After Bobby Hutchinson lost his leg in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm, he thought he’d never play golf again.
“I had it in my head that that chapter in my life was over,” said Hutchinson, who was a heavy equipment operator in the U.S. Navy Construction Battalion when his leg was crushed in an accident in Saudi Arabia.
Then he heard about Boots on the Green, a partnership between University of Missouri Extension, the School of Natural Resources and the St. Louis Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
“I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! I’m going to be able to golf?’” recalled Hutchinson at the driving range of Arlington Greens this April, an 18-hole public golf course in Granite City, Ill.
For the last five years, Boots on the Green has helped veterans with disabilities enjoy the therapeutic benefits of golf.
“Golf is a great medium for therapeutic recreation because it uses all the facets,” said Jerry Hitzhusen, MU associate professor of parks, recreation and tourism, and coordinator of the project. “You have your mental, your physical and your social facets in golf. And there are benefits to just being outdoors on a golf course rather than at the VA hospital, where most of these men reside.”
Sports and Games with a Purpose
Individuals with disabling conditions represent a large and growing sector of the population. More than 54 million Americans have been identified as having a physical, visual, hearing, cognitive or other disability. By some estimates, the disability community comprises nearly one-fifth of the American population.
Disabilities can occur due to disease, injury or wartime wounds. According to the National Organization on Disability, individuals with disabling conditions spend significantly less time outside the home, socializing and going out, than individuals without disabilities. They tend to feel more isolated, and participate in fewer community activities than their non-disabled counterparts. These are problems that traditional physical therapy cannot help. Isolation and lack of exercise can exacerbate physical problems.
Persons with disabilities are being joined by an aging population — persons 65 years or older numbered 40 million in 2010, representing about one in every eight Americans. By 2030, there will be about 71.5 million older persons.
Recreational therapy is a treatment concept using sport or other fun activity to restore, remediate and rehabilitate a person’s level of functioning and independence in life activities through exercise and socialization.
Recreational therapists work with clients to restore motor and cognitive functioning, build confidence, develop coping skills and integrate skills learned in treatment settings into community and social settings.
Goals include improving a person’s ability to function in daily activities, communicate, cope with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, hone better motor skills, improve self-expression and self-esteem, and manage stress. Adaptive sport has been recognized as helping military veterans reintegrate into the larger society.
Tools to accomplish this can be crafts, board games, music, dance and drama, among others. Sports interventions can include team golf, bowling, wheelchair tennis and basketball, horseback riding, adventure programming, dance/movement and leisure education.
A Hub for Recreational Therapy Activities
Hitzhusen, who works with VA therapists and instructors to organize golf clinics and tournaments for the program, has been involved with therapeutic recreation for more than 40 years. In 1971 he started the Midwest Symposium on Therapeutic Recreation, which has become a model for providing professional training and continuing education in the field.
Hitzhusen is one of the pioneers in therapeutic recreation as a profession. He is the chair of the President’s Handicapped Leisure and Recreation Committee, director of SNR’s Project Life (Leisure Is For Everyone), member of the Missouri Minority Institute on Health and Aging, chair of the International Committee for National Therapeutic Recreation Society, member of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources State ADA Committee, and has lectured in Japan, England, Scotland, Australia, Israel, Germany, Italy and Canada
Hitzhusen said golf has features that make it particularly suited for therapeutic recreation. It’s a challenging sport, but unlike basketball it doesn’t require extended periods of physical exertion. Golf encourages socializing, and the handicapping system lets golfers with different abilities or skill levels to play each other competitively.
Advances in assistive technology have made golf courses accessible to players with limited mobility. Hutchinson is able to golf in large part thanks to opportunity to use special single-person golf carts, which a growing number of golf courses are making available to disabled golfers. Golfers who are unable to stand can raise, lower and pivot the seat to address the ball without dismounting.
“Boots on the Green has been a godsend,” commented Gary York, an Army veteran who returned unscathed from the Vietnam War but as a civilian lost his legs in railroad accident. He plays golf twice a week driving his own single-seat cart. His “swingless” golf club uses small explosive charges to propel the ball across the fairway.
Since getting involved in the program, York has become a mentor to other disabled veterans. “I meet guys that say, ‘Oh, I can’t do this. I’m handicapped.’ You can play golf. If I can play golf, you can play golf. They find that out once they get out here. That’s the greatest thing.”