Many Minnesotans put their lives on the line to protect America’s national interests and freedoms. To them, it’s a privileged duty to serve our compatriots.
Turn back the clock some three decades and spotlight a young Martin Caraway in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. School was more of a social experiment than an academic pursuit and the teenager’s grades were passable at best. Where to go? The Marine Corps, naturally, as Caraway was a target wooed by a passionate recruiter. His report card didn’t cut it, but an 11th-hour discipline and a deep desire to enlist caused him to intensely study and graduate on time in 1999.
The military wasn’t foreign to Caraway. His dad – an infantryman and Vietnam veteran who’s now a truck driver – returned home after a few years overseas to join his mom who was in lumber sales and owned a bar in St. Paul.
Boot camp and Camp Pendleton in California called, and Caraway’s specialty was all things motor transport. Not everyone is on the front lines in combat. A meritorious promotion sent Caraway to Miramar and Kuwait in logistics capacities where he staged military bases. Scud attacks became a daily activity, but fortunately there no casualties.
Typical warfare didn’t enter the picture until Caraway was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and 2005. Mortar and rocket attacks were frequent and casualty after casualty took its toll on the psyche.
“There were ‘complacency kills’ signs as you left base as a reminder to be hypervigilant amid fears of death every minute you were awake and asleep,” Caraway said. “Combat became a part of everyday life.”
While he was hit with an IED on the side of a road, his limbs were intact unlike fellow men and women at arms.
Caraway’s Marine Corps duty came to end at the end in May 2005 at the age of 24 with a heart issue that, as one could easily surmise, related to the stress of the job and lifestyle. “I felt fine and visually looked fine, but I wasn’t fine at all,” he said.
Despite getting his heart under control, assimilation back into society on native turf was difficult to say the least.
As a point of fact, the vast majority of veterans, like Caraway, don’t sustain physical impairments. Hidden wounds are much more common, like the PSTD that Caraway carried.
“If you saw me in the grocery store, you wouldn’t know what I was going through in my brain and heart,” he said.
To overcome increased anxiety from not being at the core of war. Caraway turned his complete focus to work as a Veterans advocate in the Twin Cities. Alcohol became a go-to crutch to self-medicate the psychological symptoms. Those were his addictions, and the picture wasn’t pretty.
With unwavering support from wife Lindsey, whom he married days prior to his second overseas deployment, Caraway was on the road to recovery. But it was the sport of golf that he took up early in life at a municipal course near White Bear Lake that led to miraculously helping him out of a significant mental funk. This outlet was calming and put life in perspective about how to avert missing time with Lindsey and his firstborn Grace, and the negative impact of war-caused vices.
That’s when, in 2014, On Course Foundation entered Caraway’s world. He heard of the organization through a fellow Serviceman and attended one of its seven-day events On Course Foundation teaches sick and injured veterans golf playing skills for physical and mental rehabilitation. Arguably, its primary emphasis is teaching active and retired Service members about the business of golf, developing career skills and placing them in jobs at Callaway, ClubCorp and golf courses, country clubs and resorts nationwide.
Surrounded by fellow veterans, Caraway didn’t look like many of them who are missing arms and legs and underwent scores of surgeries. His issues were primarily psychological, and On Couse Foundation triggered his appetite to compete while teaching the history, rules and etiquette of golf along the way. With finances an issue, Caraway wielded a mixed set of clubs, value priced on eBay.
“I turned from a world of rifles to a world of drivers, woods irons and putters, and golf helped give me the confidence to succeed.”
His goal was to make the Simpson Cup, On Course Foundation’s pinnacle, multi-day event that pits wounded veterans from the U.S. against those from the U.K. in Ryder Cup-style matches.
Determined to play for the U.S. team, Caraway had a purpose and fell even deeper in love with the game. After three years of trying, he finally qualified for the 2018 matches at Maidstone on eastern Long Island, New York. While he didn’t win his singles match, the meaning and international camaraderie superseded the scores.
“Representing our country and wearing our colors is special,” Caraway said while sneaking in mention of his love for Lindsey, their 17-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. “We weren’t enemies in war, we were friendly enemies of sorts while competing, but in the end, we were friends helping friends in different stages of recovery.”
With Caraway working full time for the Veteran’s Administration, he took the camaraderie developed at the Simpson Cup a step further: “It’s often difficult to navigate the VA, and I’m able to help them with the process and make it bearable. It’s this type of kinship, centered around golf, that saved my life and I know I’ve bettered others’ lives.”
In 2021, Caraway served as Vice Captain of the American team at the Simpson Cup at the Creek Club and since ascended to a two-year, non-playing captaincy stint for upcoming editions at Baltusrol (NJ) in 2022 and Royal Lytham & St. Annes (England) in 2023.
Lowing his handicap from 22 to nine in large part due to involvement with On Course Foundation is important but doesn’t represent the real impact of the organization.
“It taught me how to set goals and strive in a sport I never thought I could compete in. It is an honor to put on a Simpson Cup uniform similar to wearing a military uniform. All in all, On Course Foundation and golf in general gave me the spirit that I thought had long died.”