Army Sergeant Adam Poppenhouse Finds Community & Inspiration on the Golf Course

 

Adam Poppenhouse picked up his first golf club when he was six years old. “My grandmother took me to the course for the first time,” he says. “It was her mission that I learn to play golf, and there was no way she was going to fail.” Adam spent much of his childhood summers on the course, playing golf with his family and his hand-me-down clubs. “They were total, total garbage,” he laughs. “They actually had screws on the face, but off we went.”


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Service & Sacrifice

Then off Adam went to the Army in 2004, right out of high school. Mechanically inclined, he trained on M1 Abrams battle tanks in Fort Knox, Kentucky, then in Fort Lewis, Washington, in the Third Stryker Brigade, which deployed to Iraq at the end of July 2006. On December 3rd, Adam’s company was tasked with securing a crash site from an F-15 in a particularly hostile area outside of Baghdad. In an instant, the 20-ton vehicle carrying Adam and other members of his company was 300 feet from the road it had been on—a 30-foot crater in its place. An IED (improvised explosive device) was the source, and it detonated right where Adam’s boots had stood. He remembers lying flat on his back, waiting for the emergency helicopter to arrive.

“I lost my right leg in the explosion,” he says, and his left leg was severely injured. “It took me about a year to feel confident and strong on my prosthetic, and the stronger my right leg became, the weaker and weaker my left leg became. It was severely mangled and very painful. The bones started to fall apart, so we made the decision to amputate my left leg.”



The Road To Recovery

Adam was honorably discharged from the Army, and he immediately set out on the road to recovery. He re-entered the game of golf, this time as a double amputee. “I dove into golf as part of my physical and mental recovery,” he says. “I couldn’t stand going to the same physical therapy ward and looking at the same equipment every day. Golf was something physically challenging I could do on a daily basis where I wasn’t just going through the motions. It kept me on my feet, at least for a little bit, and if I needed to rely on the cart, it was there.”

Adam also relied on the course as a place of solace—a safe, quiet retreat that allowed him to process his experiences. “I golfed alone pretty often early in my recovery,” he says. “The course was a place for me to be introspective and deal with the thoughts I was left with after experiencing war. It’s calm, yet it kept my mind on something challenging and positive. There’s definitely a lot of unhealthy things you can get into when you return from war, but golf isn’t one of them.”

Adam’s journey to competitive golf has been a grind. Any player will tell you the game is more than challenging, and for most, the thought of playing it without legs is nearly unimaginable; Adam, however, attacks the challenge head-on. “Sure, it adds a slew of variables to an already very difficult activity,” he says. “But I look at it as two sides of a fence; there’s practice, and then there’s prosthetic maintenance." There for support is his prosthetics company, Precision Orthotics and Prosthetics in Las Vegas. "I spend about three days a week at the course, and I spend two days a week at the prosthetics lab getting tightened, working on better fits, trying out different equipment, and seeing what helps the golf swing.”


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Finding A Niche

When Adam heard about the Veteran Golfers Association and its goal—to enrich the lives of veterans and their family members through golf—he knew it was an organization he wanted to be part of. “Golf is important to me, and veterans are important to me, so the VGA is the best of both worlds,” he says. Part of the VGA’s work is to ensure out-of-pocket costs aren’t a deterrent for veterans who’d like to participate. An annual VGA membership fee of $40 gives each member access to approximately 250 local VGA tour events across the country, as well as a USGA equivalent handicap index. Over the last four years, the VGA has grown to serve more and more veterans, and it now operates as a transitional resource for veterans entering civilian life.

“I flew to DuPont, Washington, for my first VGA tournament,” says Adam. “Lucas O’Neill, the regional director for the West, met me at the course. We had dinner, and he made sure I was squared away. Before I even played golf, I felt like I had made a friend and that it was the right community for me. I fell in love with it.”

Now Adam competes in tournaments all over the country and continues to improve his game. “I just want to get better every day,” Adam says. “This will be my last year competing in the net flight, so I’m moving up to test the deeper waters. For me, the competition is always second to the experience, but no one hates getting a medal or a trophy,” he laughs. “When you know you’ve put in the work, you’ve grinded and practiced hard, and you show up and perform—that validates the day-to-day struggle. I’d like to feel a little more of that,” he smiles.


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Camaraderie on & off the Course

For Adam, the rewards—and they come in many different forms—are more than worth the work. “I’ve gone to places I never thought I would, and I have friends across the country,” says Adam. “Golf is the perfect game for breaking down social barriers. You might be feeling a little intimidated or shy, but then you get on the course and somebody hits a worm-burner. I don’t care who you are, that’s always funny!” he laughs. “Really though, golf is an outlet that promotes the building of relationships between strangers.”

When those strangers are veterans, the relationships formed are often unbreakable bonds. This year’s regional championship was in Las Vegas, where Adam currently lives with his wife Megan and three-year-old son Adam Jr. “A bromance has started with a new friend I met at this year’s championship,” laughs Adam. “He wasn’t competing, but he was a vet who saw there was a VGA tournament in town, so he decided to come and have a beer with us when we were done. We got to talking, and he and his wife and kids are new to town, so we went to the pool the next week. Now our wives are good friends, too.”


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Small Victories

Exciting things are on the horizon for the Poppenhouses, as they anxiously await the arrival of their second son in October—name yet to be determined. “Adam Jr. has named him Bob, so regardless of the name we decide on, he’ll probably go by Bob,” he laughs. Throughout the challenges and milestones, Megan, who also served in the Army, has been Adam’s rock. “She’s an incredible, strong woman,” Adam says, “and she understands how important the relationship aspect of the VGA is to me. She’s unbelievably supportive.”

In the future, Adam wants to continue building the community of nearby veterans through the VGA. “It’d be great to have a home course for VGA members here in the Las Vegas area,” he says, and you can practically hear the gears turning. With perseverance like his, one can’t help but believe he’ll make it happen. But Army Sergeant Adam Poppenhouse stays humble; he knows the best results happen one step at a time. “When it comes to helping vets, the little victories are the most important. For me, it’s an interesting place to be—to go to the course and hear from veterans and other amputees, Hey, man, you inspired me to get back into the game. Can I buy you a beer? That moment, right there. That’s where it’s at for me.”


Learn more about the Veteran Golfers Association at

www.VGAGolf.org.


This article first appeared in the fall 2018 edition of GolfStatus magazine.

 
Katie CasillasComment