He was 27 days away from returning back to his home in California when Staff Sergeant KC Mitchell’s Humvee hit a roadside bomb outside Kandahar in Afghanistan. He was the only one in the vehicle injured, but the bomb’s damage to the solider was widespread, including massive injuries to his legs and arms.
In the weeks and months that followed, Mitchell, then 25, began the long road back to recovery while doctors tried to save his legs. They weren’t entirely successful and Mitchell eventually had part of his left leg removed, with an additional 30 surgeries to try to save the right one.
About a year later, Mitchell was rehabbing back in California when he encountered Operation Game On, a golf program launched by Tony Perez, the father of PGA Tour pro Pat Perez. The program is aimed at involving wounded vets in the sport. Mitchell, an athlete before joining the military, decided it would be interesting to try the game. He picked up a club and struggled to stay balanced. But when he hit his first solid shot he was hooked.
That was two years ago. Now Mitchell plays to a 12-handicap and has broken 80.
“I’d never played before,” he says. “I hate it but I love it so much at the same time. It goes well with my injuries. I get frustrated with my injuries and I get frustrated by golf, but then you get better and overcome it.”
Mitchell was at rustic golf course near a veterans’ hospital in Los Angeles earlier this week as part of a promotion by golf equipment company TaylorMade, part of the Adidas empire. TaylorMade had its new driver – the R1 – dropped from the sky with the help of skydivers, and the clubs were then presented to Mitchell and some colleagues, all wounded veterans who have used golf as part of their rehabilitation.
Big names like Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia showed up to hang with the veterans and hand out some clubs. In most circumstances where golf is concerned, the pros are the heroes of the day. But on a cool afternoon with the sun high in the sky it was Mitchell and his military buddies who were the focus of the attention.
“It is great that people should get behind it given what these guys do for us,” says Pat Perez, who has played on the PGA Tour for the last decade. “The game is hard, but as far as they see they are walking around and breathing clean air. They are excited to be out there whether they have one leg or no legs. It is awesome.”
Perez’s father, a Vietnam vet, launched the program in his hometown of San Diego. More than 200 vets have gone through the program, with companies like TaylorMade providing gear.
“I wanted to do my part and I’ve been involved with golf since Pat was eight, so this is what I do best,” he explains.
A vast majority of the soldiers never played the game before becoming involved in the program, Perez says. But they take to it quickly, he adds, despite the fact it is a difficult sport for people who haven’t suffered the traumas the vets are struggling to overcome.
“They have a can-do attitude and they figure it out,” he says.
Mitchell now plays occasionally with Ruben Cervantez, a member of the Navy who suffered a brain injury in Iraq. Cervantez says his playing partner has become quite a player.
“He can really hit it,” Cervantez says quietly as Mitchell wanders off to have a head cover signed by Johnson.
As for Mitchell, he has no time for self-pity. He had to take some time away from golf recently when he had another surgery on his leg, but found returning to the game after a few weeks off was relatively easy. And despite the horrible injuries he suffered, he wouldn’t ask for a mulligan.
“There were 11 guys with me,” Mitchell says about the accident in Afghanistan. “They all got through. I was staff sergeant so they were my guys. If someone had to take the blast it should have been me. If I had to do it all over again I’d do everything the same.”
No one should feel sorry for Mitchell. He’s planning for the rest of his life, changing his aspirations from a career in the military to one with U.S. Homeland Security. And though his life will certainly continue to change and evolve from the path he expected when he entered the military, he’s sure of one thing — golf will be part of it.