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One outing, two faces of Wounded Warriors

Norbie Lara lost an arm -- and nearly his life -- in Iraq, and now gives back to the Wounded Warrior Project that helped get him on his feet. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

STERLING, Va. — When I first found out about the World’s Largest Golf Outing, I wanted in, but on one condition.

Founded in 2011 by Billy Casper Golf, the one-day event has grown to include nearly 12,000 golfers at more than 120 courses nationwide, with proceeds benefiting the Wounded Warrior Project. If I was going to play, I wanted to reap the true benefit of the event, and that meant being grouped with one of the Wounded Warriors. I wanted the chance to discuss with him (or her) what this day meant, and how they were affected by it.

Sure enough, I was told that I would be set up with a Wounded Warrior and his friend for the scramble-format tournament.

When I arrived at 1757 Golf Club on Monday, I met Brandon Hughes, a strong- looking, able-bodied young man who informed me that his friend was not able to make it, and that Hughes’ golf coach was going to replace him in our group. I was disappointed, to say the least.

Before we hit the course, we were greeted by Sgt. First Class Norbie Lara, the very poster child for the ideals of the Wounded Warrior Project. Lara was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade while on patrol in Iraq in 2004. In addition to taking his right arm, the shrapnel lacerated his liver and damaged his lungs, nearly costing him his life. He was in a medically induced coma for two months and took months more rehabilitation to be able to perform daily functions again.

Lara received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, and was First Lady Laura Bush’s personal guest at the 2005 State of the Union address.

And while he did not play in the tournament, he hit golf balls off the driving range straighter than many weekend duffers.

Lara delivered an eloquent, impassioned speech about how he was one of the very first helped by the Wounded Warrior Project. Now, he devotes time to helping others, he explained, and thanked us for our part in making Monday’s event a reality.

Inspired, we returned to our carts and teed off. Around the sixth hole, I decided to ask Hughes how he happened to be playing in the tournament. He said that he had taken the game up about a year ago, and that this was the fourth Wounded Warrior event he had played this year. Confused, I pressed further. Why would a young man take so much time out of his life to play in charity events like Monday’s, for which Hughes had raised $350 through friends and family?

Brandon

Brandon Hughes

Brandon Hughes served two tours in Afghanistan with the Marine Corps. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

And then it hit me — Hughes represented the other face of our Wounded Warriors.

“I served two tours in Afghanistan,” Hughes told me. “One in 2010, and one in 2012.”

Hughes survived the first one unscathed. And while he didn’t lose an arm, like Lara, he was hit by an improvised explosive device on the side of the road during his second tour. Much like Lara, he was knocked unconscious and awoke in a hospital. He has been treated for traumatic brain injury, a condition that has affected more than 300,000 service members and counting since 2000.

While he looks like a normal, healthy 20-something — and can crush the ball much farther than a lot of golfers, present company included — Hughes has had to rehab at Ft. Belvoir since returning to the States. One more blow to the head, he says, and the doctors don’t know what might happen to him.

Hughes doesn’t like to talk too much about his circumstances, which is understandable. He is, in many ways, Lara’s opposite. As I’ve learned from past visits to Walter Reed Medical Center, those with visible injuries will often talk about their missing or prosthetic limbs as part of their psychological rehabilitation and normalization. The invisible injuries, the ones that would otherwise go unnoticed, can be tougher to discuss.

The final tally has not yet come in from around the country, but Billy Casper Golf hopes to reach the ambitious $1 million fundraising goal they set this year. With any luck, those involved also learned a little more about what our Wounded Warriors face in their road to recovery, whether or not their challenges are visible to the casual bystander.

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