Golf helps heals wounds for disabled Gulf War veteran

By Mark Wiedmer
Published on

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- At 2:04 p.m. Wednesday, Andrew Smith exited his golf cart at Council Fire's No. 1 tee box, grabbed his oversized Wilson Staff driver, walked the slight rise to the markers on his two prosthetic legs, then coolly drilled his tee shot more than 200 yards in a straight line toward the flagstick of the par 4 hole.

"Perfect," said his playing partner, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga golfer Wes Gosselin. "Right down the middle."

There has been little else perfect in the 29-year-old Smith's life since March 8, 2012, the day he stepped on an improvised explosive device outside Kandahar, Afghanistan. He was just 18 days into his tour of duty with the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, N.C., and less than three months removed from his and Tori's wedding.

"I remember flying through the air, dust everywhere, hitting the ground, then the medic rushing in to help me," Smith recalled as he told the UTC men's golf team of his tragedy. "Both my legs were amputated, my pelvis was broken, one eardrum was busted. And the glass and nails inside the bomb tore me up. But a helicopter got me out of there 12 minutes later."

Five days after that he was back in the United States at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, having been heavily sedated since his injury.

"I don't actually remember this," Smith said, "but I've been told that the doctors came in and said, 'Specialist Smith, we had to amputate both your legs.' I just kind of nodded then fell back asleep.'"

But the loss of his right leg just above the knee and his left leg just below the knee arguably represented the least of his troubles. The nails and glass had shredded his digestive system. It took 41 surgeries and more than 10 months to permanently return Smith to solid food.

"There were tons of midnight surgeries," Smith said. "One night I was in such bad shape that they did the surgery right on my bed. They couldn't risk moving me. But I was lucky. My wife was there for the entire 22-month recovery. And I still don't have nightmares. I attribute that to the grace of God."

He explains the severity of the internal wounds in a single story: After about four months, he was finally allowed to go out to eat one night with his wife. He could eat whatever he wanted.

"I wanted pizza," he said, "because it was greasy."

But as Tori and Andrew were leaving the restaurant, he noticed one of his wounds had opened.

"I was pretty sure I saw pepperoni coming out of my stomach," he said.

Unfortunately for Smith, more than 30 surgeries and the mounting scar tissue made further surgery impossible at that time.

"They told me there'd be no more eating or drinking for six to eight months, that everything would be through a tube in my arm," he said. "I'd never felt sorry for myself before. Being a soldier in a post-9/11 world, I'd known I could be deployed and this could happen. But that day was when I felt the real gravity of my situation. That's when I got depressed."

That's also when the Lee University history major believes a miracle happened. The wound that was supposed to take up to eight months to heal instead closed in two months and four days. Smith could eat again. He began to get his strength back. Finally, a therapist handed Smith a golf club and told him to begin to swing it to help improve his balance.

"I'd played baseball at Chattanooga Christian [School]," Smith said of his second baseman days with the Chargers. "I'd been physically active at Lee. But I'd never been that into golf."

But he tried. Hard.

He and Tori eventually visited a driving range.

"I fell a bunch of times," he said. "But I also hit some balls. I thought I might be able to do this."

Smith and his wife have done much to help others since coming back to the Chattanooga area and moving into their disabled-friendly home in Apison, a home built by more than 70 volunteers through the nonprofit organization Steps2Hope.

The Smiths' foundation -- Honoring the Sacrifice -- gave $170,000 worth of assistance to post-9/11 veterans last year. The charity's third annual dinner on July 15 should raise even more money to continue its work.

Even now, after all he's been through, Smith says of his ordeal, "I was just a soldier who got wounded."

But more than four years later, the wounds have healed well enough for Smith to win the Wounded Warriors flight at the Veterans Golf Association national tournament at Pinehurst and earn him a profile on the Golf Channel's Morning Drive.

"I shot a 103 on Pinehurst No. 2," he said with a proud smile. "I shot a 96 on Pinehurst No. 5."

It was all enough to cause Gosselin to observe, "We sometimes try to make golf more than it is. Even on my worst [golf] day, I still have my legs and can still eat whatever meals I want. [Smith] is a true hero."

As he addressed the UTC men, someone asked Smith what kept him from being depressed and bitter. He recalled something that Tori told him in the hospital.

"She said that the enemy -- the Taliban -- had wanted to kill me," he said. "She said, 'Don't give them a victory over anything you're going through.' That really inspired me. So whenever times are tough I think about the enemy, if any of them are still alive, and I think how they're living in mud huts and drinking dirty water while I'm playing Pinehurst No. 2."

This article was written by Mark Wiedmer from Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.