Morales said. “He was saying how there was a place you can go, play golf, not just play golf but there’s a family there – you know, they take care of each other. And I said, ‘I need that.’”
He packed everything he could cram into his 2010 Toyota Corolla. What he couldn’t fit, he gave away to fellow veterans. A friend from high school offered him an affordable place to live near Orlando.
“The doors began to open,” he said. “I got here literally in a week. The first person I called was Tom. I explained my situation. He said ‘Come on down this weekend.’ We started playing golf, and my life has completely turned around.”
Like all of the Fairways for Warriors members, Morales can cite the Department of Veterans Affairs statistic on suicides by veterans – 22 per day. “I [would have been] one of them,” he said. “But through the Golf Channel, through Tom, through the camaraderie that we have with the other soldiers I was able to get out of that list.
“Since I’ve been here, the pain medications, I don’t abuse those, I’m clean from that; [I’m] alcohol-free, once in a while a glass of wine, but nothing like it used to be. I’m focused, I’m going to school, I just started working at Marriott Grande Vista.”
Morales is currently attending the Core Golf Academy at Orange County National, training to become a golf pro. The formal instruction he’s receiving is a far cry from his origins in the game.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, he lived in an area where there was only one course, and it was private. But the game fascinated him. He would press his face against the fence, watching the rich members swat these little white balls. “Sometimes they threw the balls over the fence and I kept them,” he said. He built his own mini-course in his backyard. “I cut the grass, I put a hole,” he said. He wasn’t able to pursue the game, further, though. “They didn’t have any golf programs in the school there,” he said. “It was only baseball.”
In the Army, he could use real equipment. “The first day I went out I chipped one ball in the hole and I was hooked for life,” he said. “I went and bought clubs, I got shoes, clothes, everything.”
Now Morales wants to combine his two loves – golf and his fellow veterans.
“I see the soldiers that come to Fairways for Warriors – triple amputees, double amputees, one of our guys is blind.
I see them, I see hope. So now I’m committed to help – whatever it takes.
“My mission is to work and get those [suicide] numbers down.”
-Al Tays/Golf Channel
Roy grew up in North Charleston, South Carolina, as a military brat and the son of a Retired Air Force Master Sergeant. He knew from an early age what he was going to do with his life and by the age of 17 he joined the Army National Guard in 1997, and active duty two years later. He enlisted as a Heavy Wheeled Vehicle Operator, essentially a truck driver.
Roy was stationed all around the US, first at Hunter Army Airfield in Savanna, Georgia, then at Ft. Bragg, Ft. Benning, and finally, Ft. Lee. He accumulated three combat deployments to Iraq (Jan ‘03 – Feb ‘04; Jan – Dec ‘05; March ‘07 – June ‘08). “The first deployment was the easiest because that’s when you could identify who the enemy was,” Roy said. “They weren’t advanced yet, you could tell when something was gonna happen. What made it difficult afterward was the enemy would blend into the population and began using IEDs”.
Roy drove in large convoys back and forth from Kuwait and Baghdad and mainly saw firefights during his first tour. His second deployment was to Bacuba, Iraq, before his team was reassigned to “Hell on Earth”, commonly referred to as Ramadi. “We were constantly engaged with the enemy, every night our convoys received contact. There were a lot of injuries and fatalities during that deployment.”
“My final deployment was to Rustamiyah, southeast Baghdad and just south of Sadr City, which was another ‘Hell on Wheels’.” Although Roy didn’t go outside the wire much on his final deployment — mostly because he was the logistical coordinator for the battalion — he still experienced the toll of war. “Part of my job was processing in and out vehicles, working with the remains of friends or teammates that were killed, and sending Hero Flights to get the bodies out.”
After surviving war, Roy medically retired on August 31, 2009, with 12 total years of service to the nation.
Healing Unseen Wounds
Since returning from Iraq, Roy has been there and done that in terms of trying ways to cope with his experiences. “I’ve had a hell of a recovery process that’s for sure; working with other organizations and different mental health programs, the surgeries, I had a bad drinking problem, thoughts of killing myself, things finally seem to be turning around,” he said.
The sport of golf has helped heal unseen wounds for combat veterans across all wars and conflicts. When I first asked Roy about his golf background he laughed and said, “I couldn’t even watch golf, I never understood it or gave it an opportunity. This is my first year golfing and I try to get out at least once a week now.” Some veterans enjoy the social aspect of golfing, but for Roy it’s getting out on the links away from the stressors of life. “It’s not about being great, it’s about being away from everything. Golf keeps you disconnected from your problems and allows you that time to relax, regroup, and refocus.”
A New Chapter
“Currently I am unable to work because of my disabilities, but I serve and give back. I am a licensed and ordained minister at the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Prince George, Virginia, and I’m in charge of the Audio/Visual ministry. Since being involved with Fairways For Warriors, Tom and I have discussed implementing a Chaplain program to provide holistic healing. I will be the Lead Chaplain for Fairways.”
Faith is a big part of Roy and his family’s lives, as he also participates in Bible Study once a week online. He enjoys spending time with his wife Mary and three living children: Kiara (18), Roy III (6), and Aaron (4). “I would not be where I am now without God and without the loving support of my wife,” Roy emphasized.
His oldest daughter Kiara is shipping out for basic training in January ‘19 to continue the legacy of service. Although Roy is relatively new to golf, he hopes to bond further with his son Roy III (FFW supplied Roy III with his own set of clubs to fulfill this wish) and help others achieve therapy they may not have tried before.
Herman has been there and done that; between a harrowing 13-month tour to Vietnam where his squad was wiped out in three seperate engagements, to a recovery period where he received no benefits from the VA for decades, his journey filled with ups and downs has overcome insurmountable odds. He has accomplished great feats as a competitive golfer and PGA Tour Caddy, and has been through and rose above difficult of challenges.
Alongside his friends and brothers growing up in Hopkins, South Carolina, Herman’s association with the game of golf began as young as 8-years-old when he caddied at a public course. After graduating from high school and unsure of the career he wanted to pursue, Herman decided to join the Marine Corps and went to Parris Island on March 3,1968. Six months later he entered Vietnam in September with Golf 2/9. Three days into his deployment while on patrol he was shot in an ambush.
“I was walking point for the battalion and through my experience recognizing booby traps I found 6-7 booby traps on the trail and my squad leader came up to me and said that we needed to move it up faster because we were holding up the battalion”, Herman recalled. “I saw a wire attached to the booby trap and we moved back to rear and my squad leader replaced me at point. He walked about 20 yards ahead and blew him up losing his leg and an arm. This is when the fire started.”
Herman looked around and felt something hit his right shoulder and a navy corpsman ran to him as bullets were flying all around him. The corpsman got on top of Herman to protect him and pulled him behind this tree. “My squad got wiped out. After I was wounded they sent me to navy hospital ship in the Philippines for 2 weeks.” Herman returned to Vietnam and was wounded a second time in a mortar attack. “This time a chopper was bringing in supplies at an LZ and mortars began dropping all around us,and my squad leader told me to fall back to the rear, but I never made it back to the rear”. Herman was wounded with shrapnel all over his body and his squad was decimated. During another engagement Herman escaped physically unscathed, but witnessed a third squad of his not make it out of the fight.
After his 13-month tour to Vietnam, Herman was assigned to a Casualty Company with 1st Cavalry Hospital Ship to heal up from his wounds suffered in combat. He spent 19 months in the Philippines and played golf everyday.
Healing Unseen Wounds
When he returned home, Herman was among many Vietnam-era combat veterans that were denied benefits. For 19 years he coped by doing what he thought was normal and using drugs which led to an addiction. “I knew something was wrong but didn’t know at the time it was PTSD,” Herman reflected. “I started using marijuana in Vietnam and after the military I tried cocaine and did that from 1977-1984 before I reverted to crack cocaine. I was addicted and continued until 1989. I stopped doing all drugs including marijuana in 2004.”
Golfing and caddying can’t be described together unless you have experience doing both Herman stated, however, like other older and experienced minds he said,“Caddying is about getting into the mind of the player; being a friend, a lawyer, a psychiatrist, a doctor, and a consultant at once, golfing on a good day is like being with a beautiful woman, golf on a bad day is like being attacked by your worst enemy, so it’s always a challenge”.
Expressive Art Therapy
“Fairways For Warriors introduced me to art therapy and it changed my life around because I had a lot of issues carrying around with me,” Herman recalled. “The art class helped me and it brought a lot of stuff out that needed to get out of me and it made me a better person, changed my life around,” he said.
Herman described his first session and following sessions helped relieve the negative emotions he was feeling. “The way it works is I get asked to close my eyes and to think of my experience as a picture or movie, and describe reality as it happened. Then were place the movie with improvements, what would make it better. We make it a good movie instead of a bad movie.
Afterwards I felt like the gorilla was off my back and I was free. I no longer was angry or had a short temper or road rages, I didn’t want to fight anymore, all of that was erased.”
“I became a Christian in 2004 without having faith before. Ms. Rice at the beauty salon helped me find God and I fell to my knees and cried. I felt something I had never felt before, it was a revelation that God was sent through these people to me.” Herman would Usher for his church every Sunday for 10 years before a knee replacement and being diagnosed with cancer, and ultimately, surviving both bouts of prostate cancer and colon cancer.
As of this writing (2018), Herman is 71 years old and spends his time golfing three times a week and working in Longwood, Florida, at Wekiva Golf Club with cart maintenance.