Retired U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Dan Hernandez picked up his first golf club 20 years ago and has spent the majority of his life attempting to master the sport.
“Golf is like that,” he said. “It’s a constant strive for perfection, even though you’re never going to be able to achieve it.”
Dan took a hiatus from the game during his five years of active duty service. While on a combat tour of duty in Iraq in 2005 Dan was injured by a suicide bomb causing multiple severe orthopedic injuries and a Traumatic Brain Injury. Basic, daily tasks became difficult for him, and he was unsure whether he’d be able to return to the life he’d left behind.
While recovering at Bethesda Naval Hospital, Dan was approached by Kirk Bauer, Executive Director of Disabled Sports USA. Kirk invited him out for an afternoon of golf provided free of charge through Disabled Sports USA’s Warfighter Sports program.
Dan saw the opportunity to get outside and return to a sport he’d loved since age 11.
That year he participated in his first Warfighter Sports golf program and learned how to adapt his game to his injuries. While the time outside was therapeutic on its own, the sport reignited his desire to compete.
Today, Dan practices every day, whether it’s spending 45 minutes before work hitting golf balls or playing 18 holes on the weekend. His ultimate goal is the U.S. Open.
The days where he comes close are some of his favorites.
“The satisfaction of hitting a great shot is something you can’t explain,” he said.
Dan’s preference for golf as a therapeutic rehabilitation tool isn’t rare in the community of injured veterans. Golf can be introduced early in the wounded service member’s rehabilitation process, often before they have completely healed and helps restore balance, concentration and hand-eye coordination. Golf also allows the wounded veteran to get out and enjoy the outdoors, even if Post Traumatic Stress or a Traumatic Brain Injury make it difficult for them to be in crowds or near loud noises. Since 2003, Disabled Sports USA’s Warfighter Sports program has provided golf opportunities for more than 1,300 severely injured veterans.
Dan credits the sport’s popularity to the type of person who joins the military.
“We like competing, and golf is such a great sport for competition, because no matter how good you are, or how beginner you are, there is someone you can compete against,” he said. “The handicap system allows us to be on a more even playing field.”
Today, Dan works at the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital assisting other wounded veterans in getting mental health services. His role, allows him to speak with newly injured service members and work with them on their golf game. He’s often seen assisting the Saturday golf program on post, sponsored by Warfighter Sports.
“I’ll play with anyone who is willing, and if I can help just one guy get to the point where golf has taken me, it’s worth it,” said Dan.
His advice to other warriors is just to enjoy their time outside of the hospital and don’t take the sport too seriously.
“The game, no matter how much you work at it, you’re going to get frustrated,” he said. “When it comes down to it, it’s a game and games are supposed to be fun.”
Dan tries to keep his own words in mind when he’s out competing towards making the U.S. Open field. In 2012 he participated in his first qualifying tournament.
“I missed it by 1 stroke,” he said.
The experience just made him more determined. Last summer Dan participated in the U.S. Open sectional qualifier, the final stage of U.S. Open qualifications and he plans to make another attempt this summer .
“I feel like it’s something I have to do to represent this generation of warriors,” said Dan. “Also, I’m just a competitor. I want to be the best at whatever I do.”