ATKINSON, N.H. — Jennifer Lewis bent over the golf ball on the last hole of the day, looked toward the cup only three feet away, glanced back to her ball, and then back to the hole yet again.
While three teammates watched in silence, Lewis calmly pushed her putter through the ball, and — plop! — sank the putt. Lewis thrust her arms in the air, club pointed toward the sky, and gave a little shout this recent afternoon.
Such are the small victories that Lewis and 25 other disabled veterans have been savoring each week at the Atkinson Resort and Country Club, where they gather to learn the game, shed some stress, and enjoy the camaraderie of others who empathize with their struggles.
“I had never played golf before. I didn’t even own a set of clubs,” said Lewis, a Marine veteran who served in Fallujah, Iraq, during the worst of the fighting there. “It’s relaxing, and I look forward to it. Spending time with these guys, that’s something I missed when I got out.”
Lewis, a 45-year-old from Concord, N.H., has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She and hundreds of other veterans throughout New England are turning to golf as therapy — sometimes long-neglected — as part of a program created by the Professional Golfers’ Association called PGA HOPE, an acronym for Helping Our Patriots Everywhere.
They are taught how to golf by professionals in free programs that usually last from six to eight weeks. The goal is to give back to these veterans, from World War II to the present, whose service left them scarred with emotional, physical, and mental disabilities.
“Some of them literally had never touched a club before,” said Michael Packard,director of PGA Reach New England, the charitable foundation that offers PGA HOPE.
“Yes, they learn golf, but there’s so much more to it,” Packard said. “If you can hit a little white ball, great, but that’s not really what it’s all about.”
What it’s about, said Vietnam veteran Armand Sayers, “is bringing you back to reality a little bit.”
Sayers, 75, served as a Marine grenadier near North Vietnam, once mistakenly crossing the border during a lost patrol, he said. The Haverhill resident wore a Marines cap for this golf outing, alternating between riding a cart and walking the greens, and good-naturedly ribbing other gray-haired veterans in their 70s.
“I was a bit bitter about what was happening around me,” said Sayers, who still recalls the cold reception he received at home half a century ago.
But on the course, bad memories can be eased by a camaraderie born of common experience. Here are other older veterans, who also move with a halting gait, and who can communicate even when they’re not speaking.
But speak they do, often needling one another even as they offer encouragement.
“That’s a good chip,” Sayers called to Peter “Owl” Giove, a 73-year-old Vietnam veteran from Danville, N.H.
A few strokes later, Giove turned to a teammate lining up a putt. “OK, no pressure, no pressure at all,” Giove said. “You got this, brother.”
The ball rolled four feet past the cup.
Giove served two Army tours in Vietnam, developed PTSD, but did not receive treatment for decades. He is half-Mohawk and proud of it, his long white hair falling toward his shoulders.
Giove credits golfing for helping him cope with the continuing fallout from a long-ago war.
“We’ve learned how to deal with the anxiety, and we deal with it together,” Giove said, nodding toward Sayers and Mike Brown, 54, an Army veteran who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“War’s bad, man,” said Brown, who lives in Methuen. “This helps with stress. It gives us peace and tranquility and a feeling of serenity.”
Peter Doherty, golfing director at Atkinson Resort and Country Club, said working with veterans is a rewarding and adaptive experience. If they have physical disabilities, for example, lessons are modified to accommodate those issues.
“I use my platform and the facilities and resources I have to give back,” Doherty said.
Atkinson has been affiliated with PGA HOPE for four years, making it the longest-running such program in New England. Seven other golf courses in the region have joined, including Massachusetts locations at Patriot Golf Course in Bedford, The Back Nine Club in Lakeville, and Green Hill Golf Course in Worcester.
Packard, the area’s PGA Reach director, said part of his job is simply raising awareness that these options exist and are expanding. To do that, he reaches out to veterans hospitals, first responders, and veteran services officers in cities and towns.
The ages of participating veterans can vary by 50 years or more. But they are not a barrier to the game’s social benefits, said Ryan Foster, a 28-year-old Atkinson resident who has knee and back disabilities stemming from his service in a Marine tank crew.
“They get you, even the older guys. You’ve been through the same stuff,” Foster said. “You get to join right in and mesh with people.”
Sal DeFranco of Haverhill can relate. He’s a 35-year-old former Navy SEAL who suffered a brain injury and lost his hearing. But here he was, smiling broadly, and playing golf in blue shorts covered with various kinds of airplanes.
“This is giving a lot of veterans with different backgrounds a chance to meet each other and strengthen that communal bond,” DeFranco said, his golf bag slung over a shoulder as he walked toward the clubhouse.
“They’ve gone through what some of us are going through.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.