(PGA) HOPE Springs Eternal for Christina Olivarez
By Matt Adams
If you watch retired U.S. Army Master Sergeant Christina Olivarez on the 18th green of a lush coastal golf course in the cool of the evening - it’s hard not to feel envious.
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After all, she’s living the dream, right? Olivarez worked hard, retired young and now spends her days whacking away at a little white ball in the endless summer of Atlantis, Florida. What could be better?
With her beloved pup, Daisy, by her side, Olivarez won’t argue if you tell her she’s living the good life. But she also won’t tell you --- at least not until you get to know her better --- how much bad she had to crawl through to get here.
Olivarez was a college student in Kansas when a sense of duty compelled her to join the United States Army. Over a 25-year career, she served in the U.S. Army’s Medical Command, researching infectious diseases, helping military doctors detect cancer in soldiers and, finally, working within the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System.
Her last assignment took Olivarez to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, the primary arrival points for America’s service members who are killed in action.
When Olivarez raised her right hand to join the military, she was willing to sacrifice herself for her country. What she did not realize is that instead: she would witness the sacrifices of her brothers and sisters in arms in a different way. While stationed there, Olivarez and her colleagues performed autopsies on battlefield casualties, then had the solemn duty of delivering the remains to the surviving family members.
“You had to turn [your emotions] off,” Olivarez says. “After a while, you learned how to disengage, for lack of a better way of putting it.”
It wasn’t a job for the faint of heart, and it certainly wasn’t easy for Olivarez, who is introspective by nature. The Army provided mental health assistance to the medical examiners, but some days were just too heavy for words.
For Olivarez, the breaking point came in 2011 when the body of a close friend and fellow soldier arrived. She admits she should have recused herself, but she felt an obligation to perform the examination.
“After that, I said ‘I can’t do this anymore. It’s time to retire,’” Olivarez remembers.
Following retirement, Olivarez stayed near Dover for a while, but it was too hard, and the memories were too raw, so she moved to Atlantis. Instead of it being a fresh start, though, things only got worse in Florida.
“I was still having nightmares,” says Olivarez. “And I was a total shut-in. If I had to get groceries, I’d go late at night or early in the morning. I just didn’t want to see people, didn’t want to see anything. I didn’t even want to watch the news because it would remind me of stuff I had seen.”
No amount of encouragement from friends or family seemed to help, and Olivarez eventually got so low that she contemplated ending her life. Finally, her sister Jean Marie and brother-in-law John came to visit, with John bringing something he thought might help --- a set of golf clubs.
John insisted that Olivarez get outside for some fresh air, so she begrudgingly lugged the clubs to a driving range across the street from her house. She had only swung a golf club once before in her life, so the results were what you’d expect - typical of a beginner.
“I couldn’t hit the ball,” Olivarez says through laughter. “I was just hitting the ground. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
But Olivarez didn’t give up. She returned to the range again and again. Then one day someone mentioned a local PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere) program to her.
Just like the first time she went to the driving range, Olivarez wasn’t completely sold on the notion, but she decided to sign up for the six-week session designed to teach Veterans golf as a therapeutic tool.
“[PGA member and coach] Trish Beucher was an instructor, and I don’t know if she could tell that I was skeptical or what, but she made it really comfortable,” says Olivarez. “After the first class, I thought, well, this isn’t too bad. I’m around other Vets, and they probably know what I’m going through.”
Three weeks into her H.O.P.E. session she was making good contact with the ball, and the next thing Olivarez knew, she was a golfer.
“I said, ‘What’s going on? I’m really starting to enjoy doing this,’” she says. “I couldn’t go out the door before, but suddenly I was looking forward to doing something.”
Today, Olivarez golfs twice a week in addition to helping out at the South Florida PGA HOPE program and checking in on her fellow Veterans and PGA HOPE graduates.
Three years ago, she never would have dreamed she would also serve as the South Florida Section PGA HOPE Ambassador for a sport that had never made much sense to her, but now she can't imagine doing anything else. She even volunteers as a golf coach for young women and golfers with special needs in her area.
Most importantly, Olivarez has learned to smile again. What you see from the outside is a pretty accurate picture of how she feels, but that’s not to say there aren’t tough days. Daisy still wakes her up from the occasional nightmare, and Olivarez still has trouble sometimes going out in public.
But even when she might not want to, she musters the courage and the strength to grab her clubs and pick up the phone to see if another Veteran --- one who could be hurting just like she was --- would like to play a round.
“PGA HOPE brought me back to life,” Olivarez says when asked why she stays so involved with the program. “Before I went into the military, I was a quiet person. The military gave me my voice, but at the end I lost it. PGA HOPE gave me my life back and it gave me my voice back. I think from here, anything’s possible.”
If you or someone you know would benefit from PGA HOPE, visit www.pgahope.com for more information.