By Gideon Rubin
There was no welcome mat for Tony Perez and fellow troops when they returned to the United States after serving their country in Vietnam more than 40 years ago amid a period of antiwar sentiments.
It was for that reason that Perez, the founder of a San Diego organization that brings golf to underserved youths, started a program five years ago to help injured combat troops acclimate to post-military life through golf.
“Operation Game On” held its fifth annual golf tournament earlier this month to raise money in support of its cause.
“It’s just something that I felt that I needed to do,” he said.
The Aug. 13 event, which was held at Morgan Run Club and Resort in Rancho Santa Fe, netted over $75,000.
“It went fantastic,” Perez said. “It’s the most money we’ve ever made.”
Perez, who heads the Pin Pals Junior Links, a group that introduces 17-and-under youths in the San Diego area to golf, started OGO in 2008.
The OGO program serves wounded soldiers treated for the physical and psychological wounds of military combat at Naval Medical Center in San Diego. Perez also started a similar program for the wives of wounded combat veterans called Wives of Warriors (WOW).
Perez, the father of PGA golf pro Pat Perez, teaches the combat-injured soldiers golf for 16 weeks. The vast majority of the troops have no previous golfing experience before starting the program.
Perez said that Taylor Made provides golf clubs, shoes, apparel and “anything they need to get on the first tee with the confidence of going out and playing golf with anybody.”
“For them, from a rehab standpoint, it helps them with their balance, coordination, and it gets them in the outdoors, away from the hospital,” Perez said. “It accomplishes getting these guys back to a somewhat normal life, through golf.”
Perez said the program fosters camaraderie between troops who may have served in different branches of the military and often don’t know each other.
“Now they all have something in common, not just a combat injury, but also the ability to go out and play golf together,” Perez said.
Just as important, the program gives the wounded veterans a sense of purpose during a difficult period of their lives.
“The focus is on a little ball,” Perez said. “They’re warriors and they’ve been trained to do a certain thing and these guys have that can-do, will-do attitude, so they’re really focused on golf and that changes their whole attitude. They go out there thinking ‘I can do it, and I will do it.’”
They also showed they could put away some food.
A San Diego chain eatery set up food stations featuring barbecues, pizza, two big paellas and a 225-pound roasted pig.
“And it was all gone,” Perez said.
About 40 volunteers from the San Diego Business Travel Association staffed the event.
The tournament featured a scramble format, with about 26 troops and a handful of wives among the 160 or so competing.
“There were winners but we don’t advertise that, I don’t even know who they were,” Perez said. “It’s a scramble tournament, people don’t really care if they win or lose, they’re just out there for the good times.”
The tournament has grown each year since its 2008 inaugural held at Riverwalk Golf Club, an event that raised $10,000.
Perez said the tournament will probably return to Morgan Run next year.
Pat Perez hosted this year’s tournament, and Gen. Daniel Yoo, who commands Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, was the event’s guest speaker.
Taylor Made representative Jim Flick attended the event.
But they weren’t the event’s featured attractions, Perez said.
“Our celebrities are our combat-injured troops,” he said. “Those were our celebrities.”
For more information, visit www.operationgameon.org or www.pinpalsjuniorlinks.org.