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He writes not that you won or lost, but how you played the game.
How golf brought back the resilient, Gabriel Palacios.
Read Part 1 of this story HERE
Read Part 2 of this story HERE
The words of Nelson Mandela rain down on the story of my friend, Gabe. “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Even the bravest of warriors can be left bandaged, battered, and broken. And getting back up sometimes appears as an impossible feat, a mirage in the distance to those warriors.
When I covered his story of being wounded in Afghanistan in Part 1, we told the story as if he had returned to base and was immediately sent out of the country and back home due to his injuries. The truth is that even with the injuries he had sustained (he was unaware of the extent at the time), he had actually gone back out to the battlefield a few days later. Not aware of the significance of injuries and with his high tolerance to pain, he returned for another mission to be by his fellow brave marines. His mind and spirit were still intact, but his vessel had taken on insurmountable damage to its basic abilities. As soon as they were in position and exiting the transport truck, Gabe jumped off the truck to begin his mission.
Though nothing more than a six-foot jump, the impact was the final blow to this heavyweight champion. It was the TKO punch as Gabe’s legs were too damaged to brace the fall. The jolt was so bad that the impact caused him to buckle and slam his jaw against his leg, dislocating the jaw to such a degree, he was unable to provide essential communication to his team. That action was what finally ended Gabe’s time in Afghanistan.
It would take years before Gabe had the mental strength to once again, rise. But today, Gabe resides in Las Vegas and is a proud husband and father with three kids. He and his wife, Susie, met just prior to his entry into Marine Corps training and she has supported him through all of the highs and lows that have come with his service, injury, death of his mother, rehabilitation, and a quieter and more peaceful life today.
Operation Game On
After Gabe returned, as is the case with a lot of our veterans, normal life was nothing more than a distant memory. Gabe spent years confined to a wheelchair, in and out of doctor’s offices, and addressing pain that never took a day off. On top of all of that, he also dealt with PTSD that bombarded his mind with depression and nightmares.
However, Gabe had begun taking classes at a university in San Diego, at least, and that introduced him to a few other veterans that were in the same program.
One of the veterans started talking to Gabe about a golf program that he had started doing that was built specifically for veterans that met on Mondays. He began suggesting to Gabe that he should check it out because of how much it helped him to learn the game and become friends with other veterans that shared similar experiences.
Gabe told his family about the conversation and they doubled down on encouragement and that this could help Gabe find some traction and purpose in life. He had been sitting in a silent world for years and it is an unfortunate truth of where that life can eventually lead. Gabe, in yet another example of getting himself up again, finally agreed and joined the program.
The program is called Operation Game On, a program that was started in 2008 by a Vietnam Veteran who served in the Air Force, Tony Perez. He was an avid golf enthusiast and to the present day has been the starter for the Famers Insurance Open (previously the Buick Invitational) for 32 years. In 2008, he decided to incorporate wounded veterans into the program by having them come out to the first tee with him and announce the groups teeing off.
As he got to know some of the participants, many of them amputees, he began seeing their wonderment at the game, many times seeing it up close for the first time in their lives. They loved it. Tony, decided that maybe they would like to learn to play the game too, so hence, Operation Game On was born.
The program teamed up with Taylor Made and created a 16-week program that invited veterans to come every Monday. Taylor Made stepped in with a sizeable commitment of donated new equipment and with Tony, added the opportunity for participants to go to the Kingdom in Carlsbad (Taylor Made HQ), to be custom fitted, see the facility and play on the test course that was built at the location.
“I started teaching these guys how to play golf, took them up to Carlsbad to be fitted, a few weeks later they get their clubs and go out to the golf course and focus on hitting that little white ball and forget about their injuries and worries,” Tony explained to me on a call last week.
It is worth noting at this point that Tony Perez had a special moment at the Farmers Insurance Open in 2017 when he was proudly able to announce the name of a very special person in his life on the first tee: his son and professional golfer, Pat Perez!
Tony has had over 650 combat-injured men and women go through his program and fall in love with the game of golf. “It was evident that these troops with physical and mental impairments were getting better through the game of golf. So, when I saw this happening, I began going to the Navy Medical Center and recruiting and recruiting.”
Operation Game On provides participants a 16-week training, a trip to The Kingdom for a true custom fit experience, a set of clubs, and another 8 weeks of training with the new equipment. All at no cost to the veterans.
During Gabe’s time between being wounded and the program, he put on over 100 lbs. surpassing 300 lbs. by the time he entered Operation Game On. His first swing was out of a wheelchair, just using his arms. The first few times trying, Gabe would fall in his attempts. (This comes back into the story!) This advanced to being able to stand up for a few seconds, hit, and then immediately sit back down.
Slowly, Gabe began making progress. He could stand up and hit a few balls before sitting back down. As that got better, he and a friend began going out to Admiral Baker Golf Course on their own and trying to play a hole or two.
The strength and progress continued and it grew to six holes, then twelve, and eventually a full 18 holes by driving right up to the ball and stepping out to hit the ball, and getting back in.
“I think my first time finishing 18 holes I shot a 250. But for me to get through 18 holes on my own felt amazing. The score didn’t matter.” Gabe now regularly shoots in the 90’s!
The next step was to begin to incorporate walking on his own through a round of golf and again, Gabe stuck with it, and before long he was walking full-time again! Not just in golf, but in life! After being confined to a wheelchair and cane for 5 years, because of golf and the program, he was walking in only 6 months.
“I look at golf as the thing that gave me my legs back,” he proudly states.
As a Vietnam veteran, Tony Perez appreciates being able to provide today’s troops with something special to help them in recovery. He acknowledges that when he came back home from the war in the early 70’s, there were no such efforts or programs to help his fellow soldiers. But rather than be bitter about that, he decided that he could serve a purpose in providing the service to today’s soldiers.
“You want to know what success is to me?” Tony rhetorically asked in our chat. “It’s getting the message from a parent that our program saved their child’s life. I look at purpose and destiny in the same way. This is my destiny. This is what I was meant to do.”
Tony also understands that the participants will get involved at their own personal comfort and pace. They never force someone through the program. “Sometimes, guys will show up and just sit for the first few days and watch. They won’t speak much, they come in quiet, timid, and scared. Gabe was like that. He was very quiet. But it didn’t take long before the real Gabe started coming out, almost to a point where after a while, we couldn’t keep him quiet!”
My outburst of laughter came out as he made that statement because as I have gotten to know Gabe and said in previous posts, he is a natural-born storyteller! I am grateful that the program removed the muzzle and silence that Gabe had lived within for the years after Afghanistan.
Today’s Beautiful Gabriel Palacios
Gabe was approached by a friend earlier in the week of our event on September 22nd in Las Vegas and asked if he would like to play in this tournament being put on by Celebrity Sweat which would have some interesting celebrities there. Though his friend already had a foursome, Gabe accepted and was able to meet three other veterans in his group who are now constantly communicating on text threads and phone calls.
“We instantly bonded,” says Gabe. “I had never met those guys before the tournament, but if you stood there with us by the 3rd hole, you would have never known. You would have thought we had been friends for years. I knew it was a good group of guys when early in the round, I took a swing on a par 3 tee shot and my leg brace locked and I lost my balance and started falling backward. As I fell I yelled, ‘Oh, I am going down!’ Everyone died laughing and for the rest of the round, every time I hit, they would all yell ‘I am going down!”
That is the true power and gift of golf.
Gabe has lost a lot of that weight that was put on during those years after returning from Afghanistan. He moved to Las Vegas last year so he and his wife could be close to their kids who live there. I am glad that they did that so that our worlds would come together and we would meet. It helps him that they can have that family bond, but Gabe still is working on what life looks like moving forward. This is our bond.
Last week, Gabe said he asked his wife, Susie, about the very question that I asked myself one year ago before starting this journey of establishing a purpose-driven life. It is all too familiar to know the depth of that question that he posed to Susie. “What is my purpose?”
As much as I wish I could hand Gabe a magic box and within it was the answer to that question for him, it just doesn’t exist. What does exist is that Gabe is asking that question at all! It’s a beautiful thing to see someone with a massive personality, an incredible story of resilience, and acute intelligence be driven to find their purpose. He has a lot of aspirations ranging from having his own restaurant to teaching. He wants to be a grandfather. He explained that whatever he does, he wants it to be focused on helping his community and being a part of it.
Resilience is defined by the American Psychological Association as, "the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.” Positivity is the fuel of resilience. With each setback that one makes on their life journey and path of purpose, it just takes a single positive action to begin the comeback.
Gabe and I talked about being “PurposeFULL” and what that can mean in his present position in life. With his powerful and natural ability of resilience, it is my belief that it will be that trait that rises to the top and connects him to purpose. His story will inspire others and that is the most valuable asset he holds against so many others. Gabe, you are inspiring. Whether it is as a teacher, a writer, or a restaurant owner… you have a gift that will help others. Like your first golf swing, it just starts with one. I am that one. Thank you!