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Taking Another Swing at Life : Vietnam Veteran Brings Golf Course--and Himself--Back Up to Par

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A bleary-eyed Vietnam veteran with a thousand-mile stare and an aching soul walked onto the grounds of the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration Medical Center three years ago and introduced himself to a patch of weeds, gopher holes and crabgrass that dared to call itself a golf course.

It was an unremarkable little meeting in a place few people know.

And it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to former Private 1st Class Terry Gray and that nine-hole weed patch where veterans had been spending more time hunting for lost balls than playing golf.

Today, retired soldiers, sailors and airmen putter around the velvet-green Kikuyu grass and the manicured greens beneath the looming Santa Monica Mountains. They marvel at how a golf course, and a man, can come back from the brink.

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There is nothing epic or historic in this story. Just something simple, redeeming and true.

“It All Began in Vietnam” is the title of the grainy, fire-damaged movie footage that Gray shot when he was an infantryman in Vietnam. He toted a Super-8 camera through the jungle along with his M-16. What’s left of the hours of tape he shot nearly three decades ago now runs only about 10 minutes. But there are enough images of hollow-eyed American teen-agers in battle fatigues, helter-skelter helicopter landings and Vietnamese, disemboweled and covered with flies, to understand how a young man would come home damaged.

Gray wasn’t even 21 when he was discharged in 1967. He spent time with a go-go dancer in Tokyo, came home to protest the war and became a hippie. Then he hit the road, never staying anywhere more than four years. He was drinking heavily.

“Any time I ran into trouble,” Gray says now, “I would just stick my thumb out and go.”

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There were the oil fields in Louisiana, a job piloting a boat and, later, trucking heavy machinery. He maintained a golf course in Kentucky for a while. After his first entry into rehab, he found his way into caddying on the men’s senior professional golf tour.

“I loved the game. I loved the competition. And, to me, it was always a window to seeing how the other half lived,” said Gray, who was raised in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., by his mother, a secretary. “We got to see some of the most beautiful and exclusive golf courses in the country.”

But whenever Gray ran into authority, he had problems--the vestiges, he now believes, of his resentment for an officer in Vietnam who ordered an artillery strike that killed several of his buddies. By the early 1990s he was in Los Angeles, moving machinery for a living, and back on alcohol.

He got into in a barroom altercation in East Los Angeles and was shot in summer, 1992. By the time he was out of the hospital, he had lost his job. Homeless, he used his last dollar to take a bus to the veterans facility beside the San Diego Freeway in West Los Angeles.

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Initially, the hospital treated him for the festering “gut shot.” Then he went into an in-house alcohol rehabilitation program, then Alcoholics Anonymous and, finally, an intensive three-month program to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, the psychological disability he suffered in the war.

“I’ve been here for almost 20 years, and he has been one of the most dedicated, committed men I have ever worked with,” said Jim Dwyer, chief of the inpatient treatment program for veterans with the stress disorder. “Terry had that quality of ruthlessness about his sobriety. He realized that it was his most important problem and he fought for it.”

The woebegone golf links at the far north end of the Veterans Administration property became a crucial partner in Gray’s recovery. At first he was just hacking a ball around there. Later, he was volunteering to trim hedges and do a little mowing. When his inpatient programs concluded, he was homeless again and began camping underneath a clump of bushes not far from the first tee.

The par-three course had been built after World War II by the members of the Hillcrest Country Club, who also supplied clubs, balls and tees so veterans could play free of charge.

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By the time Gray arrived, budget cutbacks had reduced maintenance to a minimum. Gopher furrows had destroyed half the greens. The fairways stood tall with clover in some places and bare in others.

“This place was a wilderness,” one World War II vet recently recalled. “It was like a mortar impact area,” said a Vietnam serviceman.

When he first arrived, Gray, now 48, began writing letters, first to VA officials, then to professional golf course superintendents and even to Vice President Al Gore.

He told them that, with a minimum investment, he could rehabilitate the course all by himself. Eventually, Gray won a part-time landscaping job and then, early last year, full-time paid employment as the groundskeeper.

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He started with a beaten old mower that wouldn’t start until he had rebuilt the carburetor three times. But he would beg and borrow donations to help make the golf course whole.

Not long after he started, Gray was playing a round with an old Navy flier named Howie Keefe. On the second hole, Keefe knocked the ball about 120 yards and straight into the cup for a hole-in-one. “Thank God I’m not at some country club or I’d owe about $2,000, buying the whole clubhouse a round of drinks,” Keefe told Gray, he recalled later. Responded Gray: “How about four bags of fertilizer?”

The men finished their round and then Keefe delivered the goods.

Gray’s Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor also helped out. He had a friend at American Golf Corp., the Santa Monica-based firm that operates more than 180 golf courses worldwide. Gray made out a “wish list” for the company and soon found a flatbed truck backing in with a greens mower, a utility vehicle, a golf cup changer and bags of seed. “It was like Christmas,” he said.

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He has installed drainage lines, added a small sand bunker beside the ninth green, reconditioned and expanded the putting surfaces and secured new tee markers, signs and golf clubs from other donors.

Nick Alvarez, a World War II medical corpsman who went on to a career as a musician, pointed at Gray recently and beamed. “That’s the miracle man right there,” Alvarez said. “It was a jungle when I first got here. You could hit the green in one and still shoot a 20.

“One person, one man did all of this. You would think it would take 50 men.”

Gray has now moved into a transitional housing complex for veterans in Inglewood. He talks of upgrading his superintendent’s license--qualifying him to maintain any golf course in the world.

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There is some discussion within the Veterans Administration that the course remains too costly and that the public might also be allowed in, with non-veterans charged to play. Gray says he is comfortable with a change, as long as veterans always come first.

He once wrote a poem about the golf course, and worried that the grounds for the dead at Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington were receiving better care than the patch of green that served their living brothers.

But the poem ended with a commentary on himself and his golf course:

He’s proud to stand on the first tee and strike the ball, it says. It’s a new beginning. So he tells himself: Go ahead and play, play the game of life.

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