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Iraq veterans enjoy Maui as guests at Skins Game

By Staff | Jan 28, 2010

Iraq War National Guardsman and special guest James Johnson (left) stands with Julie Crenshaw and veteran Gary Walters on the green at the Wendy’s Champions Skins Game Tournament on Sunday, Dec. 17.

KAANAPALI — Two tragically injured veterans of the Iraq War, special guests at the Wendy’s Champions Skins Game golf tournament at the Royal Kaanapali Golf Course on Jan. 16-17, watched Golf Hall of Famer Ben Crenshaw win nearly $6,000 for a nonprofit that aids their fellow soldiers in their return to civilian life.

Crenshaw also won the group $12,500 the previous year.

Impact A Hero, a nonpartisan organization created to help “individuals and corporations provide emotional and financial support for our severely wounded/disabled War on Terror veterans and their families,” brought the veterans to Maui.

The Westin Maui Resort and Spa provided discounted rooms, and golf resort provided two golf carts to travel across the course.

The two veterans recounted their close encounters with death in a conversation after the tournament.

In 2005, riding in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle that was hit by a roadside bomb, Louisiana National Guard Staff Sergeant James Johnson suffered a broken knee, four broken bones in his back, shrapnel wounds, inhalation burns, a traumatic brain injury and a spinal cord injury. It took seven months of rehabilitation before he could walk again.

 Fellow soldier Gary Walters eventually lost a portion of a leg, which was recently fitted with a prosthetic leg.

 Two of their companions in the same vehicle were killed, laying on a guilt trip for the two survivors, who wondered, “Why them and not us?”

Ben and wife Julie Crenshaw adopted Impact A Hero as a favorite charity, after the golf champion was asked to play in a celebrity tournament for the organization and wound up giving a golf clinic for some 40 veterans who attended.

“When you see these kids face-to-face, you realize they’re pretty banged up,” Ben told a USA Today writer. “But they face their injuries with a smile. I was just so struck by their bravery.”

Appreciating their first visit to Maui, the veterans noted that they have experienced a far better reception from the public than Vietnam War veterans.

“I am always amazed when someone thanks me for my service,” Johnson said.

Today the public understands the terrific mental toll the war takes on soldiers who have been asked to return for second and third tours of the battle zone.

What they don’t understand is that the scars go far beyond seeing grizzly scenes day-after-day during their long tours. They also see buddies die alongside them in vehicles ripped apart by explosives or during firefights.

The veterans enjoyed a whale watch on the Teralani and special dinners during their stay. Johnson and Walters will be featured on a segment during ESPN’s special coverage of the tournament scheduled to air Feb. 27-28.

For more information on the organization, or to make a donation, visit www.impactahero.org.

Described as a real gentleman by Impact A Hero Founder Dick Lynch, Ben Crenshaw was the top winner of the Wendy’s Champions Skins Game tournament last year, but he failed to win anything on his first outing Saturday.

Crenshaw and his partner, Fuzzy Zoeller, later stepped up big time and won a combined $230,000 Sunday.

Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson held off defending champs Zoeller and Crenshaw to win the contest. The field also included Fred Couples/Nick Price and Gary Player/Loren Roberts.

Golfers in the tournament, including legend Nicklaus and Player, who traveled all the way to Kaanapali from South Africa, teamed up to win cash prizes, or skins, for scoring best on individual holes.

 Dr. Norman Estin, whose Doctors on Call staffed the tournament, treated Nicklaus’ blistering hands during the event.

Estin reported that Nicklaus, 70, plays in this one tournament a year and practiced for three weeks leading up to the event.