Robert Morris golf academy helps homeless veterans

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The grass at Quicksilver Golf Club was a perfect, well-groomed green, and the sky was clear and blue.

As the sun slowly slipped toward the horizon, the outdoor lighting was soft and golden, in that brief window that photographers call "the magic hour."

The weather was hot, but not humid, as nine men assembled on the golf course, laid out high atop breeze-swept hills with a panoramic view of pastures and woods in Midway. And, to add to their golf-playing pleasure, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, the men had free help and guidance from four PGA teaching professionals.

But this wasn't a regular "boys night out." This was the seventh session of the Robert Morris University Veterans Golf Academy at the Washington County course.

The group included a wide range of ages, from men who served during the Vietnam War era, to young men who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A few had played a little golf in the past, but most had never had the opportunity.

But they do have one thing in common: All are homeless.

Though at first blush it might seem that free golf lessons are not the greatest need for the homeless, golf for these veterans "is a deviation from the norm, and a chance for them to see how the other half lives," said Dan Rota, RMU's director of Veterans Education and Training Services.

"Many of our veterans of all ages and eras are combatting both physical and emotional stress and pain," said Mr. Rota, who retired from the Air Force as a brigadier general.

"In my opinion, recreation is an important stress reliever and may not only help speed up the recovery processes but also may improve the quality of life for the veterans."

Veterans at the recent session did not have physical injuries or ailments, but all are wounded in ways that are not immediately visible.

Some suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, said Jerry Coyne, a recreation therapist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Aspinwall.

Some have addiction problems, and some have been in jail.

All of these problems can make it difficult to find and hold on to jobs, Mr. Coyne said.

Some have had jobs but were laid off, victims of a tough economy.

"They are not living under bridges," said Mr. Coyne, who is an avid golfer, and attends the RMU Veterans Golf Academy with the men.

"They are in a VA housing program for four 1/2 months while we try to get them work and housing."

The idea for the academy was hatched last fall when long-time PGA teaching professional Bill Kurp of Washington, Pa., called a meeting that included representatives of the Veterans Administration, Mr. Rota and three other PGA teaching professionals, who also teach at the Neville Island Dome: James Cichra of Mt. Lebanon, golf director at the Island Sports Center; R. J. Wiegand of Sewickley; and Ron Lucas of Churchill.

The four RMU golf pros were all certified in the Adaptive Golf Professional Certification Training Academy, and they were wondering if there would be any interest in a golf program for veterans.

Mr. Coyne says it's been a big success.

"I work with these men every day," he said.

He had earlier taken some of them on outings to driving ranges, which they enjoyed, so full-blown golf was a logical -- and happy -- next step.

There have been unanticipated benefits, he said.

"One of the men said he has trouble interacting with people. This program has him interacting with the PGA pros and the other golfers, and he says that is a great benefit for him," Mr. Coyne said.

Robert Morris is funding the program, which if free to the veterans participating in the first 8-week session.

There is enough funding to keep the program going for a year, a second session is planned in the fall, and golfers and golf-lovers have shown an interest in helping with funding.

"Quicksilver opened their doors to us in the planning stages," Mr. Rota said.

The plan had been to teach driving, pitching and putting skills at RMU's Island Sports Center Dome, and end with a final session at a full golf course.

When the golf dome at the center on Neville Island was damaged by high winds earlier this month, Sean Parees, Quicksilver's director of golf, immediately made their course available to the RMU vets program at no cost.

"We feel like we give our time to them after what they have given us," Mr. Kurp said.

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Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-722-0087. First Published June 21, 2012 9:00 AM


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