Simpson Cup: Marine Corps First Lieutenant Denis Oliverio’s courageous journey back to the game
December 6, 2012
By Doug Milne, PGA TOUR Staff
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla.-- Denis Oliverio tells the story as if the ringing of bullets and smell of his own blood were still in the air.
On the evening of October 14, 2005, the Marine Corps First Lieutenant was the Tank Platoon Captain of a group in combat with enemy insurgents in Iraq on the border of Syria. Should radio communication fail, he remembered, his instructions were to use hand and arm signals to get information to his men. As fate would have it, the radios lost their signal. He followed his orders.
“As platoon commander, I had to relay to troops to get out of the way of fire coming from the nearby insurgent houses,” he said. “I popped my head out of the tank, waving to them the cut-throat signal not to go down a certain way.” At that moment, an insurgent in the house to his left took quick aim and changed Oliverio’s life forever.
The bullet entered through his left arm. Before settling in his chest, it shattered Oliverio’s humerus and severed his median nerve and brachial artery. “It shattered nearly everything,” he recounts.
“It was the most intense bleeding I’d ever seen in my life,” he said of the arterial wound. “At one point, I looked down at myself and said ‘If I don’t stop it, I’m going to run out of it.’”
Clad in a desert brown camouflage uniform, the only color he saw was purple. “I remember looking at it and saying aloud, ‘There’s no way a man can bleed this much and possibly survive.’”
But, he did survive. And as clear evidence of it, he stood on the range at TPC Sawgrass Wednesday, preparing himself for day two of the inaugural Simpson Cup, a match-play event which pitted injured and disabled military veterans from the United States against servicemen in similar circumstances from Great Britain.
The two-day event was the brain child of John Simpson, who created the On Course Foundation across the pond in 2010. Simpson, a former International Management Group agent for the likes of Sir Nick Faldo and Greg Norman, capitalized on his history within the game to form the Foundation, which teaches golf on a long-term basis to injured, current and ex-servicemen and women. The ultimate goal of the On Course Foundation is to find the men and women jobs within the golf industry.
The Foundation’s real success, however, is deemed before the first paycheck ever even rolls in. To these guys, it’s not how well they play the game, but rather a celebration of how well the game plays into them.
“The best thing about this is to see the self-esteem and confidence that the game of golf has given back to them,” Simpson noted. “The fact that they can take anyone on in a level playing field is really crucial. The camaraderie is huge, because it’s the first time since being in the military that they can all get together with the banter and fun.”
“Each of us out here today has suffered through adversity and tragedy, but we’ve found a way back,” said Oliverio. “Through the game of golf, we have found a way to recuperate, rehabilitate and challenge ourselves now.”
That wasn’t always the case with him. In the weeks after returning to a hospital at home, Oliverio went from planning for a future to relegating it into a past. Seemingly, his brother had too.
“I looked at my older brother in the hospital and he was welling up with tears,” recalled Oliverio. “It was scary and uncomfortable for me. I had never seen any fear in his eyes. I tried to lighten the moment by saying, ‘Hey Bill, relax, you can have my golf clubs now. I won’t need those anymore.’”
Later that night, Oliverio reflected on what he’d said. And it hurt. “It was horrific. It was startling. For me, that was a bad turn in my life. There was a lot of ‘I won’t, I can’t,’ but golf has proved me wrong. Golf has taught me that I can.”
Following 14 surgeries and news that he would be able to keep his wounded arm, Oliverio accepted the awaiting epiphany. A slow return to the game he loved brought him so much more than the ever imagined.
“I hit a bad shot and get frustrated like everybody else,” he admitted. “But, then I stop and think; I truly shouldn’t be alive today. I should’ve died that night on the battlefield. I really should have. By the grace of God and a motivated Lance Corporal that helped me stop the bleeding, I survived.”
For a guy once positive he’d never pick up another club after his tragedy, he’s not doing bad. “I play golf every day now. And every day, at some point when I’m playing, I well up with tears and think of how lucky I am.”
Oliverio stood on the range Wednesday morning amidst two dozen other wounded veterans, each with a style and grace of their own over a golf ball. As elegant as each swing was, however, the differences stopped there.
“This is a sport in which you can compete being small, big, abled or disabled. It’s an even playing field,” Oliverio said. “It’s phenomenal that this game has brought us off the couches and out of the hospitals. Without golf, half of us would still be sitting around with a ‘woe is me’ attitude. The game of golf has gotten me up and out. It has challenged me. It has changed me. The game of golf is my life now.”
That’s the thing about golf. Throw a player 17 bad holes and watch him tread the choppy waters of reality. But give him a single swing of hope to hang his hat on, that elusive, perfect sound of club-meeting-ball and, well, life has never been better.
This game, like life itself, will present its bounty of obstacles. But there’s something about it that just keeps you coming back for more, always a little bit better than before.
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