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Veterans find ‘new normal’ through VGA Championship at Fallen Oak

U.S. Army Specialist Andrew Meuse tees off during Monday’s Veteran Golfers Association vet-am at the Fallen Oak golf course in Saucier. The VGA is holding its championship at Fallen Oak this year.
U.S. Army Specialist Andrew Meuse tees off during Monday’s Veteran Golfers Association vet-am at the Fallen Oak golf course in Saucier. The VGA is holding its championship at Fallen Oak this year. Beau Rivage

Over the next couple of days, veterans from across the country will swap stories from down range for those from the driving range as Fallen Oak hosts the second Veteran Golfers Association Championship.

Founded in 2014, the VGA aims enrich the lives of veterans and their families through golf.

All of the golfers on hand for Monday's Vet-Am competition can attest to the VGA's mission statement.

Sgt. Matthew Spang played golf during his youth in Wisconsin. The common joke after Spang joined the Army in 2006 was only officers played the gentleman’s game. Now, the double amputee finds solace in the game he loved growing up.

Spang is one of 82 veterans at Fallen Oak this week who have similar stories and backgrounds. The Championship starts in earnest Tuesday morning and concludes Wednesday. Competition will take place from 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. each day.

Golf can be insanely difficult and frustrating for most. But for Spang and many of his counterparts at Fallen Oak this week, the course is a refuge and provides invaluable therapy they might not find elsewhere.

“For me, golf is a lot more about balance. I can't hit it as far so that's a really big struggle with me mentally because I'm trying to get back to where I was before I was injured,” said Spang, a retired combat engineer who lost both of his legs in Afghanistan in 2011. “... I just push myself to try and get better and that takes my mind off of my injuries or what people think of me because I can joke more and be more myself more on the golf course.

“It's definitely a lot harder and more difficult, but it's my new normal.”

Sitting beside Spang during Monday's press conference in Fallen Oaks' dining hall was Sgt. Ramon Padilla.

Unlike Spang, Padilla didn't take up golf until after he lost a portion of his left arm amputated.

Padilla actually learned golf through a non-profit group at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and is now a 12 handicap.

“Of course I started with one hand only and got a couple of tips,” Padilla recalled of his start in golf. “I hit a ball inside the green and it was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life.”

All of the golfers are competitive and want to win the tournament – SSG Micah Tilley and CW2 Kris Engelhaupt won the men's and women's championships respectively in 2015 – but for many of the veterans, the tournament is about more than their final score.

“Just talking to the gentlemen and sharing stories about the different golf courses we've played and having a beer with them, I think that's (my) ray of sunshine,” Padilla said. “It's just amazing to be around them. It's something a lot of us have grown used to, being around other warriors. Just to continue doing that has been very life changing and very soothing.”

Patrick Ochs: 228-896-2321, @PatrickOchs

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