IOWA CITY, Iowa — As other military veterans stepped into the Pleasant Valley Golf Course clubhouse in Iowa City on Wednesday, Michael Shanahan continued to play, determined to finish his long-delayed game before going to lunch.
The course was filled with veterans from the U.S. Army, Navy and National Guard, but the one thing they had in common was their love of golf.
Shanahan, who served in the Navy, was one of the more than 100 disabled veterans who came to Iowa City this week to participate in the annual National Disabled Veterans Golf Clinic, which had been postponed for two years by COVID-19 pandemic. The event was held at two locations: Riverside Casino and Golf Course and Pleasant Valley.
The event started 20 years ago as the Tee Tournament and evolved into an annual weeklong event held in numerous cities across the country.
“It was an opportunity to have veterans who felt like they couldn’t do things, or they didn’t have opportunities, to be able to come and enjoy golf and also enjoy other activities,” said Judy Johnson-Mekota, director of VA Iowa City Health Care.
Johnson-Mekota, whose dad was a veteran, said the event was started by a group of people at the VA who wanted to help veterans outside of traditional health care. Iowa City is the only location where the national event is held at the same site every year.
“People are glad to be back and meeting each other face to face and be able to have that connection and certainly have the opportunity to see old friends and meet new friends,” Johnson-Mekota said.
Shanahan has been interested in attending the event since 2020 but was not able to due to the pandemic.
After serving in the Navy, Shanahan started pursuing a career in the medical field, but quickly moved into the business world and hasn’t looked back.
On the golf course, Shanahan’s group was known as “Party Central” as they were singing while making their way across the course. Shanahan was accompanied by his son.
Coach Callender was returning to the Iowa City event. Callender served two years in the Army National Guard and three in the Army. After her service, Callender was a teacher in Minnesota and recently retired.
“The camaraderie amongst veterans is like nothing else, not even like a brother or sister. … You’re so comfortable around the vets, not as comfortable around civilians,” Callender said.
Each Iowa City location offered golf but also other activities for the veterans like chair yoga, water aerobics and cycling.
Douglas Kistner, an Army veteran, along with his wife Margarita Kistner, who is not a veteran, participated in golfing, water aerobics and cycling.
Kistner was stationed for 2½ years in Germany, where he met his wife. After his service, he returned to Ohio. Kistner used to enjoy playing golf but hadn’t been able to since he lost his sight
“They said they might be able to help me, which they did and they gave me a lot of tips. I’ve learned a lot here,” Kistner said.
Every veteran was partnered with a volunteer “golf buddy” who assisted the veterans in the activities. This year the event had more than 250 volunteers. The volunteers come from all over the country, like Callender’s buddy, Heather Zwilling, who is also from Minnesota.
Zwilling is an occupational therapist at the VA in St. Cloud, where she works with veterans with low vision and blindness. Her experience made her perfect for Callender, who has been blind since Halloween 2020.
“It’s always a little bit anxiety-provoking, but after that first and second day, I really feel like you kind of get to know your veteran and you work to start figuring out a groove of what works,” Zwilling said.
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