DEL MAR — Although there are few, if any, severely combat-injured active-duty troops currently going through rehabilitation at the Naval Medical Center San Diego or Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton, Tony Perez didn’t see that as a reason to slow down Operation Game On, a golf rehabilitation program he founded in 2008.
In fact, the Rancho Santa Fe resident saw it as an opportunity to help more of the brave men and women who fight for our freedom.
“Our focus was on the troops still in the military with severe combat injuries going through rehab,” Perez said. “Now our focus has shifted to the veterans still going through rehab for their severe injuries but now through the VA hospital system.
“It’s the beginning of another chapter for our combat wounded veterans,” he added. “They’ve earned it.”
His first group of veterans recently completed eight weeks of beginner classes that culminated April 27 at the Del Mar Golf Center with a skills challenge consisting of putting, chipping and driver competitions.
Having never really played the sport before, Marine Corps Maj. Doug Cullins, who lives in Carlsbad and is actually still on active duty, was skeptical at first.
“I didn’t think I’d like it,” he said, adding that someone from the Wounded Warrior Project told him a couple of people found golf to be relaxing and rehabilitating.
“And I found that to be exactly true, for a couple of reasons,” said Cullins, who has served since 1998. “Golf is technically complicated and it requires 100 percent of your focus. It also helps me work on patience and not sweat the small stuff.
“A lot of guys here, including myself, are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, so this certainly helps,” he added. “It also helps with balance and coordination.”
Experts at the Naval Medical Center found golf is an essential link to the rehabilitation process for combat-wounded military personnel with extreme physical and mental disabilities.
In addition to the free lessons from PGA-certified instructors who volunteer with the program, Operation Game On participants receive a professional session at The Kingdom at TaylorMade Golf for custom-fitted TaylorMade clubs, as well as bags, Adidas shoes, gloves and balls and playing opportunities throughout the county.
Since 2011 Perez has expanded the program to include lessons for troops undergoing rehabilitation at Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton after that facility opened about a year ago, all spouses of the troops and veterans of the Vietnam War.
Cullins, who didn’t think he’d like the game, scored the first point of the day and tied with Jack Stanfield for first place in the skills challenge.
He and his fellow new golfers will attend their fitting session at TaylorMade this month, then begin the 10-week intermediate course. Perez said he already has a waiting list for the next session for veterans, which begins June 1.
After four tours of duty in Iraq, Cullins said the game has made a difference in his life.
“There are a lot of hardships, especially with family,” he said. “But I come away from this smiling.”