Nicholas Martone had just completed his second deployment with the United States Marines Corps to the Middle East and he couldn’t wait to return home to suburban Buffalo and civilian life. Although the former weapons platoon squad leader had witnessed some horrible things in combat and was familiar with stories of veterans struggling mightily while reintegrating into society, Martone believed he had been well-trained by the Marines to handle any challenge life might throw his way. If adversity confronted him, he would do as he had always done in uniform and just soldier on.
“I figured I had already been through the worst because I had seen some of my buddies wounded or killed,’’ he recalled recently. “Nothing could be worse than that. But I never realized just how big the emotional obstacles would be as I transitioned back to civilian life. Red flags began popping up everywhere. The littlest things would trigger anger and anxiety outbursts, and I couldn’t understand why I was behaving the way I was. I didn’t know how to deal with it. Over time it became overwhelming.”
Like many combat veterans, Martone suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and survivor’s guilt.
“After witnessing the awful things that happened to my buddies, I couldn’t stop wondering, “Why them instead of me?’ ’’ he said. “And then I began seeing other vets take their lives after they had returned. It was like the war hadn’t ended for them or for me. I started using drugs. I was overdosing, and it got to a point where suicide became a thought. I went through a really, really tough time. I was in a downward spiral for about six years.”
Thanks to the encouragement of loved ones, Martone entered drug and alcohol rehab a few years ago and began undergoing therapy for his PTSD at the Batavia Veterans Administration Hospital. While there, he was introduced to PGA HOPE, the Professional Golfers Association outreach program which stands for Helping Our Patriots Everywhere. Essentially, the game of golf is used as therapy to help vets overcome their obstacles and become part of society again.
Golf often has been described as a good walk spoiled, but for Martone and thousands of other vets, it has been a path to recovery. It has given them, to use the sport’s parlance, a mulligan, a do-over, another shot at a normal life.
“We try to give veterans what we call moments in time,’’ PGA HOPE director Chris Nowak said during a recent visit to Rochester to promote the program, which will be showcased at next month’s KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club. “When the vet steps to the tee or gets ready to stroke his putt, he is not thinking about the trauma he witnessed or the issues he’s dealing with back home. In that moment in time, he’s focused on that golf ball, and what he needs to do with it. So, if by the eighth week of the program, the vet goes out on the front nine and, say, shoots a 56, that’s 56 moments in time in which he isn’t thinking about anything else.”
And that ability to focus on the golf ball can carry over into other aspects of his or her life.
“At the start of the program, the vet doesn’t begin thinking about the shot until a split second before he takes it,’’ Nowak said. “But as we go on, the vet starts strategizing well before they address the ball. And you see their confidence start to build. They eventually start applying those problem-solving skills to those challenges they’re facing away from the course.”
The social aspect of golf also comes into play. “You’re out there with other vets, other people who are going through what you are,’’ Matrone said. “There’s strength in numbers. It’s comforting to know that you aren’t alone.”
Rochester and Buffalo were among the first PGA sections to offer HOPE programs not long after their conception a few years ago. Nowak, a veteran himself, developed a standardized training course about teaching golf and other sports to veterans dealing with physical and emotional challenges.
“It isn’t just taking someone out to the driving range or putting green; it’s a different type of teaching,’’ said Penfield Golf Pro Mike D’Agostino, who has been involved with HOPE for five years. “You need to develop an understanding of what these men and women are going through. They might be dealing with PTSD or the loss of a limb as a result of combat, and they’re not comfortable right away being around people. It takes patience and compassion.”
But once those walls are scaled, magical things happen. “The act of putting or chipping a ball can do wonders for them,’’ D’Agostino said. “I remember the first time I got involved in the program, I was really nervous. I was totally out of my comfort zone. But I quickly went from dreading it to ‘I can’t wait to do this again.’ The vets are so appreciative. They keep thanking us. And I tell them, ‘You got it all wrong. We’re the ones who should be thanking you.’ ’’
Martone is a shining example of how transformative the program can be. The 34-year-old hopes to one day return to college and pursue his original dream of becoming a coach. In the meantime, he’s working in the home remodeling business and striving to break 80 on the golf course for the first time this summer. He was so thrilled with what HOPE has done for him that he’s started his own foundation: FAST (Focused Always on Strengthening Our Troops).
“HOPE gave me hope,’’ he said. “It’s been a life-altering experience. Maybe even life-saving.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.