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Heroes on the fairway

JOHNSON COUNTY– Fifteen years ago, Eldon Miller of Kalona didn’t find enough opportunities for people like himself to participate in sports competitions.
Miller is a veteran, and he is blind.
An avid downhill skier, Miller had been to Colorado to join in that state’s winter games for veterans, but found nothing similar when he returned home to Iowa.
Miller and another blind veteran approached staff at the Veterans Affairs (V.A.) Medical Center in Iowa City.
“We wanted to find something blind people could do,” Miller said. “We can’t really play basketball very easily.”
V.A. Medical Center public affairs specialist Kirt Sickels was able to help organize the TEE Tournament for Blinded Veterans, a multi-day golf tournament that just concluded its fifteenth year. This year’s event was held Sept. 9 through 11, at golf courses in Iowa City, Riverside, West Branch, and at Solon’s Lake MacBride Golf Course and North Liberty’s Quail Creek Golf Course.
Each golfer is assigned a volunteer to help line up the shots and drive through the course.
In past years, the TEE Tournament was specifically for blinded veterans; however, Sickels, who has organized the tournament every year, said the event just earned status from the Veterans Health Administration headquarters as a national game, which required inclusion of all injured veterans.The first year, 34 golfers from four Midwestern states participated; through word-of-mouth the event grew, and, in its largest tournament to date, saw 140 golfers from 28 states. This year’s Tee Tournament had 119 golfers, including 19 veterans with injuries other than visual impairments.
“The vets love it because they get to talk to and meet so many new people,” said Sickels, noting this year’s participants ranged in age from 23 to 89 years. “There is an awful lot of sharing and engagement going on.”
Beyond the social benefits, the golfers are also there to compete for prizes. The tournament is a four-person best ball tournament for most golfers, with a separate category for advanced golfers. The championship is an 18-hole game, and the winners’ names are displayed on plaques at the V.A. here and in Washington, D.C.
With the change in status to a national competition, Sickels said the event will grow.
“It will probably triple in size,” he said. “I expect we will have around 300 golfers next year.”
That means Sickels could be looking for three times the number of volunteers to help with next year’s tournament, scheduled for Sept. 7 through 10, 2009.
“It takes about 250 volunteers to pull this off,” Sickels noted, as each golfer is paired one-on-one with a golf buddy. “We have been fortunate to be in such a caring and supportive community. Our volunteers have always helped us out, and it just couldn’t happen without them.”
Golf buddies don’t have to be experienced on the links; a training program will teach volunteers– even non-golfing ones– how to give advice on lining up a shot, swinging and other technical aspects of the game.
“We can teach the volunteers everything they want to know,” Sickels said. “If someone can drive a golf cart and offer their eyesight, we can assist them in being a golf buddy.”
Seventeen-year-old Megan Quinn of Solon is a four-year member of the Solon High School golf team and one of this year’s Tee Tournament volunteers.
“The veterans had a lot of inspiring stories to tell about their lives and how they met,” said Quinn. “One of the veterans told the story of how another guy in his group inspired him to keep on living his life (after becoming injured).”
Quinn said she was surprised at how independent many of the golfers were. Given her experience, she said, she would volunteer again.
“Yeah, I would do it time after time,” she said. “It was a lot of fun.”
This summer’s tournament was particularly special for the 56-year-old veteran Miller, who was injured while serving in the Army during the Vietnam war; he was given the 2008 Wayne Earl/Hampton Hill award as the veteran who best personifies the purpose and character of the Tee Tournament. His energy and spirit were evident even over the phone, as he talked from his home in Kalona about his love for water skiing, downhill snow skiing and playing golf.
“This tournament gives you the chance to have a good time outdoors, doing something you really enjoy, that other people take for granted,” Miller said.
“(As a blind veteran) you are the only one around who can’t see. This gives you a chance to get together with people who are like you, and you compare notes on how you do things in every day life. It’s very meaningful for us veterans.”
The meaning is also what has kept Sickels involved for 15 years.
“Just to see the smiles on the veterans’ faces, and the pure enjoyment they have, is what keeps me motivated every year,” Sickels remarked. “You have a room full of heroes who have given so much, and this is just a little piece that we can give back.”