You watch Dan Nevins make his way slowly up the 18th fairway on two prosthetic legs. You look at Dan Perry's face, a face that has paid the price, a face that breaks into a huge smile after he chips in at the second hole at TPC River Highlands.
And then you examine the fresh scars on the back of Capt. Christopher Migliaro's neck, flesh that barely has healed. You ask him how he's doing, and he answers, "Good. Still some headaches. No complaints."
That's when the thought crosses your mind. There is no way to thank them enough.
There aren't enough complimentary tickets. There aren't nearly enough free lunches. There could never be enough hands to offer sufficient applause, never enough voices to give a hearty huzzah for our service men and women.
And this was the best part of The Travelers Celebrity Pro-Am on Wednesday, because it is clear we haven't stopped trying to thank them. Oh, the PGA Tour stars, the coaches, the former athletes, the actors, they were all fun to chase for autographs on a day like this. But Nevins, Perry, and Migliaro, who played in a foursome with Hunter Mahan, these are the heroes. And nothing that will happen this week at TPC River Highlands or next week at Fenway Park or the week after in South Africa will change it.
That's what makes the Military Appreciation initiative presented by St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center at The Travelers Championship, a weeklong salute to the country's military personnel, so sweet and so necessary. The free tournament admission to all active, reserve and retired military and their dependents? The Patriots' Outpost hospitality tent with complimentary food and beverage? The applause for these guys? All sweet. All necessary. For there was a time, a time in many of our lives, when those who returned from Vietnam were not accorded acclaim commensurate with their valor. The popularity, the morality of a given war should never be confused, never interfere with the support for the mamma's boys and girls who fight it. You see what's happening here, with those who return from Iraq and Afghanistan, and you think we might finally have figured that out.
"When I was walking with his wife, Gina, today, we saw Dan was having a really good time," said Perry's mom, Linda, an outreach coordinator for the Wounded Warrior Project. "You remember the days when he was in so much pain and it makes you feel good."
Perry was badly injured west of Ramadi, Iraq, on Feb. 22, 2006, when a motorized railroad cart with three 170mm improvised explosive devices slammed into his bunker. Perry was found unconscious, his arm sticking up from under a pile of sandbags. He was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. Shrapnel and powder tattooed the side of his face and upper body. He suffered hearing and vision loss, a broken thumb, wrist, arm and countless wounds.
"It was pretty extreme," Perry said.
Somehow, the young man lived, and there he was Wednesday chipping in at No. 2.
"It was awesome," said Perry, who was given a TPC River Highlands membership three years ago.
And so it was.
They show up with their humor, of course, even if part of them is missing. Asked what his handicap was, Nevins answered, "I don't have any legs." What he has is our thanks. With a 9.6 golf handicap, he can hit it pretty good. Nevins shot an 87 with a birdie on 15.
On Nov. 10, 2004, an IED detonated beneath his vehicle while on a combat mission near Balad, Iraq. His left leg was amputated. After 30 surgeries, a recurrent bone infection caused the amputation of his right leg in 2008. For a time he worked for the PGA Tour, but he joined the Wounded Warrior Project in 2009 as manager of strategic partnerships.
"I am beside myself how great this day has been," Nevins said. "I've been in another Pro Am before, but this is first time I played with two of my brothers."
"These people, they don't owe us anything. It's our job. We do it, because that's what we signed up to do. Unfortunately, you wind up wounded and you can't continue to fight. You come home and it's a whole new fight. It's great to know our country is here for us."
Birdies for the Brave is the PGA Tour's primary vehicle for giving back to the military men and women. The initiative started with Phil and Amy Mickelson and has grown to the point where $5.2 million has been raised. The Patriots' Outpost started last year. Could you imagine such tributes in the late '60s or early '70s? Me either.
"It's growing exponentially," said former Navy SEAL Stephen Kupcha, PGA Tour manager for public relations and community outreach.
As it should.
The three players and their caddies all wore black Wounded Warrior shirts. A nonprofit veteran service organization, the project's mission is to honor and empower wounded post- 9/11 military personnel. It's involved in everything from counseling to retreats to a school. Mahan, who has been associated with the Wounded Warriors for a few years, has an endorsement deal with Under Armour and he spoke Wednesday about new UA Freedom apparel that will lend financial support to the project.
"Helping veterans get back on their feet, it is a great organization," Mahan said. "It's pretty special to have those guys out here today."
Migliaro, who went to Lyman Hall-Wallington before going on to West Point, was awarded two Purple Hearts this year. On April 24, he was hit in the neck by shards of glass and metal when under machine gun fire. On May 25, he received shrapnel wounds in the back of his head and shoulder while carrying his injured platoon leader in Afghanistan. On June 23? He was having a ball in Cromwell, shooting an 82.
"I think there are a lot of people who take for granted what our guys do," said Migliaro, stationed in Colorado Springs and currently on leave. "People who don't realize the sacrifices that some of our guys make over there."
Here's the good news, Captain.
There are a lot fewer than there used to be.
You could see that Wednesday.