MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – Golf has become a guiding light for the Wallace family, helping them repair their lives and get through some very difficult times.
Christopher and Jonathan Wallace are not out just playing 18 holes a day, although at times that's part of the curriculum at the Golf Academy of America. They're among a growing number of military veterans learning the business of golf in hopes the game becomes their next career.
The Wallace brothers and their father, George, are enrolled at the Golf Academy of America.
"Golf has become part of our therapy, both individually and collectively. We're getting our lives back, little by little," said George Wallace.
Mike Betz of the Education Corporation of America said that's happening more and more with troops seeking the next step in their lives when they return home after serving in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Golf becomes part of their rehab," said Betz, the ECA's military student initiative general manager. "Then they go out and chase that little white ball and there's something restorative."
ECA is the parent company for the five golf academies located in San Diego, Phoenix, Dallas, Orlando, Fla., and on South Carolina's Grand Strand region. Betz said academy inquiries from veterans have increased as they consider turning a hobby into a vocation. Former service members made up fewer than 20 percent of the 850 academy students in 2005. Seven years later, the school says more than 30 percent of its 1,200 enrollees have military backgrounds.
The Wallace family needed something to cling to after years of service.
Christopher, 29, joined the military out of high school and spent a decade in the Army. Jonathan, 26, was a military police officer who worked for the Secret Service at military bases throughout the world. Injuries led to their discharges. George, 56, worked at the Department of Energy site as a rigger, wearing three suits to protect against radiation as he checked equipment for leaks. He worked at the Savannah River Site nuclear plant for 31 years until downsizing cost him his job.
"I always felt I was destined to be a warrior," Christopher said.
Christopher was on the front lines for several missions during the earliest days in Iraq. He will not discuss what he calls atrocities of battle. He developed inoperable brain tumors that caused up to 30 seizures a day. The Army told Christopher the tumors came from exposure, he said. He could no longer serve and his separation from the life he dreamt about since childhood devastated him.
"When they took that away from me after I was injured, it crushed me," Christopher said.
Christopher said he lost all hope in 2008 and put a loaded shotgun against his chin as he planned to end the pain once and for all. It was that moment he got a call from his former wife saying they were expecting a child.
"My daughter saved my life," he said.
George fought depression and his sons were both diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Christopher and Jonathan battled alcohol issues while coming up empty on the job front.
"Nothing was working out," Jonathan said.
At times, Christopher still struggles to adjust.
"When we were fighting in the Army there was a clear cut victor and loser in each fight," Christopher said. "When you're fighting within yourself, it's not so clear cut. The lines aren't really there as to whether you're winning or losing."
Now he sees there's a chance to win in life through golf.
Christopher said he learned the game in the military after his injuries as a way to keep him from turning into a depressed, shut-in. He kept playing through the Wounded Warrior Project, where PGA professionals teach wounded soldiers and veterans.
Jonathan, who played during breaks on various missions, agreed to join his brother and the two convinced their father to also enroll at the academy to make it a threesome.
"It seemed like something that could help us all," George said.
The three joined the 16-month program, which costs about $8,300 per semester in tuition and books. They spend about 20 hours a week in classes learning everything from how to improve their games to building clubs and managing courses. The Wallace brothers are using the GI Bill to pay for their education while George is paying with retirement savings.
Betz said corporations see the value of hiring veterans, prizing their ability to get things done and their leadership skills.
"That's desirable for employers," he said.
The Golf Academy of America is not unique in accepting military or seeing interest from service men and women rise, but spokesman Craig Smith said the schools are aggressive in pursuing veterans and have gained the distinction of "military friendly" from the Military Advanced Education group in Rockville, Md., that tracks educational opportunities for those in the service.
Christopher and Jonathan went through the Army's Warrior Transition Command, designed to smooth the way for discharged veterans on their way back. The command's mission, according to its web site, is to aid wounded, ill, and injured personnel and their loved ones "to promote success in the force or civilian life."
Others who have enrolled in the school have found jobs in the golf industry.
Chad Pfeifer was a corporal in the Army who lost his left leg above the knee serving in Iraq when a truck he was in ran over an explosive device. He spent time rehabbing at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, where he could play and practice for free.
"It was one of the greatest forms of therapy I could go through," Pfeifer said.
He enrolled at the Golf Academy of America in 2010 and earned an associate degree in Golf Complex Operations and Management. He is now part of the PGA Apprentice Program in Scottsdale, Ariz., and is an assistant golf professional at Tatum Ranch Golf Club.
The school has already been a savior for the Wallaces.
"It feels like it was meant to be that all of us are now together here. We're still a family, and that's nice," Christopher said.
George said he'd make a good club fitter or representative for an interested company. Jonathan is a natural talker and would love a chance as an industry spokesman. Christopher has lowered his handicap from 36 to 21 and believes he can improve enough to compete on area tours.
"My whole outlook about this game has changed," he said.
The Wallace family hopes to graduate with associate degrees next April. They are optimistic about a brighter future. But whatever happens, Jonathan said one thing is for sure — golf's a lot safer than what they had done.
"I'd rather not kick in a door," he said, "and maybe take a bullet when I can say, 'Hey, how about this driver?'"