U.S. ARMY’S KEN DWYER FACES LIFE – AND GOLF – HEAD ON
After losing a hand and an eye in Afghanistan, Dwyer had to re-learn golf
BY ALEX PODLOGAR
VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – Aug. 19, 2006: The day everything changed for U.S. Army Capt. Ken Dwyer.
The Yakden Village in the Cahar Cinch region of the Uruzgan Province in Afghanistan. That’s where Dwyer was leading his team in a combined effort with the Afghan National Army (ANA) during combat operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Six years later, it is a place Google Maps still can’t find.
In a flash, Dwyer’s team was ambushed by what the U.S. military calls an “Anti-Coalition Militia” force, and with far superior numbers, the militia pinned the ANA and U.S. Forces in a U-shaped ambush.
What happened next, in the terse script of a military citation:
Dwyer moved his vehicle through small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire to draw enemy fire and establish a support-by-fire position to provide relief for the pinned-down Soldiers. He then charged from his position to draw the attention of enemy fire to free the pinned-down forces. He continued to engage the enemy forces until friendly forces were again able to maneuver. Captain Dwyer returned to the position of the Operational Detachment 785 commander and assisted him in coordinating indirect fires. He then used various individual and vehicle-mounted weapons systems to fire into the enemy’s positions until he was critically injured by an air burst RPG.
On July 2, 2007, Dwyer was awarded the Silver Star for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action.”
He accepted the honor without his left hand and without his left eye.
Ken Dwyer can’t tell you what exactly he does as an active member of the military. He won’t tell you anything about his rank, the specifics of his job or his timetable.
But Dwyer, 36, doesn’t worry himself with the things he can’t do. Instead, he lives his life focused on what he can accomplish.
And so he plays golf – with one hand and a prosthesis.
Dwyer is among more than 225 active military members who took part in Pinehurst Resort’s Military Appreciation Day during Labor Day on Monday, taking advantage of a complimentary round of golf and use of the amenities at Pinehurst No. 8. The Resort offered several other discounts to active military and their spouses during the day in recognition of their sacrifices and dedicated service in the United States military.
In his first visit to Pinehurst since playing famed Pinehurst No. 2 four years ago, the swing is sound, drawing praise from No. 8 head golf professional Jim Lynn.
“It’s a good swing,” Lynn says after watching Dwyer tee off on the par-5 17th. “A nice swing.”
That swing is a lot of years in the making.
“I had to completely relearn the game post-2006,” Dwyer says. “When I first started playing again after my injury, it was hideous.”
Dwyer wears a prosthetic hand – it is a body-powered hook with the socket molded specifically for his arm and a harness that wraps around his shoulders. The hook opens and closes when he applies tension – by angling his body or by reaching – to a cable that runs along the prosthesis (See video below). “This is the one I use for about 99 percent of my life,” he says.
Dwyer has a different prosthesis for golf. Instead of a hook at the end, there is a circular piece designed for the golf club’s shaft to slide through. Dwyer grabs a club with his right hand, slides the grip through the prosthesis’ channel, and addresses the ball.
Watching Dwyer from afar, his swing looks like any other solid amateur’s. But for a man who possesses a sturdy and firm handshake, the distance isn’t there. Dwyer, who started golf at 22, plays a much different game now.
“It took me years,” he says. “From ’06-to-’09, it was a good three years before I was able to break 100 again. It was certainly painful to have to go through.”
It is golf that elicits pain from Dwyer.
Following his injury, Dwyer spent six months at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. In time, he was transferred back to Fort Bragg in Fayetteville to continue his rehabilitation. Myriad scars are visible on his arms and elsewhere. The glass eye is noticeable.
Dwyer still remembers the moment from Aug. 19, 2006.
“It was a rocket-propelled grenade,” he recalls. “We were in a firefight in Afghanistan, and I took the RPG to my left hand, and then all the shrapnel is what took care of everything else. It took the hand off immediately, and I took a bunch of shrapnel to my neck and my face and my right arm.”
Intense rehab was required, but not just physically.
“Walter Reed has a lot of great programs to get guys back into the things they did prior to their injuries,” Dwyer says. “It shows you that you can still do what you want to do as long as you’re willing to put forth the effort to figure it out.”
Effort has never been an issue with Dwyer. But golf can be a cruel mistress. Fortunately, Dwyer got some help. Big-time help.
“Everything was different,” Dwyer says of re-learning golf. “But I was fortunate enough to play in a tournament with Tom Watson, and he gave me some pointers. That certainly turned my game around.
“He said, ‘I don’t know much about prosthetics, but I do know a lot about golf.’”
Dwyer remains in contact with Watson, whether it’s by phone or email. Dwyer’s also spent time with David Feherty, who has organized the Troops First Foundation.
And the golf has indeed gotten better. Last year, Dwyer shot 84, his best score since his injury.
But for Dwyer, golf isn’t about the scorecard.
“I play golf for the company, for the relaxation of it,” he says. “I don’t take it too seriously. I take everything else in my life seriously.”
Ken Dwyer can’t go into much detail about what he does now or whether he’ll be back in Afghanistan again someday. What he can tell you is that it’s his regiment’s crest that’s emblazoned on his glass eye, and that, on occasion, he’ll replace someone’s ball marker with the eye when they aren’t looking.
“Just to mess with them,” he quips.
But when Dwyer speaks with other military members at No. 8, it is clear that he is held in high regard. He controls the conversation. He’s the one who gets the “Yes, Sirs.”
And Dwyer can feel the stares. Still, when he is thanked by civilians for his service – and let’s face it, the thanks-yous are more for his obvious sacrifice – Dwyer is polite and easy-going.
“Certainly no complaints at all,” he says. “I love what I do. I love my job. I love being in the military. I’m still on active duty, which is really great.”
Make no mistake, it’s been a long, tough road back from Afghanistan.
But it’s a road Dwyer can travel. After all, it was only six years ago he drove through enemy fire there – just to draw that fire away from others.
“When you have something like this happen, your whole life becomes frustrating,” he says, “until you get to the point where you realize as long as you continue to push through stuff, you’re not going to be limited.”
What Ken Dwyer says about Pinehurst’s Military Appreciation Day: “To be able to come out and play out here is amazing. It’s awesome that, number 1, Pinehurst does this, but number 2, that they do it on a holiday Monday as opposed to just ‘Yeah, we’re going to do this, but we’re going to do it Wednesday or Thursday during the middle of the week.’ Pinehurst will probably lose a lot of money today, yet Pinehurst chose to do this for us. We appreciate that. “A lot of people are willing to say ‘thanks for this’ and ‘thanks for that,’ and it’s great. And a lot of people are willing to put forth their money. But Pinehurst is willing to put forth the amount of money it will lose on a day like today to let us come out and play, and that is incredible.”