The American Lake Veterans Golf Course is on the grounds of the VA Hospital in Lakewood, Washington, about an hour south of Seattle. The Veteran’s Hospital was approved for construction in 1926 and the first building was dedicated in 1929. The golf course, situated on 377 acres, was added shortly after World War II in the mid 1950’s.
However, the nine-hole course was designed as a place of respite rather than rehabilitation and the needs of the disabled were not taken into account. Still, it was a valued asset of the hospital and served patients healing from all types of injuries for many years.
In 1995, the US government withdrew all funding for the operation and maintenance of all VA golf courses. Volunteers negotiated an agreement with the VA Puget Sound Health Care to allow the volunteers to manage the course, but they were financially unable to make any improvements. For the next decade plus, the course fell into serious disrepair and was nearly abandoned.
In 2001, Harold “Pepper” Roberts, a retired teacher, golf pro and veteran of the Korean War, joined the American Lake VGC as a volunteer. The following year, he was asked to join the VA Golf Course’s Board of Directors. It was then that he discovered there were no funds for needed improvements or upkeep of the course. By 2003, it was evident that a non-profit organization was needed to raise funds to support the course and necessary paperwork was filed. The non-profit status was granted in May of 2004 and Pepper became both the founder and President of the Friends of American Lake Veterans Golf Course.
Under his direction, the first project was to install a new sprinkler system, since the old one was leaking 80 thousand gallons per month and it was impossible to keep the fairways green. Next, the volunteers groomed the course, repaired outdated equipment, and managed the activities completely without any financial assistance from the government. They raised funds to cover maintenance and upgrades and made other improvements as funds became available. Most of the volunteers were veterans themselves with an average age of seventy -four yet the amount of volunteer hours recorded as well as their achievements were astounding.
The Friends, with numerous in-kind gifts and cash donations from local foundations, associations and individuals, built a covered driving range, a covered pavilion for veteran’s events, larger tee boxes, handicap-accessible bunkers and greens, and purchased specialized golf carts that allow mobility-impaired golfers to play. They also developed “First Swing” clinics cosponsored by the National Amputee Golf Association and made many improvements to make the driving range more accessible to those with mobility problems. Specialized golf lessons and clinics were offered at no charge to veterans by course pro Pepper Roberts and former PGA Tour Pro Ken Still, with the assistance from other local golf professionals, and this continues today.
The decision was made to reconfigure the course to accommodate the special needs of disabled players. Studies have shown that learning golf can assist disabled veterans learn necessary life skills, both physical and mental, such as balance, coordination, focus and concentration. Through golf, veterans can learn to overcome obstacles, adjust to their disabilities, and to develop a purpose-driven life. The Board of Directors was convinced that the golf course at American Lake needed to provide rehabilitation resources for those who had given so much in service to our country.
Currently, American Lake Veterans Golf Course is the nation’s only golf course designed specifically for the rehabilitation of wounded and disabled veterans. At this unique facility, disabled veterans can hit balls, take lessons from a PGA pro, they go out and play the course. Blind golfers, amputees, and veterans recovering from emotional trauma and other injuries can join able-bodied soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines for camaraderie, support and rounds of golf – all in an atmosphere of honor and acceptance.
Much was – and is still – needed. The golf course supports many different veterans’ communities, including the Washington Soldiers Home, VA Hospital patients, Wounded Warriors from Madigan Army Medical Center and all eligible U.S. veterans and active military personnel. In 2008, the program attracted more than 25,000 veterans and their families and caregivers. Between April and August 2009, veterans played more than 12,000 rounds of golf. The stress on this old course is staggering, yet the demand continues to rise. Additionally, support facilities were needed. The clubhouse was an old mobile home. The only handicap- accessible toilet facilities was an outside “honey bucket”. Additionally, the Friends expect to experience increased patronage due to the increase of wounded warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the spring of 2009, two people joined the Friends to create a new dimension at the course. First, Ken Still introduced his Ryder Cup partner, Jack Nicklaus, to the Friends. Nicklaus was so impressed with the course and its mission that he offered to donate plans for a second nine holes, endorsed the project, and has become one of the Friends most gracious supporters. Second, Gene Lynn donated $500,000 to start the much needed new Rehabilitation and Learning Center. The new facility includes physical therapy areas, training and class rooms, men’s and women’s locker rooms/bathroom, business counter and offices – all completely accessible to those with disabilities. Construction began in July 2009 and was completed in April 2010.
In the fall of 2009, the Friends embarked upon a major campaign to gather funds to expand and enhance the facility. A capital campaign fundraiser was held at BIGHORN Golf Club in Palm Desert where Jack Nicklaus was the featured speaker. This event raised $1,300,000. Jack signed on as Honorary Chairman, as did General John Shalikashvili, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Clinton. Phil Knight of Nike endorsed the program. Several major foundations are supporting the efforts, as does the Order of the Purple Heart, the USGA, both the national and the local USO, and others.
The mission is to provide much-needed rehabilitation and recreational outlet for the growing population of veterans, many of whom are severely disabled. The immediate goal is to build the new nine designed by Jack Nicklaus, the additional nine holes designed and donated by Jack Nicklaus, and to complete improvement s to the original nine holes so as to provide greater accessibility to disabled players.
The total project, when completed, will be a pilot program that can be duplicated across the country and offer this incredible program to thousands of our wounded and disabled warriors. In the meantime, communication is being initiated with amputee centers at both Walter Reed and Brooke Army Medical Centers with hopes that amputees from those facilities will be given the opportunity to spend a few weeks at the VA in Washington to take part in the rehabilitation programs offered through the Friends of American Lake Veterans Golf Course.
Since the course is operated and maintained 100% by volunteer labor, nearly all funds go directly to the improvement and maintenance of the facility.
Thousands of U.S. service men and women have returned from active duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, Viet Nam and Korea with severe physical and psychological wounds that will haunt them forever. Some are single or double amputees, trying desperately to learn to use prosthetics or to survive without limbs. Some have intact bodies, but their minds are shattered by the traumas they have experienced. Many feel stripped of all sense of human dignity and simply wait to die, too often by suicide. Suicide rates among the military now exceed that of the civilian population.
The American Lake Veterans Golf Course offers rehabilitation, therapy, socialization and support to those who have given so much for our country. To restore just one person to a productive life enhances our community. To help just one young soldier turn away from suicide, to ease the feelings of isolation and depression, or to help a family avoid divorce greatly impacts our community. To accomplish these things one hundred times over affects our community and the world far beyond what mere words can describe.