While offering tips to improve a military veteran’s golf swing, golf pro Mark Burke suggested the older student shift his weight to the left.
“All of sudden, he smacks himself in his own leg with the club,” Burke recalls. “I could hear that it was wood. I hadn’t known that he had a prosthetic leg.”
The two chuckled and carried on with the lesson.
“I often really don’t know what someone’s facing, and it’s usually better not to pursue,” explains Burke, who has run the Golf for Injured Veterans Everywhere (GIVE) program from his patriotically themed, nine-hole Warrior Run course in Norwalk, Iowa, for a little over a year. “So we basically cover it all by telling participants that if we try to get you to do something uncomfortable, just tell us.”
The GIVE program started about eight years ago in Iowa City, about two hours away from Burke, who began volunteering as an instructor there on Saturdays. His involvement grew as the popularity of the program – free to veterans who want to learn the game – soared. Three years ago he got involved full time; he’s now director of the state’s second program and helping to get another launched in northwest Iowa.
As Burke is awarded today with the Daily Point of Light Award, so is a pair of golfers from Surrey, England. Tristan Crew and Zeno Gomes (UK awardees 118 and 119) provide equipment, coaching and opportunities for military heroes recovering from life-changing injuries.
The Daily Point of Light Award, created by President George H. W. Bush in the United States in 1989, celebrates the power of individuals to spark change and improve the world. Prime Minister David Cameron started the daily award in the UK earlier this year to recognize outstanding individuals who are voluntarily making change in their communities and inspiring others.
In Iowa, about 500 veterans – with injuries ranging from amputations to post-traumatic stress disorder to blindness – have taken advantage of the GIVE program, and the benefits go far beyond learning the game.
“Well, there’s just nothing like it for vets,” says Burke, 59, who served four years with the Navy Seabees himself before a career in the construction industry and taking up golf at age 30. “They’re smiling, they’re finding reasons to get up and get moving and doing things with other people.”
“I’m truly grateful for what they’ve done for us – for being selfless enough to put their lives on the line for our country,” says Burke. “I want to let them know that we thank them – especially the older vets, who maybe were not thanked enough.”
Jerry Alton feels that sense of appreciation.
Even after losing most use of his left arm when caught in a grenade explosion in Vietnam, he stayed active, walking a daily mail route for the U.S. Postal Service. But pulmonary problems, and eventually diabetes, took a toll. Alton’s weight soared to more than 400 pounds, and he had to retire early. In 2011 he enrolled in a fitness program, which helped him lose weight. This spring he decided to try the GIVE program.
“I feel so much better,” says Alton, 66. “Mark just made it all so comfortable. He’s a really caring, exceptional guy. The program has been a real godsend.”
Jeff Skowers, a recreation therapy assistant for the VA Central Iowa Health Care System, went through the program last year to see whether it would work for the vets he helps treat.
“It does a lot to lift the spirits of veterans,” says Skowers, noting that participants receive free set of donated golf clubs they get to keep – and can golf for free at Burke’s course for life. “It’s what they look forward to every week now.”
Iowa National Guard Capt. Katherine Barton, who served in Iraq, went through the GIVE program after seeing the benefits it had for her younger brother, Staff Sgt. Aaron Amos, who injured his back in Afghanistan.
“I didn’t have any physical injuries,” says Barton, 32, “but I think everyone comes back from tours different, mentally and physically.”
Barton says she was impressed with Burke from the first day of her six-week program. “You know, there’s a saying in the military that `veterans take care of veterans,’ and Mark is doing that – giving back in the most grand way possible,” she says.
Burke, who grew up on a farm, the oldest of 11 children, says his volunteer spirit came from his parents: “My mom and dad were generous beyond their means. If any family in town needed help with anything – baling hay, harvesting – Dad would be there, and making a plan for all of us to help.”
Now Burke is making a plan for GIVE.
“The long-term goal is to make this happen all across the country,” he says. “This is a good start.”