In the 2010 documentary “Restrepo,” about a battalion’s hellfire year in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley, one of the soldiers says he still has “nightmares about seeing Sgt. Padilla lose his arm.”
Ramon Padilla sat shaking in the theater the first time he saw the film, tapping the knee of his wife, Judith, on edge until the credits rolled.
“My realization it was gone? I saw my arm flapping in the air, hanging on by some ligaments, strands of skin,” he says. “In order for them to calm me down so the shock wouldn’t be so severe, they put my arm across my chest. Even though I knew I lost it, it gave some sort of security.”
He is telling his story outside a golf pro shop in Olney last Saturday, next to the course where his life changed after he came home a wounded warrior.
It was five years since Padilla outdrove Tiger Woods while teeing off with the Salute Military Golf Association in 2009 at Congressional Country Club; three years since George W. Bush hugged him, rubbed his head and told him, “Good job, soldier,” after he drained a birdie putt on a par-3 hole in Dallas; and five days before the Folds of Honor Foundation presented his three children with Microsoft Surface tablets to further their education in a ceremony at Congressional on Wednesday afternoon.
“I’m glad I live in America,” he says. “I’m glad I’m a U.S. citizen. I’m glad I’m a soldier and I did my part for my country.”
You always hear about Tiger’s tournament honoring the military, distributing free tickets to armed forces personnel, the charitable giving. But it’s not until you meet and get to know Padilla — hear him speak openly about losing a limb, unwrap the gauze to show you — that the seemingly abstract connections between golf, genuine valor and life after battle crystalize.
“I never thought for a half-second I would play,” Padilla said. “It wasn’t something I ever did growing up.”
Padilla wasn’t exactly from the barrio, but El Monte, Calif., in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles, was close: “80 percent Hispanic, lots of gangs tempting kids, the whole thing,” he said. He came to America with his parents from Mexico at 2 years old, grew up, avoided the gangs and decided he needed to give back. He enlisted in 2000.
Padilla was a member of the 173rd airborne brigade out of Italy when his unit was deployed to Afghanistan in 2007. About 45 days into patrol, Padilla’s firebase was attacked. The first salvo was a rocket-propelled grenade aimed directly at him.
It severed the left side of his arm. He also took a round to the right side of his head, which broke off a piece of his skull and caused a traumatic brain injury.
“I was conscious the whole time; I remembered everything,” he said. “My own guys saved my life.”
He was taken in a Humvee back to the main base, airlifted to Germany and ended up at Walter Reed Medical Center.
“The first thing I asked was if I could still play with my kids,” he said. “I just wanted to play ball with my kids. Because those are some of the most fond memories growing up with my dad. I didn’t know anything about prosthetics or anything.”
His Walter Reed therapists made him an offer: take one day of physical therapy off a week and try golf. Within a few weeks, Jim Estes, the co-founder of the Salute Military Golf Association, had a new pupil. After lessons and a few tips, “Next thing you know, I hit an iron 150 yards into the island green at Olney Golf Park,” Padilla said. “I fell in love.”
Padilla didn’t merely find a hobby. He found a life’s passion that he was good at, wrapping his prosthetic left arm — which he actually helped design at Walter Reed — around the club, finding a torque and force he didn’t know he had.
He competes on Golf Channel’s Challenged Tour, three times qualifying for nationals — including twice at TPC Sawgrass. A 10-handicap, he shot a 78 last week at Andrews Air Force Base.
He had so much stage fright before teeing off with Tiger in 2009, Padilla actually saw a sports psychologist at Walter Reed to help him visualize the perfect shot and zone the crowd out.
“The closer it got, the more nerve-wracking it got,” he said. “You don’t want to duff the ball. You don’t want to hook it and hit somebody in the crowd.”
Tiger told him they would swing at the count of three.
“I said, ‘I’m struggling with my prosthetic.’ He says, ‘One,’ I got it fixed. ‘Two.’ And next thing you know, I hit the best shot I ever hit in my life, right down the middle, about 250 yards.”
Tiger hooked his left. Kelly Tilghman of the Golf Channel afterward told Padilla that Tiger had come up to her. “Did you see that soldier hit that shot?” he said, blown away.
That kind of shot can make a birdie in front of a former president a second-best golf memory.
“I thought President Bush was a member there, so after my shot hit the green I asked, ‘Sir, so which way is the putt breaking?’ ” Padilla remembered. “He said, ‘Ramon, just make the [expletive] putt,’ ” before he rolled in the 15-footer.
Padilla now works as a security manager at the Pentagon. He came to Congressional on Wednesday without his prosthetic, which was getting fixed. He still has issues with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Every time I dream about my arm, I dream about losing it again — or someone shooting it off or someone cutting it off,” he says. “I always have those nightmares. I try not to think about having my arm again. It’s gone. But some things are so hard to do, you get frustrated.
“My wife basically repainted our house by herself. I try to help, but I have carpal tunnel [syndrome] in my right hand, so I’m just sitting there cleaning the brushes.”
Golf, Padilla says, “helped me with that, too.”“It helps you grow up. It helps you kind of become an adult. You hit one bad shot — you make one bad mistake in life — you don’t let it define you. You carry on. You learn that shot is gone. You focus on the next shot. You learn to move on.”