A day of golf and sisterhood ended, Erin Norris was gathering her things — her phone, her bag, her 7-year-old daughter. But somehow amid the goodbyes, her new friends convinced the 32-year-old Army veteran to show them her Purple Heart.
It was the first time in years Norris had touched it.
The Firestone High School graduate had to be coerced to bring the medal, because it represents so much pain. Discharged in 2005, Norris battles post-traumatic stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury and depression. She is plagued by headaches. Foot, knee and back problems usually cause her to walk with a cane.
On this afternoon, she used a putter.
Serving as a truck driver in Iraq for a year starting in April 2003, Norris was at the wheel when an improvised explosive device blew up in the ground under her seat. Another exploded in front of her, hitting the vehicle in which her girlfriend was riding.
“My daughter’s father, who is a welder, put extra armored plates in my truck,” Norris said. “If it had not been for him doing that, I would not be here.”
Norris thought enough of the women remaining in the golf room at the University of Akron’s Stile Athletics Field House, members of a group for female veterans called Clearview H.O.P.E. (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere), that she took the Purple Heart out of its case so they could admire it.
Arlinda Mitchell, a medical technician at the Veterans Administration center in Akron, said when Norris was awarded the Purple Heart she put it in a trunk and never looked at it. Eventually Norris gave it to her grandmother, who hung it on her wall.
“Every time she goes to her grandmother’s she says, ‘Grandmother, why don’t you put it away?’ ” Mitchell said. “She still can’t bear to see it.
“That was the first time she touched it again. Doing that with our group is helping her to heal and bring closure to the traumatic event with her and her girlfriend.”
Even though Mitchell works at the VA, she was moved by the chance to hold the Purple Heart.
“It’s even a greater honor to see one and hold one and know the person who has it,” Mitchell said. “You get goose bumps because you know what they went through to get that.”
Clearview Golf Club's Renee Powell, a PGA and LPGA professional, said she was stunned.
“That was amazing,” Powell said. “She felt comfortable enough and confident enough … that was a big step.”
Norris knows whom to thank for saving her life. Now Powell and Mitchell and a group of female veterans are trying to enrich her life.
Opportunity to bond
Last May at the urging of the PGA of America, former LPGA player Powell started the Clearview H.O.P.E. program at the historic golf course in East Canton built by her late father, William “Bill” Powell. Renee Powell envisioned the group’s gatherings as both recreational and therapeutic, giving women veterans a chance to bond through their experiences as they learned the game.
Clearview H.O.P.E. will be featured on a PGA television special Get Golf Ready scheduled to air at 2 p.m. today on CBS. Taping was done March 16 at UA.
The Golf Channel has also expressed interest in the story.
Since 2001, more than 230,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 15 percent of American forces deployed there, according to an April 9 story in the Los Angeles Times. As of April 16, 144 women have died and 860 have been wounded, Department of Defense statistics show. The Times said 20 percent of female soldiers have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a number the Office of the Defense Secretary would not verify.
The total female veteran population in Ohio in 2011 was more than 35,000, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and more than 14,000 have sought assistance at VA centers in the first quarter of 2012. That shows a need for Clearview H.O.P.E., which has more than doubled the participants in its summer program, which now stands at 36, growing mainly through word of mouth.
While Mitchell said several in the group have combat-related disabilities and PTSD, none may have more physical and mental scars than Norris. She was in dire straits when she met Mitchell.
“I was having a really bad day that day, oh, my God, a horrible day,” Norris said. “It was like she just saw right through it. She said, ‘Hey, what are you doing with yourself?’ It was like that question opened up a world.”
Mitchell vividly recalls that day, when she realized Norris needed someone to confide in.
“She had almost given up on life,” Mitchell said. “Most of us have been in a place like that and we’ve needed someone to take your hand and lead you there. That’s sort of what I did.
“We can just look across the room at each other and feel each other’s pain and what we’ve gone through. We don’t have to say anything. We can give you a hug and we know. It’s totally different from being in a group where you’ve got men and women. I thought we could help motivate her and pull her out of her shell.”
More than just golf
Even before her accident in Iraq, Norris said she wasn’t athletic. She never pictured herself on a golf course and said she needed last-minute convincing from her mother. Powell said Norris doesn’t like crowds, rarely goes out and that her laugh “is like a cover-up.” It helped that Norris’ aunt, Euna Tolbert, is also participating in the program.
“At first I was more than a little apprehensive,” Norris said. “I tried putt-putt when I was little and I putted terribly. I thought golf was snooty. I never thought I’d try it on my own. But Renee wanted me to come out and hang out and I’ve been here ever since.”
The support from Clearview H.O.P.E.’s veterans knows no bounds. Some have sent Norris gas and grocery cards. Mitchell calls to check on her every three weeks. As well as raising daughter Amahri, a name Norris got from Iraq that she said means “loved by God,” Mitchell said Norris has taken in two other children that “she’s sort of fostering on her own without any financial support.”
“You try and help just one person at a time take that one step at a time,” Mitchell said. “Then if she can bring one other, you’ve done the best you can do.”
The group is as much about camaraderie as golf. They hold social gatherings. They sponsored a family at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Five weeks of golf instruction will start in July, as well as three-hole and nine-hole leagues. Bob Denney of the PGA of America said there are other golf programs for women veterans, but Clearview H.O.P.E. is the only one in the country that meets year-round.
Powell thought her plate was already full when the PGA asked her to design and launch Clearview H.O.P.E. But her father served in World War II, hauling bombs in a segregated transportation unit stationed in Europe. During the height of her LPGA career, she went on a three-week USO Tour to Vietnam. As Powell wavered on whether she had time for another project, she heard from a couple of veterans who had seen her in Vietnam.
“One said, ‘Thank you for going to Vietnam at a time when many of our soldiers thought the world had forgotten about us,’ ” Powell said. “I was thinking, ‘There’s some women here from the Vietnam era. If that has impacted those men’s lives so much and they’re still thanking me 40 years later, then this is something I really need to do.’ ”
A chance to get involved
Powell is still looking for participants and funding, since the Clearview H.O.P.E. is at no cost for female veterans.
Those she’s found seem to relish sharing their military experiences, even though not all have been positive. But telling their stories in front of the camera for the CBS special was another matter, even with a woman producer. Norris did her interview with Mitchell in the room and had to retreat to her car for a time.
The night before their session at UA, some gathered at Clearview, where Powell’s part was recorded.
“Everyone was crying, looking at medals and remembering,” Powell said. “Even Jose was crying behind the camera.”
But there were no tears when their special day of filming was over. For all her trepidation, Norris seemed reluctant to leave.
“I will be back,” she vowed. “I like putting. Putting doesn’t hurt as bad.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.