Miami-Dade County

Military veterans learn golf to help them with life

Veteran Ralph Carbello uses a standing wheelchair to hit a fairway shot as instructors Jim Rondeau and Mark Alpert, both in orange, and fellow veteran Mozell Mann look on at the Melreese Country Club in Miami on Wednesday, March 4, 2015.
Veteran Ralph Carbello uses a standing wheelchair to hit a fairway shot as instructors Jim Rondeau and Mark Alpert, both in orange, and fellow veteran Mozell Mann look on at the Melreese Country Club in Miami on Wednesday, March 4, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

After serving in the Air Force for six years, Ralph Carbello lived in New York in the 1970s, worked as a cop, started a family. But in 2000, complications from diabetes led to the amputation of a leg.

Now, the 75-year-old has one prosthetic leg and has no feeling in the other from the calf muscle down. He can’t stand for more than a few minutes.

But on Wednesday morning at Melreese Country Club in Miami, Carbello, at the press of a button, was lifted in a chair.

As the world’s best golfers started gathering across town in Doral for the WGC Cadillac Championship, Carbello stood upright and smacked a golf ball with a group of other veterans. His service dog, Cody, stood by his side.

“It’s like night and day,” he said. “It was unbelievable the feeling. It was out of this world.”

Carbello, who lives in North Miami Beach, is one of 15 South Florida veterans participating in an eight-week golf program in the Professional Golf Association’s “Helping Our Patriots Everywhere,” HOPE for short.

Each week, the participants come out to the country club, 1802 NW 37th Ave., for two hours. During the first part, golf professionals give a short lesson to the veterans about the game. Then the veterans go out and play. PGA professionals give instruction and encourage players along the course.

Carbello hit the greens Wednesday for the program’s seventh session in the club’s $20,000 wheelchair that lets a disabled golfer hit a ball standing up.

He used the wheelchair for the first time last week. But it was a learning process, he said. Carbello had always shot sitting down, so using the wheelchair was a new experience.

And even though he had never played golf before the program, he plans to keep going, even after the eight weeks are over.

“This is a fun game,” he said. “I love it now.”

The goal of PGA HOPE, a national program, is to give veterans the opportunity to play a competitive sport. It also gives the chance to mix it up with fellow veterans, something that’s good for their well-being.

Through the program, the veterans are given access to the golf course whenever they want, in addition to lesson time. And this week, they were all fitted for their own set of golf clubs, which they’ll get to keep.

At the beginning of the two-hour session Wednesday, golf professionals talked about the mental game and getting “in the zone.”

“All these little things, these really simple things, they go a long way ” said Carlos Velez, head professional at the golf club.

Christina Dugrot, a recreational therapist from Veterans Affairs Healthcare System in Miami, said the program stresses a “no-fail environment.”

Many of the veterans suffer from physical and emotional problems, she said, and the program helps them pick up a sport.

“They can participate in a healthy, leisure activity that could potentially assist them with their goals, assist them when it comes to managing symptoms and just give them a nice leisure activity for them to feel like they can excel at,” she said.”A sense of accomplishment and enjoyment.”

Dugrot said the veterans have responded in positive ways. Some were even surprised by how much they had enjoyed golf, she said.

PGA professionals at the club say this is one of the best programs they’ve put on.

“Golf is the only individual sport in the world,” said Charlie DeLucca, director of golf at the country club. “What he does doesn’t affect my game. It’s just trying to get better at what I do. And it’s fun because you get to spend time with your buddies.”

During the second part of the session Wednesday, the participants split up into two groups to play one hole.

And although some veterans, like Ralph Carbello, were new to the game, others had some experience.

Frank Bonna, who served during the Korean War from 1952 to 1955, said he started playing golf in his 50s. But Bonna, now 82, was paralyzed from the waist down after slipping a few years ago.

“Because of my age,” he said, “a lot of people didn’t think I’d walk again.”

He said sometimes though, being stubborn does the trick. Now, he is able to both walk and play the sport again.

“I had to get all the basics started again,” he said. “The program is great.”

The program helps teach veterans there’s another option in life, Velez said.

“The cool thing about golf is the longevity,” he said. “This is really special for these guys. It changes their day.”

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