In late January, we featured Manuel Dukes, a member of On Course Foundation. Here’s another amazing story about the organization and its impact on wounded, injured and sick military veterans through the sport and business of golf.
There are a million untold golf stories. We are here to share one of them with a native Commonwealth theme and considerable emotion.
It starts in a small town near Townsend, Massachusetts a hour-plus northwest of Boston. That’s where Ricky Sleeper, now in his late 30s, was raised with two older sisters. He engaged in many sports and golf wasn’t effectively one of them. Although a local baseball standout, his talents weren’t professional caliber.
As if parenthood isn’t difficult at any age, the birth of a son at age 23 was hard on Sleeper. In part to escape those challenges – and influenced by his grandfathers who were in WWII and the Korean war, and sister who was in the Air Force – Sleeper joined the armed forces in 2009 having turned 24.
The Military Police was his calling while Fort Hood in Texas and Fort Dix in New Jersey were his baptisms. Then, in 2011, his 31 Bravo unit got the notice – it was headed to Afghanistan to fight the enemy Taliban.
Sleeper’s primary role was driving his own truck, providing personal security detail for high dignitaries, generals, colonels and other VIPs. He doubled as a machine gunner on the escort missions, one of the most rigorous combat positions on the planet.
“I was shot at a lot, and we faced death every day because the terrorists didn’t want us there,” says Sleeper. “My closest brush was when I was mere seconds away from a rocket landing outside our chow hall.”
Also taking its toll on his mind was an incident that saw 24 of 25 U.S. troops, including Sleeper’s best friend, perish in an armored taxi blow up. Sleeper was originally scheduled to be part of that convoy, but plans changed.
Miraculously, Sleeper didn’t sustain physical injuries, but his psychological wounds were massive – anxiety, depression and anger. The emotional instability rendered him unable to concentrate driving a car. Add to that fighting to obtain Veteran’s Administration benefits. All while being heavily medicated.
“At one point, I thought of hurting myself,” he said despite the birth of a second child upon his return to Massachusetts that year. “But then I somehow realized, despite my mental struggles, I wanted to see the kids grow up and committing suicide like some of my fellow MPs wasn’t the answer.”
With the will to live in check, Sleeper became a prison corrections officer in western Massachusetts. An inmate altercation unfortunately led to permanent injury to his spinal cord and nerve damage up and down his left leg. Notwithstanding, Sleeper persevered through all pains and joined the state’s National Guard where he was present at the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and helped find the culprits.
Golf the Savior
Sleeper desperately needed balance between the tough life of enforcing law and order and enjoying existence. As if someone above is watching over him with serendipity, a friend from his corrections job called him with a potential solution.
“He told me about On Course Foundation although I only sporadically picked up a golf club a kid,” says Sleeper. “The organization was coming to Salem to conduct a golf leaning program, so I figured giving it a whirl was sensible.”
For background, On Course Foundation helps wounded, sick and injured veterans develop golf playing abilities while teaching career skills to work in the golf industry. It places them in golf industry jobs with companies like Callaway and Invited (formerly ClubCorp) as well as at golf courses, country clubs and resorts. More than 2,000 Service members haven benefitted from On Course Foundation programs in the U.S. and Europe since 2010.
“From first minute, I felt a brotherhood and sisterhood with On Course Foundation members and staff,” says Sleeper. “Golf quickly became a passion and an important, obsessive means of therapy, and I combined it with working out at the gym. It would be a good day when I got in the car and started driving to the course; then I would take out my PTSD on the course.”
Sleeper figured that if guys missing legs and in worse situations could overcome their hordes of difficulties, so could he. His joined Mass Golf and his handicap lowered to respectability in no time. Now he plays competitively against peers and casually with his kids in western Massachusetts when not running a courier service that delivers papers for insurance companies to DMVs in Wooster County.
“Ricky has made close, big brother-type friendships with other On Course Foundation members in Massachusetts and nationwide,” says John Simpson, Founder and CEO of On Course Foundation who was a longtime IMG executive and business manager for Nick Faldo, Vijay Singh, Nick Price and Bernhard Langer. “Ricky and the guys and gals in our program are in constant contact year-round and provide a major support mechanism to one another. Giving back to like-minded people who give their hearts, souls and advice to Ricky is special.”
With utmost pride, Sleeper exclaims his On Course Foundation experiences are life changing, helping him manage anxiety to the significant benefit of his personal and professional worlds.
That’s not to say the overwhelming PTSD hasn’t gone away. Reliving incidents of 12 years ago is common for Sleeper, but with golf as equilibrium, his mental state is on the up and up. So much so, Sleeper worked with the Holy Cross golf team and on occasion considers moonlighting as a golf instructor, starter and high school golf coach.
One thing’s for certain for this 1.2 handicap index: should he pursue that route, On Course Foundation is front and center to help Sleeper’s golf ambitions come true.