To understand how one small woman, one big golf property and one giant dream fit together, you have to appreciate Andrea Politte's passion. You have to embrace her conviction. You have to know about her son.
Zachary Politte served three tours of duty in Iraq. He was an electrical engineer and left-side door gunner on a CH-46 helicopter, part of a casualty evacuation unit. Their missions went by the call sign of DUSTOFF, or Dedicated Unhesitating Service To Our Fighting Forces. They operated in the eye of the storm, risking life and limb to transport battlefield casualties under dire circumstances.
During his last tour, a fire broke out and the helicopter lost an engine. It pitched violently to the left, nearly throwing Zachary out the open door. He was saved only by his machine gun getting in the way. He suffered injuries in the incident, but for a third time, survived a hard landing.
Perhaps he survived because of the angel medallion he carried in his pocket. It was given to him by the parents of Gregory Millard, a solider killed in an IED explosion on Memorial Day 2007, an incident to which Zachary's unit responded. He didn't know Gregory, but he held him in the helicopter that day, trying to comfort and reassure him, as he did so many dying boys.
"He was unusual," Zachary Politte remembered. "Everybody in that situation is scared they're going to die. But (Gregory) was calm, almost as if he accepted what had happened. Right before he passed, he grabbed my hand, looked me in the eyes and smiled."
Months later, Zachary was back in the States when he walked into a bicycle shop near his base in San Diego. He struck up a conversation with the owners, parents of the soldier pictured on the wall. Their son was killed in action in Iraq, they explained. The parties became fast friends.
It took a while, but something clicked. Zachary researched his missions log, flipping through the tattered pages and scribbled entries until he got to Memorial Day 2007. He realized for the first time that the owners of the bicycle shop were Gregory Millard's parents.
He told them about the final moments of their son's life, how he was at peace. He gave grieving parents a closure they would never have known. And on a hot summer Memorial Day ceremony in 2008, in full Marine dress blues, he stood for hours, stood for Army Reserve soldier Gregory Millard.
It's about duty and honor, things from which so many of us benefit, things many of us so frequently take for granted. And this is about one small woman, one big golf property and one giant dream to change that.
Andrea Politte wants to make honoring fallen heroes, military veterans and emergency responders an everyday occurrence, a recreational exercise. She is trying to turn Deer Creek USA Golf Events Center
in House Springs, Mo., into a therapeutic place for those who serve, a place of pride and awareness for those who benefit, a place of honor.
But she needs help.
"History doesn't get made very often, and it doesn't get made easily," Politte said. "But creating it is so special. I want to do something here that's never been done, and it's gonna work. I just need people to support it. I need the community to get behind it."
She got the inspiration when friends, Tom and Kathy Kerr, showed her the property off Dulin Creek Road, near the intersection of Gravois Road and Highway MM in House Springs. The Kerrs had assumed the facility by default. They had no interest in keeping it. Deer Creek had been on the market for a while.
Since opening in 1989, the property always has had enormous potential. The 200 acres of unspoiled Jefferson County terrain presents captivating landscapes. But golf facilities in relatively remote locations need to be marketed and promoted.
The club has gone through several management changes. As the golf boom of the 1990s subsided, money got tight. Not much was coming out, even less was going in. One summer, an area golf guide listed Deer Creek as "closed" when it actually remained open. That's not good for business.
When the Kerrs showed their enchanting albatross to Politte, it was 6,500 yards of neglected golf course, 30,000 square feet of deteriorating clubhouse, a fleet of antiquated golf carts and a collection of run-down parts and equipment.
In the most generous stretch of imagination, it represented a daunting undertaking. But as Politte took the scenic drive to the clubhouse, walked out on the expansive deck to the enchanting view, it represented something entirely different – a dream come true.
"It just felt like I was home," she said. "Something very, very familiar just all of a sudden took over. I just knew this place was really something special. I told them right then, 'No, you can't sell this place.'"
For more than 30 years, Politte built a successful business as a hair and makeup specialist. She worked on movie and television sets, commercial shoots, political campaigns. She worked with Leonardo DiCaprio, Blake Shelton and politicians like a young Illinois senator named Barack Obama. Her last client was Donald Trump.
She knows a lot about business. She knows little about operating a golf club and banquet center.
At the same time, her son never completely left Iraq. He brought it home. Zachary is 32 now. His lungs are diminished from inhaling helicopter exhaust. He has hearing loss, brain trauma and early signs of Parkinson's from those many harrowing assignments and hard landings.
Like so many veterans, he deals with the demons his experience planted, the sight of unspeakable things, the words of dying young men. But duty and honor have been a way of life in the family. Andrea Politte's father, Donald Green, worked on B-52 bombers during the 1950s. Her sister, Gabriel Crocker, worked on guided missiles and also is a disabled veteran.
After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Andrea helped raise money for the New York and New Jersey Port Authority and police departments. When Hurricane Irene hit in 2011, she volunteered for the Red Cross, helping victims in New Jersey get food and shelter. She also has worked with Michael Reagan's Fallen Heroes Project. This isn't a talk, this is a walk.
"My dad always taught us to respect and honor the flag and what it stands for, to be grateful every day for the people who sacrifice," Politte said.
When she saw Deer Creek, a seed planted in the back of her mind blossomed into a vision. She asked the owners to let her purchase the property.
"I knew right away," she said. "(The owners) asked me, 'What would you do with it?' And I told them. 'I'd make it an honors course. I'd make it the first all honors course in history where you honor all those who served, protected and sacrificed.
"'They'd have a place they could come and feel at home. They have like minds, like hearts. They could be comfortable here, they could be safe and they could heal. And people in the community could come and enjoy the property, play golf and show support to those heroes.'"
Ambitious, yes. But does building a football stadium seem more rational?
Theme-oriented golf facilities are not new. Golf is perhaps the ultimate leisure sport, Mark Twain's "good walk spoiled," the sumptuous escape from everyday tedium. As Politte puts it, "What better connection than to be playing golf on a course that honors those who make it possible, to remind you the reason you're here is because somebody's got your back?"
She took ownership on Dec. 30, 2013, with big plans that call for big efforts. She wants each tee box to pay tribute to a different branch of the military and emergency responders. She wants to put commemorative statuary and patriotic presentations throughout the property. She wants to dedicate space in the expansive clubhouse to therapeutic and wellness services for those who served.
"It's really kind of a neat idea," said Tom Larkin, deputy chief of the High Ridge Fire Protection District. The district has a golf tournament at Deer Creek each year. "She's got a passion for first-responders and the military. She's just working her tail off to try to get that property off the ground. She takes care of the veterans, the firemen. ... Every time we ask for anything, she's always very good to us, and any time we can help her we do.
"It's a lot for her, but I'll tell you what, she's strong, she's feisty. I don't think she's ever failed at anything. Everything she's done, she's worked hard for. She doesn't give up on things."
Politte – all 5-feet-1 1/2 , 105 pounds of her – is not going to give up on her honors course, either. But she needs help.
She needs support from the community, sponsorships, capital, investors. She needs others to embrace the spirit of her endeavor. She has started the Fore Honors Foundation, not only to support her concept, but to support other organizations providing discounted services, activities and programs for those affected by post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Her foundation recently was granted not-for-profit status, so donations can be tax exempt. Deer Creek does not charge veterans or first-responders greens fees. Currently, Politte has to charge a cart fee because she is leasing the carts. The golf rates she charges the public are relatively modest, $27 for 18 holes with cart, $36 on weekends
Restored and properly maintained, Deer Creek is a uniquely scenic, entertaining course with impressive vistas and a dynamic clubhouse. Events have started to trickle in, a wedding last weekend, a golf tournament soon.
Politte has had support from family and friends, people who have donated time and skills to make improvements, to help with services. She can only afford a paid staff of four. The needs still easily exceed the haves.
She has not had a paycheck since she started. She has exhausted her savings in equipment and materials. All she has left is her car, her irrepressible energy and her unshakeable faith. She's not about to stand down. "If those who have served can put their lives on the line, I can put my savings on the line," Politte said. "I'm dedicated to the mission, just like they are. I have to work in faith. I have to do what I feel I'm supposed to be doing. This is supposed to be."
It's about duty. It's about honor.
This article was written by Dan O'Neill from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.