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Project gives soldiers a little slice of home

One by one last fall, local golf courses pulled their flags on another season. But I don't mourn the icy fairways, snow-filled sand traps and no-longer-green greens the way so many of my golfing friends and colleagues do. For me, the end of another season of golf presents an opportunity for people to forgo storing their clubs and balls in the garage and instead, use them to make a difference in the lives of U.S. troops worldwide.

I founded Bunkers in Baghdad, a nonprofit organization dedicated to collecting new and used golf balls and clubs and shipping them to soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, in 2008. The concept was simple: These men and women could use some recreational diversion from the incredible stress and strain of not only being separated from their friends and family, but for many of them, facing uncertainty on the front lines of war-torn countries every day.

The response to Bunkers was overwhelming. As a lifelong resident of this area, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. The people of Western New York always seem to come together to support worthwhile causes, giving of their time, talents and money whenever asked. What began as a solicitation among my family and friends to offer up a few clubs and old balls quickly picked up steam.

Since its inception, thanks to the incredible generosity that began here and has since gone global, the charity has shipped more than 1.5 million golf balls and 50,000 golf clubs to U.S. soldiers in 11 countries around the world as well as to wounded warriors and veterans programs in all 50 states.

In addition to the support of thousands of individual donors, Bunkers has worked with more than 15 professional sports teams including the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning. The charity has received support from NASCAR superstars, country music's best, movie stars, professional golfers, including Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Phil Mickelson, and even Big Bird.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Eric, a soldier home on leave from Iraq. Over a bucket of wings and a few beers, Eric told me the golf balls the young golfers of the First Tee of Western New York had colored and sent to the soldiers were the perfect reminder of home. Eric even saved a few balls as a reminder of his own infant son.

Then there were the stories of soldiers sending golf balls crashing through the windshields of high-ranking officers (by accident of course)! He even shared how golf is used in nation-building as U.S. soldiers teach the basics of the game to their Iraqi counterparts.

I have also had the opportunity to visit with many wounded warriors in Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, as well as with veterans at Buffalo's Veterans Hospital. From teaching them how to play golf as a form of stress relief to using golf equipment with their physical therapists as part of the rehabilitation process, Bunkers in Baghdad has been able to share the benefits of the game of golf with these heroes.

None of this would be possible without the selfless generosity of those who donate their old clubs, pass along their extra balls and touch the lives of soldiers they will never meet.

This winter, please think about Eric and all the other brave soldiers around the world sacrificing so much to protect our freedom and defend our country, and consider sending them a little "slice" of home. For more information, visit bunkersinbaghdad.com.

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Joseph Hanna is the founder and president of Bunkers in Baghdad, a Buffalo-based charity that collects and sends golf equipment to U.S. soldiers.

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