Operation Game On graduates its first all-female class

Operation Game On graduates its first all-female class
Operation Game On’s first all-female group includes, from left: founder Tony Perez, Nicole Heffel, Doni Whitfield, Lisa Kukula, Terrilynn Monzon, Rocio Ruiz, instructor Christopher Lesson, Rowena Darvin, Christina Cortez and Olga Mireles. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek

DEL MAR — Operations Game On is just completing its first all-female session. And based on comments from the eight participants, the golf lessons for combat-injured troops were not all about learning how to pitch, putt and drive.

“It’s more than golf,” Petty Officer Nicole Heffel said. “It’s connecting with other veterans who all come from different paths. The camaraderie is the best part.”

“This gave me the opportunity to find my sisters again,” said Spc. Rocio Ruiz, who has a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq and Kuwait. “I realized I’m not the only one going through what I’m going through.”

Operation Game On was created by Rancho Santa Fe resident Tony Perez in 2008 for soldiers returning from Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom who are severely physically and mentally injured and going through rehabilitation. Experts at the Naval Medical Center found golf is an essential link to the rehabilitation process.

Participating troops receive a series of one-hour golf lessons from PGA-certified instructors at the Del Mar Golf Center and a professional fitting session by the staff at The Kingdom at TaylorMade Golf.

Everything is provided at no cost to the participants or the military.

Operation Game On is open to anyone undergoing treatment at the Naval Medical Center San Diego, Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton and the Veterans Administration’s Aspire Center and Vietnam War veterans.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Rowena Darvin warms up on the driving range.  Photo by Bianca Kaplanek

Army Sgt. 1st Class Rowena Darvin warms up on the driving range. Photo by Bianca Kaplanek

Throughout the years Perez said he has had “a sprinkling of women” in the men’s classes.

“I wanted to give the ladies their own program so they didn’t have to compete with the guys,” he added.

But that hasn’t eliminated the competitive drive for Heffel, who has played golf for nearly a decade but never had formal training.

She suggested the program to her boyfriend, Darren D’Ambrogi, who served in the Marines.

“He had never played before and now he’s better than me,” she said. “I’m not handling that very well.”

Army Staff Sgt. Terrilynn Monzon said the program helps her in her role as caregiver.

“It gives me the opportunity to be with other vets,” she said. “But it also keeps me in a place of peace and joy in the mind, spirit and body to be able to love on others. There are people going through so much. We have to encourage one another.”

Monzon said she is hoping to get her husband, who is combat-wounded, involved in Operation Game On.

Ruiz, who is also dealing with depression, said she would recommend the program to anyone.

“I had a lot of things I was going through,” she said. “I was giving up on everything.

This is helping.”

“A lot of the programs are sport-related to help us transition and deal with stress,” Petty Officer Olga Mireles said. “I do all of them. But this is awesome. I stay so focused.”

Visit operationgameon.org for more information.

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