Every few weeks, Brad Clayton gets his buddies together for a golf weekend.
The men play some golf, then settle into an evening of corn hole and a cookout. When the sun sets, it’s time for a little “bucket golf” on a driving range, using glow balls. As the evening winds down, they crack open a few drinks, build a fire and then camp out. It looks and sounds like the script for a beer commercial.
If only it were so simple.
The men who gather are military veterans who have seen combat. Many have been seriously wounded. Clayton, a PGA teaching professional, brings the group together at the driving range he owns in Oxford, N.C. They are known as the Brotherhood of Warriors, a non-profit group that Clayton nurtures with his heart as much as any other resource.
“What my program is all about is using golf as therapy,” Clayton says. “Introducing them to golf gives them something to occupy their minds that will get them away from depression, from dealing with post-traumatic stress. They’re interacting with other guys, they’re getting exercise and breathing fresh air. They’re challenging themselves physically, mentally and socially being a part of golf.”
Clayton began working with wounded veterans at Camp Lejuene and Fort Bragg in 2007 in conjunction with the Salute Military Golf Association. A national organization, the SMGA helps Clayton conduct five-week clinics for those injured in combat.
“I fell in love with them the first time I was there,” he says. “I was like, When can I come back?”
The SMGA makes sure the golf experience does not end there. With help from the group, Clayton recently brought 11 veterans to Pinewild Country Club in Pinehurst for a weekend of golf, lodging and meals.
Clayton, more than most, is ready-made for working with the military veterans. In 2000, while building his golf facility in Oxford, he got his shirt caught in the universal joint of an auger while digging holes for posts. He lost his right hand.
Clayton had played professionally on the PGA satellite tours beginning in 1987 and even considered making a run at competitive golf after the injury, playing with a prosthetic arm.
“I tried to get back to competitive form, but I finally realized that I just don’t have the speed to hit it far enough to do that,” he says.
But with his own limitations came a better understanding how to adapt the basic fundamentals of the game. Clayton interviews each wounded veteran before he customizes his instruction.
“I want to know where their pain is and what their injury was and what they are trying to overcome,” he says.
And if a golfer isn’t ready to take on a long par-5, they make adjustments.
“If we have to go to the 200-yard marker and tee it up there, I’m all about it, just so they can experience finishing a hole and playing the game,” he says.
Clayton is always impressed with the outcome.
“It gives them a weekend away with other guys who are experiencing the same kinds of things,” he says. “They can discuss what’s going on, and not with a therapist. It helps them re-engage and gives them something to look forward to.”
The soldiers are a grateful group – and a private one. Their time together is meant to be away from the public eye. One wounded soldier summed up his feelings this way:
“I have been diagnosed with several different issues due to combat-related injuries,” he says. “Brad provides a non-judgmental, comfortable and safe environment where we are at ease and have the ability to talk with one another. These are some of the best therapy sessions you could ever ask for.”
Clayton’s next project for The Brotherhood of Warriors is a fundraiser Oct. 2-4 in Oxford. The three-day event will include demonstrations by the United States Marine Corps and the United States Army Special Forces. For those ready to take on a challenge, the military specialists will train guests for a 10-minute competition — boot-camp style.
“Obviously, it’s not on nearly the same level, but it’s the same scope of what it’s like,” Clayton says.
The second day will feature a full schedule of golf, meals and an auction. Each foursome will include one “celebrity,” as Clayton calls the wounded warriors.
Clayton’s efforts won’t stop with golf. He would like to introduce horseback trail riding in the fall. If there is a way to repay the sacrifice these men have made, he will find it.
“Once they engage in it, they see that it’s not threatening, it’s not judgmental,” he says. “It’s looking at the positives and what can be done. It’s an acceptance, a brotherhood.”