Photo Courtesy of Golf Channel

 

I guess my love affair with the military started when I was young.  I was a die hard fan of GI Joe growing up and I still am actually.  The thing about it was there was always some type of resolve in each episode.

Fast forward 18 years and there I am, sitting inside the cab of a 7-ton truck, M16 locked and loaded with my Kevlar and flak jacket on. My a-driver was manning my .50cal in the ring mount and we didn’t have squat for intel.

About an hour earlier I had left my last will and testament on my mom’s answering machine.  I was more nervous than I had ever been before because we were gonna be the first ones outside the wire in Kandahar in three years. The other guys in our unit didn’t get me so really no one had my back.  In that moment I needed someone to have my back more than ever. So here I am almost shaking from uncertainty and I thought, “Well, I might as well say a prayer.”  My wife at the time had bought me a small bulletproof bible with a metal plate in it. She had told me to keep it close to my heart.  I’m a God fearing man, but not one that reads the Bible anywhere near as often as a good Christian probably should.  I unzipped this little bible and it fell open into my hands and there it was…the only verse I have since then ever committed to memory.

Jeremiah 46:28 ~ Fear not O Jacob my servant,” declares the LORD. “I am with you. I will completely destroy all the nations where I scattered you, but I will not completely destroy you. I will correct you with justice. I won’t let you go entirely unpunished.

After reading the verse a calm came over me and I took a breath and said, “Okay.”  The verse turned out to be completely on point during that deployment. I felt like superman the rest of that deployment.

I only spent a couple months at home before it was off to Iraq.  But this time things changed… It was there that I learned that when Rules of Engagement are decided by those that aren’t in the fight, it typically ends in you becoming a target.  

I had my Miranda Rights read to me for the first time in my life after returning fire in Fallujah.  That was a sobering experience that almost took all the wind out of my sails.  Why was I being punished?  Why had my leaders suddenly become my opposition?  I had a hard time after my tour in Iraq.  I had escaped what I considered major injuries from IEDs, but I had witnessed first hand the carnage they could unleash.  I came to the conclusion that the further I was from controlling the fight or being forced into a compromising situation, the harder it was on me.  It angered me when I saw a fellow Marine injured due to something that could have been preventable. Why was our leadership playing political games rather than listening to the soldiers in the field?

In 2008 after changing jobs in the Corps, that displacement in the fight grew even further, and my issues with commanders became very jaded.  I was the only person on the entire operation that had been on the ground in Afghanistan before. I was asked to provide the S.O.P.’s and convoy tactics brief to the infantry and support units.  I was criticized by my command as not taking my primary job seriously.  Meanwhile my tactics and intelligence were used to save lives.  My biggest regret, however, was I had forgotten about the open areas prior to the brick factory just outside the gate where we had taken contact 4 years before.  It was here the first casualties of the 24th MEU were taken.  Followed by deluge of mistakes that were made by commanders.  But I never did let go of the four that I felt like I could have prevented.  

My last experience with casualties as a Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO) brought the entirety of the circle into full view.  It was November 13th, a week before my birthday. It was our first day back at work after the Marine Ball. I was on nightwatch but got a call from headquarters around 11am. “Gunny, it’s Captain Redmond.  Get here now, there was an accident… bring your Alpha’s.”  There had been an explosion during a range clearing exercise.   Now here I was in the middle of the command suite, listening to my friend’s wife pleading for someone to answer the phone over the answering machine, begging for someone to tell her Greg was okay.  I watched as Sgt Major Hyrne clinched his jaw and shook his head, tears welling up he couldn’t answer because official notification had to be done simultaneously.  But that would take six agonizing hours before the bitter truths would be laid upon those families.  

I was assigned SSgt Marsh, he was a new check in that I had only met that Friday before.  But nothing could prepare me for how he would change my life that day.  I rode with the station XO and our Chaplain, that silver dodge caravan felt like the loneliest place on earth.  After a bit of navigating poorly lit addresses we stopped in front of Mat’s home.  He lived with his mother and girlfriend.  

When I stepped out of the van the neighbors across the street looked at me as if I were the Harbinger of Death himself.  I looked away feeling ashamed of the the uniform I was wearing, but I made every attempt to appear reverent out of respect for magnitude of what just happened.  Then two sounds will be forever ingrained in my mind and they shook my soul.  The first was the sound of the sliding door of the van shutting. It may seem insignificant, but I can replay every spec of dirt within the track that the rollers of that door slid on.  Each crackling grain of sand was like a boulder being crushed, until the conclusive thud of the seal.  Like the concussion of an explosion only those who have been too close to truly understand. The kind where everything seems muted afterwards.  

The second sound that I will never forget was a mother’s scream as the door shut.  I looked up at the bedroom window at his mother as she shrieked in terror, it replays everyday in my head and I was overcome by a dismal feeling that in that moment I was the single worst and most feared person on earth for his family… The words to describe it wouldn’t compare to how it actually feels.

That day I saw the final and full spectrum of death among service members.  Even when your in war you live in the moment, you medevac your wounded and in the back of your mind there’s some glimmer of hope that they’re okay.  But you don’t know the truth until the fight is over.  But the truth is, reality always sets in, and you’re left with “what ifs?” that eat at you.  

I was very fortunate to be connected to a program that helps Combat Vets returning from combat to learn to cope with PTSD.   The program helps veterans reintegrate and reconnect. Veterans in the program help each other in finding meaningful brother and sisterly bonds that give life meaning and purpose again.  The program teaches combat veterans thought processes that help find answers and brings closure to the experiences that cause PTSD.

Golf was a vessel for me that helped me escape life, even it was just for a few hours.  But what I learned on the course when I would play with other Veterans helped me cope with my own factors of PTSD.  All the while building a relationship with others and playing a game that teaches self improvement.

My dream is to create a week long refuge for Veterans who are willing to use golf as a medium to develop life problem solving skills, receive guidance from other Combat Veterans, and develop healthy relationships with those around them.  I want to bring not only insight into what they have experienced, but how it affects them and their families.  The program will help them develop healthy schemas through cognitive brain therapy and ultimately find a path to closure and healing.  This will help to bring meaning and an enriched vigor back into their lives which can mitigate depression and suicidal behavior.  We are stronger for surviving and, as Defense Secretary Mattis best described it, ready for “Post Traumatic Growth.”  

That is what we seek here at “Fairways to Freedom.”

For more information about the program contact me at jaketaylor.ld@gmail.com.