On a driving range at a golf course in Augusta, Georgia, Joe Caley was on crutches, could barely stand up, much less keep his balance, and couldn’t get his eyes focused on the ball.
With one arm, Joe started his backswing and then drove the 7-iron downward, completely missing the ball, which remained perched on its brand new tee.
“How could the other guys make this look so easy,” Joe says he thought to himself as he recalls that day.
But the other guys didn’t have a damaged vestibular system like Joe does – the result of a traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by a vehicle explosion in Iraq in 2009.
“You could feel the shockwave and see this huge fireball. The blast ended up trapping several Iraqis in their cars. I couldn’t allow our convoy to just move out of the scene and not help these civilians.”
Joe and his crew put together a casualty collection point and moved their medic vehicle in to render aid. That’s when an Iraqi citizen clamored toward Joe, begging him to help a man ensnared in a truck ablaze.
“I ran through the fire engulfed section of the road,” says Joe, “just trying to get the Iraqi national out of the truck. It was so entrenched due to the heat and flames, but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t get him out. I could tell he was already dead, so I turned around to go to another section of the blast site.”
Suddenly, a large secondary explosion rocked the area.
“I woke up seeing stars. I couldn’t hear anything. It sounded like I was underwater. I was treated by my medic on the scene. Shortly after, I was flown to a hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.”
In addition to TBI, Joe suffered injuries to both feet. That, on top of the vestibular paresis, made it virtually impossible for Joe to walk.
“It was scary, because as an infantry guy that’s what I’d do – march, run, crawl, jump. And now I couldn’t even stand without falling.”
Joe also suffered from severe migraines, memory loss, and daily nausea. It took several months to make any progress. Slowly he became able to walk, but he admits, “I looked like an ape, my feet wide apart, hunched forward. I had to concentrate on every movement.”
But then Joe discovered something out there on that golf course in Augusta, trying over and over again to hit the ball as far and as straight as he could.
“Having to track the ball was similar to the exercises my vestibular therapist was having me do – tracing my eyes left and right to different objects. But at least out here I could relax and take my frustrations out on the golf ball.”
Over time, Joe’s eyes started doing what the doctors wanted them to do. He was retraining his body to understand weight shift and balance. Today, Joe says he hits more than 1,000 golf balls a week. He even went to the Masters and met Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer.
“I got a chuckle out of Arnold when I told him all I had to do to get here was get blown up.”
Joe says golf changed his life, and now he helps other Wounded Warriors learn to hit golf balls as a form of therapy.
“I want to be remembered as the lieutenant who helped bring adaptive golf to my community and around the country. I want to have a positive impact on the great men and women of our military, share our experiences, and show the world our ‘yes we can’ attitude.”