Dirk Jensen, who saw combat with the Army during the Gulf War, had come to the Veterans Affairs West

June 12, 2013

Dirk Jensen, who saw combat with the Army during the Gulf War, had come to the Veterans Affairs West Los Angeles Medical Center to receive treatment for acute post-traumatic stress disorder. His condition had cost him his family, and at times he wondered if his life was next. One day he wandered up to the northern reaches of the sprawling complex and stumbled upon a golf course.

For years, the Heroes course has been a place where wounded veterans could receive some gentle physical therapy by walking the fairways and swinging a club, and perhaps benefit from the serenity that can be found at most any golf course. All well and good, but since the Bandini Foundation took over management of the facility a year ago, there has been another important component of its operation, too:

Jensen was put to work.

He was given a job conducting maintenance of the golf course, and he showed considerable aptitude for repairing its equipment.

That defines the mission of the Heroes course today. Veterans are being hired and trained to work at the facility – “all facets of a golf course operation,” said Scott Morey, executive vice president of the Bandini Foundation. It’s hoped that after a period of time, they’ll be able to take those skills to any golf course in Southern California or beyond and hold down a job in the industry.

“My life has changed completely, mentally and physically,” Jensen said. “These guys saved my life. Every day I come to work, I’m so happy I’m doing something productive.”

It’s the Bandini Foundation’s hope that he’ll have plenty of company in the months ahead. It has staked out an ambitious plan in which the little nine-hole, par-3 course will have a new clubhouse – to replace the tin Quonset hut that houses the starter’s office now – with a golf shop, a restaurant and a special lounge where veterans can hang out. Nearby will be a driving range, and adjacent to that a recreation area with a therapy pool, paddle tennis courts and a basketball court.

The entire place will be run by veterans in rehabilitation. Imagine one vast employment lab for the golf world.

“We’ll have 100 veterans hired, being trained,” said Morey, a Vietnam War veteran who spent 10 years in the golf business, four of it running Sunrise CC in Rancho Mirage. “We’ll have a call center, run by 40 ambulatory vets, who will place them in related jobs. We have relationships with golf courses, golf management companies, parks and recreation (departments). Once we get everything up, we’ll have a rotating program of helping vets get trained, get jobs and, hopefully, improve their lives.”

There is plenty of clout behind the bold pronouncements. Sitting on the foundation board of directors is Marc Myers, a former SCGA president and SCGA Foundation president. Another solid supporter is Jerry West, the former Lakers great who is executive director of the Northern Trust Open. “He’s not formally involved,” Morey said, “but he’s been a big, big promoter. He’s gone way out of his way so far.” Lou Cozolino, an American Legion district commander, is also said to be a pillar of support.

Still another heavy hitter is Ricardo Bandini Johnson. Yes, that Bandini. His family donated this acreage for a Soldiers’ Home in the 1880s, which grew into the VA complex. Johnson serves as president of the foundation.

(Pictured by the Quonset hut are, from left, Morey, Cozolino and Johnson)

Today, veterans play golf at Heroes as part of a VA post-operative cardio rehabilitation program, and senior veterans, some of whom are disabled, play regularly as part of the Golden Age Games Program.

But the job-training component is what really gets the Bandini Foundation excited. “We don’t hire anyone but vets,” Morey said. “We have hired 15, and have 10 on a rotating basis as volunteers. It’s part of their therapy. Hopefully, by the end of summer, we will have 100-plus vets working.

“The whole goal of the foundation is to get them trained and help them. So if we can have 200 vets working here, even though it would only take 40 to operate it, we don’t care. If we can train 200, we’ll train 200. As long as we have enough money, we’ll do whatever it takes.”

For more information, click here. To support the Bandini Foundation financially or as a volunteer, call (310) 405-7277.

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