GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — They looked like any golfers sharing a beer and a laugh after a round on the Bay Course at Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club on Saturday afternoon.
They were much more than that, however.
Most of the golfers were U.S. military veterans, competing in the Veterans Golf Association’s North Super Regional.
Like any golfers, the veterans relished every birdie, but the sport means more to them than what the scorecard says.
“I have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” said Jason Knocke, a 42-year-old Army veteran from Mays Landing. “It’s great for my PTSD. I can go and forget about things. It’s losing yourself in the game. You don’t think about your other issues.”
This weekend’s tournament at Seaview is one of four regional qualifiers being held around the country this month. The two-round event concludes Sunday.
Seventy-eight golfers teed off Saturday morning. They are competing in different flights and categories. Twenty golfers will advance to the VGA National Championship on Oct. 10-11 at Fallen Oak Golf Club in Saucier, Mississippi.
“This brings competition back into my life,” Knocke said.
Veterans Josh Peyton and Aaron Ojard founded the VGA after meeting at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. Both were at Seaview on Saturday.
Peyton, who spent most of his military career with the 82nd Airborne Division, nearly lost his right hand in a vehicle rollover accident in Iraq in 2011.
While at Walter Reed, Peyton and Ojard played golf through the Salute Military Golf Association, an organization whose slogan is “empowering wounded veterans, one fairway at a time.”
After he returned to active duty, Peyton missed the camaraderie of playing golf with his fellow servicemen and veterans, so he and Ojard founded the VGA. The organization has grown from 300 members in 2014 to 2,500 this year.
The VGA’s mission is to promote golf to veterans and their families. Sometimes it’s easier for veterans to share their troubles with each other walking down a fairway than it is at a therapy session in a doctor’s office or hospital. Peyton noted that 22 veterans commit suicide every day.
“That means in some shape or fashion they are not getting things they need to survive,” Peyton said. “What the VGA does other than create relationships and tournament experiences, it gives them an opportunity to set goals for themselves.
“We don’t profess to cure PTSD or traumatic brain injuries. We focus on fun, camaraderie and competition. Those three things really resonate with our members.”
Trevor Jenni, a 1993 Absegami High School graduate, also competed Saturday. He hadn’t played golf in more than 10 years before he joined the VGA.
Jenni, 42, served 18 years in the Army and saw tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Galloway Township resident has post-traumatic stress disorder and also suffered a brain injury when a mortar shell in Afghanistan exploded 20 meters from him and hurled him into a mortar pit.
“I get to be out here (playing golf) with guys who served and are going through the same things I’m going through,” Jenni said. “I can share experiences with them.”
Many of the veterans wore red, white and blue on their shirts, shorts and spikes. They are competitive. The VGA requested that Bay Course have the same pin placement as it did for the $1.5 million ShopRite LPGA Classic in June.
“The military’s competitive spirit is what bonds all of us regardless of what branch you’re in,” Peyton said. “We’re not in the business of losing America’s wars. We have to win.”
Sometimes what happens after the round is just as important as what occurs on the course.
“It’s great hanging out with the guys,” Knocke said. “If you weren’t in the military, you can watch all the movies you want. You can read the books you want. But you’ll never understand it. I’ve made a lot of friends through the VGA.”
Like any golfers hooked on the sport, they talked about that one drive, chip or putt that was the highlight of the day.
Jenni hit a flop shot to within five feet of the pin on one hole.
“I could sit in my house and do nothing,” he said. “At one time, I was almost a statistic. It’s a great thing that golf has done for me. I really love it. Without it, I don’t know where I’d be.”