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Bringing golf to disabled vets, one swing at a time

Jim Martinson, a double- amputee Vietnam veteran, uses a ParaGolfer to tee off in 2014 in Tacoma, Wash.
Jim Martinson, a double- amputee Vietnam veteran, uses a ParaGolfer to tee off in 2014 in Tacoma, Wash. Associated Press file

Jim Rounsavell knows panic, and he knows veterans, and he knows post-traumatic stress disorder, and he knows golf. He’s 87 years old, and he also knows how to get things done. With a little help from an old and revived Sacramento charity group, he is on a precipice. He looks outs in the waning years of his own well-lived life and sees a chance to improve the shattered lives of the disabled and traumatized among America’s fighting men and women, one swing at a time.

Golf has been a huge part of this earthly existence for the native of Wallowa, Ore., who has called Citrus Heights home for the past 30 years. Besides playing and loving the game, Rounsavell has used it to fight off nocturnal panic attacks by visualizing the beauty of the courses he played as a young man. Now, with the help of the newly invigorated Four Robin Hoods charity group of Sacramento and the Sierra Health Foundation, he has obtained a $24,000 ParaGolfer cart that enables people who can’t walk or stand to play the game on their own from tee to flag.

Rounsavell and his wife, Jeanne, hope it can help them make the therapeutic aspects of golf available to vets to help them deal with PTSD and other debilitating effects of war. At one time, the couple sought to obtain a piece of Gibson Ranch Park to build a course. The plan didn’t work out. But through their nonprofit Veterans Golf Park for Disabled Vets, they did raise enough money three years ago to buy the old Sylvan School House in Citrus Heights. On Oct. 29, city officials will christen the building, first constructed in 1862, as the Citrus Heights Veterans Community Center. And it is here where they will roll out the ParaGolfer.

An Army private in Panama toward the end of World War II who re-enlisted to a stateside Air Force mechanic’s job during the Korean War, Jim Rounsavell got motivated to help veterans when his wife’s son from a previous marriage came home from his first tour in the Iraq War with his mind messed up. Jeanne’s son was a field medic who couldn’t erase the images of the burned remains of soldiers he once had to extract from a Bradley Fighting Vehicle that hit a roadside bomb. His trauma became his parents’ passion, and it sparked an idea in Rounsavell’s head, to roll out for veterans the same thing that had always worked for him when he needed relief from a worried mind – golf.

Rounsavell, who sold condos and medical insurance for a living, once had to undergo an MRIam. As it does to many, the close confines of the machine freaked him out. Inside, he closed his eyes and thought back to the first courses he ever played. His memories relaxed him into sleep.

These days, anxiety occasionally creeps into his bones when he wakes up in the middle of the night. To fight off the nocturnal panic, he returns to the visuals he retains in his mind of the greens of Tillamook and Westport in his native Oregon.

“Golf is good therapy because it’s played in a happy place,” Rounsavell said this week, sitting in the old schoolhouse-turned-veteran’s center. “It’s played in a park, a park manicured for you, and it’s structured in a social structure that’s highly favorable to people getting along together and respecting each other. Then the sun is beating on your back, and you have a nice little breeze in your face, watching the seasons come and go.”

Enter his need to obtain the ParaGolfer. The word got out to the Four Robin Hoods, initially formed in the mid-1960s for the purposes of surreptitious giving to good causes. Two of the original members, Mark Cohn and Ken Cayocca, are still with us. A bunch of others, including former Sacramento newscasters such as Jennifer Whitney and Stan Atkinson, have since revived the club, and they scraped up $12,000 to match Sierra Health’s contribution.

Now the ParaGolfer is ready to roll.

First, the Rounsavells plan to get the disabled vets comfortable with the cart indoors, in the veteran’s center, where the prospects will learn to operate it and lower themselves on a lift to chip balls into a backstop-type device that Jeanne fashioned years ago. From there, they’ll go out to Mather Golf Course, where the vets will expand on their strokes all the way out to hitting woods off the tee. In time, the hope is that they’ll be able, individually, to play a few holes at a time with family and friends, on their way to the same joys – and miseries – experienced by anybody who’s ever been bitten by the golf bug.

At some point, Rounsavell said he’ll be looking for volunteers to help him help the vets learn the game.

“It will be very important to them,” said Roger Hultman a 66-year-old Vietnam vet who is a regular at the Citrus Heights center. “They’ve got their limbs missing and everything else. This gives them the ability to play the game.

“When you get out there,” Hultman added, “it gets your mind off your PTSD problems. If gives you a definite focus where you’re shuttering everything else out, instead of thinking about what you went through and all that stuff that goes through your head that you can’t get rid of.”

Once the program gets going in Sacramento, Jim Rounsavell’s dream is for veteran’s groups to carry it across the country. But even if he can get only a few vets in Citrus Heights on the course, it should be enough for a visual of another happy place to get him through the night.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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