PGA HOPE Saved Shawn Donald's Life and Now He's Giving Back to the Game He Loves
By Matt Adams
Shawn Donald joined PGA HOPE in 2019 and is now an Ambassador responsible for recruiting other Veterans into the program and representing the Nebraska PGA Section
Big and lantern-jawed, Shawn Donald is the kind of guy a movie director casts when looking for a stereotypical Marine.
After enlisting in the United States Marine Corps, Donald rode that image to his station at the Marine Corps Barracks in Washington, D.C., where he was a “Hollywood Marine” for a few years, appearing in full dress at diplomatic receptions and presidential appearances in the nation’s capital.
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Even today, many years after his service, he’s still an intimidating presence, especially with a golf club in his hand. So much so that you feel a little bad for the golf ball.
But looks can be deceiving. Truth is - Donald is a teddy bear, a loving husband and father of four who can’t brag enough about his kids, and whose idea of excitement these days is hitting a bucket of balls at his local driving range in Lincoln, Nebraska. . It’s a far cry from the tough-as-nails Devil Dog he was in his twenties and thirties. Not that that’s a bad thing.
The Marine Corps was and is an important part of Donald’s life, but it also changed him, he says, in profound ways. And he’s only recently begun getting back to who he was before the military, with golf aiding in that journey.
Three years ago, Donald was about as low as he had ever been. Riddled with injuries from his time, he’d left the Marine Corps in the mid-2000s after serving a combat deployment as a machine gunner in Afghanistan. By 2019 he was high-strung mentally and in rough shape physically, unable to do many of the things he’d once enjoyed, like umpiring little league baseball games.
It had been a long, slow slog to that point, with Donald working a series of restaurant jobs that left him feeling unfulfilled and aimless.
“After I got out [of the Marines Corps], that sense of purpose was definitely not there,” Donald says. “It was probably evident with my first suicide attempt. I was just not in the right headspace. I didn’t know what to do in the civilian world.”
Donald attempted suicide twice in the years after he left the service; his wife stopped him both times. Those were wake-up calls for Donald, but it seemed that nothing --- no amount of therapy or coping strategies --- could fill the void he felt deep within.
Then in 2019, he heard about something called PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere). Donald had never been much of a golfer, but he figured he had little to lose by signing up for the program, which was designed to get Veterans active through golf.
“I was skeptical about the whole thing,” he admits, “but two or three weeks in, I started opening my mind and started being more aware of what was going on and why this program existed and what the benefits were for me.”
“It gave me something to look forward to. While I was getting six weeks of awesome golf lessons, I was also with other Veterans, talking smack to each other like we did back in the old days. It was like being back in the band. After about three weeks of that, it was like, I can do this. I can be more outgoing and not bottle everything up until the tea kettle bubbles over.”
Golf didn’t magically solve all of Donald’s problems, but it at least gave him an escape from them for those few hours when he was on the course, and PGA HOPE. plugged him into a support system of other Veterans who understood what he was going through, even if it went unspoken.
Nowadays, Donald is a PGA HOPE Ambassador, responsible for recruiting other Veterans into the program and representing the Nebraska PGA Section. He’s also about as voracious a golfer as you’ll meet. He even keeps his clubs in his car at all times, for those days when he gets out of work with enough daylight left to maybe play nine holes, or for those occasions when a fellow Veteran calls him up at the last minute in need of some time out on the course. In most cases, Donald is always available to his fellow Veterans, and he’s diligent about checking in on his HOPE. participants weekly to make sure they’re doing alright. In a lot of ways, it’s as much of a lifeline for Donald as it is for those he serves.
If the change in him after he joined the Marines was profound, the change in Donald since he discovered PGA HOPE has been equally the same. The Shawn Donald of 2022 is happier and more optimistic, with a renewed sense of purpose that complements what he felt in the military.
“[PGA HOPE ] got me out of my shell,” he says. “Before golf came around, it felt like I was in the doldrums. Golf came around and things got better. It will definitely change a person’s life, wherever they are.”
If you or someone you know would benefit from PGA HOPE, visit www.pgahope.com for more information.