“I can’t do that,” the veteran heard the young man say. The young man had only one leg and was working with an instructor in the golf training room.
The veteran, who lost both of his legs below the knee during the Vietnam War, was working on his swing. Try as he might, he couldn’t ignore the other man’s declaration.
The veteran approached the young man. “Don’t you ever say can’t in this training room,” the veteran told the young man. “You may have to change your way of thinking or your way of doing it, but you can do this.”
The young man noticed that he had one leg more than the veteran, and he didn’t protest again.
Disabilities Don’t Exist Here
“Can’t” isn’t a word that passes by unchallenged at American Lake Veterans Golf Course.
“We don’t use words like ‘disability’ or ‘disabled’ or anything like that around here,” Roger Gatts, assistant manager of the course, explained.
Veterans often lose hope after returning home. Roger said that it’s not uncommon for veterans to tell him that before visiting the course, they had contemplated suicide.
Veterans staying on the Veterans Affairs campus (the VA) often feel isolated, but the course is an opportunity to get away from the VA and to forget their limitations. They feel a renewed sense of purpose that they often can’t find elsewhere.
“You see the expression change on their face. . . . You see things are getting better not only for them but for their families as well,” Roger said.
The golf course supplies clubs, shoes, and other equipment free of charge. The course also has carts that allow amputees and veterans paralyzed below the waist to stand upright or sit at the edge of the cart while swinging.
The New Nicklaus Nine
The old course offered veterans solace, and the new Nicklaus Nine make the course even better.
With plans donated by professional golfer Jack Nicklaus, getting the new nine holes approved and constructed was years in the making. The new nine holes are made up of stretches of crisp greens flanked by trees and swathes of tall grass. Deer often roam the course. The course dips down a hill, and soon the VA drops completely from view. There is only the course and the golfers.
The new course puts veterans in a different world, superintendent Randy Moen said. “I’ve had guys come up and tell me that they don’t even seem like they’re at the VA anymore.”
Another volunteer remarked that the course gives veterans a chance to connect with someone who has had similar experiences.
“When people share their stories with each other, they feel a little bit more connected and at home, like they’re not alone,” he said.
The course is therapeutic not only for golfers but for staff as well. Some volunteers have expressed how calming it can be to cut the grass.
Randy organizes volunteer efforts. Like most of the staff, he donates his time. He’s one of a minority of volunteers who aren’t former military, and he often spends 60–70 hours working at the course each week.
“It’s the happiest golf course in the nation,” Randy proclaimed.
And it really seems to be true.
“These guys are all like uncles and aunts to you. They all care about you,” caddy David Barrino said about the volunteer staff.
David retired from the military in 2005 and struggled to manage the anger he felt. He met American Lake founder Pepper Roberts and received a set of clubs from the course.
Three months after starting golf, David quit his civilian construction job and started caddying at Chambers Bay. He still comes back to golf at American Lake every chance he gets.
Golf’s Power to Change
“[Golf] really teaches you about yourself,” David said. “. . .It really makes you focus, and it can help you take everything that’s outside the golf course out of play. So if you’re having issues at home or something, it can help you get away and relax. Because you have to focus on it to be good at it.”
Air Force retiree Corky McGiverin enjoys both playing the course and volunteering.
After losing his wife in 2012, Corky had to figure out how to spend his time at the VA. It was difficult to find a fishing partner, so he started golfing at American Lake.
“This golf course has been a savior for me,” Corky explained.
Soon, Corky began volunteering at the course as a marshal, which he likened to being an umpire in a baseball game. He makes sure that golfers are following the rules and respecting others’ time. He enjoys getting to know the players—it’s not uncommon for golfers and staff to greet each other by name.
Washington Rock’s founder, Harry Hart, has always had great respect for veterans. Washington Rock began supplying sand and other materials to American Lake in 2010 and continues to supply materials as needed each year.
“I wanted to show the veterans that we’re grateful for their service,” Harry said.
It’s incredible how something as simple as sand has positively impacted American Lake and the lives of veterans.
There are many ways to contribute to veterans healing, including donating or volunteering.
“We’re always looking for new volunteers,” Randy said.
There’s nothing like seeing a veteran who has been confined to a wheelchair golfing on the course for the first time. That’s a feeling that Randy cherishes.
“I could go work anywhere I want, but I’d rather work out here and get the gratification of making these veterans happy,” Randy explained.
The course gives back to everyone and sends a powerful message to veterans and volunteers alike: that they can.
If you’re interested in volunteering at American Lake, you can fill out an application at the Volunteer Services office in Building 9 at the American Lake VA Hospital in Lakewood. You can also visit the VA Puget Sound website for more information.
The Friends of American Lake Veterans Golf Course also accepts donations.
To learn more about Washington Rock’s golf course products, visit our Golf Course Products page.