We all need a purpose. It’s what makes us tick as humans, the thing that gives us a reason to get out of bed in the morning and be the best possible version of ourselves.
That’s true of everyone in every walk of life, but the idea of purpose is especially significant to the men and women in our nation’s armed forces. So what happens when a tour of duty is over or an enlistment term ends, and a service member suddenly finds him- or herself without purpose?
For U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Deborah Martinez, one of the military veterans who leads the Tucson, Arizona, chapter of PGA HOPE, the PGA of America’s outreach program for physically and emotionally wounded veterans, that experience was a “shock to the system,” as she puts it.
“It’s like when you hit something when you’re driving,” says Martinez. “The car stops, but your body is still moving full speed.”
Indeed, for so long after her enlistment in the wake of the September 11 th attacks in 2001, Martinez’s life ran at a hundred miles an hour. In the Army she was an intelligence specialist assigned to units that were kicking in doors and capturing suspected enemy combatants. Martinez jokes that it was like being in an action movie, only with more paperwork. But when it all came to a screeching halt she found herself untethered and aimless, grasping for meaning in a civilian world. Never in a million years would she have imagined she’d find that meaning – and purpose – on a golf course.
“In my mind golf was this sedentary, slow game,” Martinez says. “Then I went out with the Wounded Warrior Project one day, and they took us to a golf course… and the first time I hit the ball and made solid contact, I was hooked. I was like, I want more of that. And I’ve been chasing it ever since.”
It’s a familiar feeling for anyone who has been bitten by the golfing bug, and Martinez threw herself into her newfound love with the same intensity with which she’d thrown herself into her military career. So when she was approached to help start Tucson’s PGA HOPE program, it was like the perfect marriage of two worlds.
From the beginning Martinez worked actively with the local Veterans Affairs hospital to recruit HOPE participants. What’s always made her pitch to those veterans so impactful is the fact that she can speak to their personal experiences through her own.
“I had a couple of really hard deployments,” says Martinez. “From my last deployment we’re at something like six or eight suicides. Something like 10 percent of our unit has committed suicide. All of us were in an uptempo, intense assignment, and it was a lot. So we’ve had a lot of people who have not adjusted well to coming home. I had a lot that I was dealing with. I wasn’t okay; there was a lot of chaos in my head.”
Martinez, a certified yoga teacher and longtime proponent of meditation, found that golf had the same effect on her mental state as sitting cross-legged with her eyes closed in deep concentration. She preaches that therapeutic philosophy to every veteran whom she meets. But perhaps the greatest gift Martinez has given her brothers and sisters in uniform is hope, just as the program’s name implies. She believes that by sharing her story with them on the golf course, she can normalize things like PTSD, removing some of the stigma around mental health struggles.
“Hopefully they realize, if she can pull it together, I can pull it together,” Martinez says.
It might not come with the same adrenaline rush, but being part of PGA HOPE has given Martinez what she missed about Army life: purpose. Once again she has a shared mission with a group of people all moving in the same direction at the same speed. That’s one reason why she does what she does. The other is that she feels an obligation.
“How could I not turn around and see my fellow soldiers, where they’re at, and not pull them along with me? That would be like a slap in the face to all the people who have helped me. There have been so many people before me who laid the groundwork, and it’s now my job to build on top of it.”