The three men on the golf course didn’t look like superheroes. But Nick Bradley, Saul Martinez and Rod Rodriguez are just that. So are the other combat veterans who joined them on the links Monday at this year’s Warrior Open in Dallas. The tournament, sponsored by the George W. Bush Presidential Center since 2011, celebrates wounded veterans’ recovery and their continuing service to America.
For these three comrades in arms, it was another reunion, since they have played in the tournament since its first iteration.
Staff Sgt. Nick Bradley joined the Air Force in 2001. He did two tours in Iraq and a fateful one in Afghanistan providing security for generals in Kabul. On Aug. 3, 2008, his team was moving in a small convoy when a Taliban antitank mine exploded under his Land Cruiser’s gearshift.
The blast broke every bone in his face, right arm, hand, hip, knee, shin and foot. Knitting him back together took 16 surgeries and left Nick with six screws in his face, 51 in his arm and 11 in his hand. The doctors told him he wouldn’t walk for a year or even sit up without assistance.
“I didn’t like that answer,” he says. “It cut me deep.” He taped a picture of his daughter next to his bed. Two days later, he was sitting up. While exploring the ward in a wheelchair, he discovered a putting green. Against doctor’s orders, he was soon standing and hitting balls one-handed. Two months after arriving at Walter Reed, Nick walked out of the hospital.
On Tuesday he celebrated this year’s Warrior Open by fixing dinner for his wife and daughter, Khaila, who will turn 11 next month, a few days after her baby sister is due. Nick credits his family and golf for his recovery. While he brags that he “played great” this year, the highlight was having his daughter meet the former president, who he says “inspires me every day to get better in life.”
Army Sgt. Saul Martinez enlisted because of 9/11. He served in Iraq during the 2007 surge, when an explosively formed projectile ripped apart his vehicle. The blast killed two friends and left him a bilateral amputee—without most of his legs.
Saul says he made it back mostly because of his wife, Sarah: “She pushed me, motivated me, and told me I could do things I never thought I could do again.” After leaving the service in 2010, he moved to Montana, where he is director of services for Warriors and Quiet Waters. This program, inspired by Psalm 23—“He leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul”—uses fly-fishing to help veterans regain their physical health and overcome post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries.
Sgt. First Class Michael “Rod” Rodriquez joined the Army in 1992, later becoming a Green Beret. He had dozens of concussions in training and combat. Then, more than a decade ago in Afghanistan, he suffered three traumatic brain injuries within a few weeks, including one from a bomb that temporarily cost him sight in his left eye. As his team’s senior medic, he hid his injuries to stay with his comrades.
He concealed his pain for years, but finally the moment came when he couldn’t ignore the headaches, double vision, sleeplessness and other evidence of his invisible wounds. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, Rod took on “the hardest fight I’ve ever been in.” But by acknowledging what was wrong, he could finally defeat it. He found comfort in blacksmithing—“heating a piece of metal and banging on it.”
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Rod, the son of a Vietnam veteran and grandson of a World War II veteran, is also the husband of a paratrooper stationed at Fort Bragg and the father of a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne. A few years ago that son, Antonio, joined his pop for lunch with President Bush. “He loves us,” Rod says of his former commander in chief, “and we love him.”
These three veterans, and hundreds of others who have participated in the Warrior Open in the past, are part of the Bush Institute’s Warrior Wellness Alliance. The group helps connect soldiers with effective, reliable care and attacks the stigma that accompanies war’s invisible wounds.
In a 1962 speech at West Point, Gen. Douglas MacArthur paid tribute to the American soldier: “In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give.” This Memorial Day, the sacrifices that Nick, Saul, Rod and their families have made remind us that as it was then, so it remains today.