In the mountains of Afghanistan, a U.S. Marine Officer carefully lines up his shot. He stands atop a small platform built from two-by-fours, squeezes his grip a little tighter, and fires at his target about 200 yards away. A puff goes up as his dimpled white Callaway hits the rocky slopes about 20 feet past the flagstick stuck into the dirt. He adjusts his uniform and reloads, pulling another golf ball into position on the synthetic turf mat and addressing it with a fairway wood that bears a few battle scars of its own.
The unique pre-shot routine is made possible by an initiative called Bunkers in Baghdad, a 501©(3) charity that has shipped more than 10.5 million golf balls and almost 800,000 golf clubs to U.S. military members around the world over the past 11 years. The program, which is entirely volunteer-run and funded by donations and grants, has big-time benefactors within the golf industry that include Callaway, Topgolf, and DICK’S Sporting Goods, and has also partnered with more than 700 schools, a host of professional golfers, and more than 40 professional sports teams. Heck, five U.S. presidents have even donated golf gear to the cause.
“When you bring together the U.S. military and our veterans, it’s a cause that so many people are so passionate about, and then the game of golf elicits a crazy passion as well,” says Bunkers in Baghdad founder Joe Hanna. “Combine that with school kids and I knew we were going to be able to help people. But I never envisioned this many.”
An avid golfer himself, Hanna is a lawyer for New York-based Goldberg Segalla and serves as chairman of the firm’s sports and entertainment practice. A resident of Buffalo, Hanna is a member at Crag Burn Golf Club and says he frequently “lurks around” his firm’s office in Garden City, N.Y., during the summer months so he can occasionally slip out to play his favorite golf course in the world: Bethpage Black.
Hanna was inspired to take action after reading an article detailing David Feherty’s experiences during a USO tour in Iraq and Kuwait. Hanna learned that makeshift driving ranges—such as the one found at Camp Victory in Iraq—were an incredibly popular form of stress relief for soldiers stationed abroad, even those who had never swung a club in their lives. Their biggest challenge, a lack of equipment, was a problem that Hanna was confident he could address.
“I figured the least I could do is get some balls and clubs together and send them overseas,” says Hanna.
The first shipment from Bunkers in Baghdad went out in November of 2008, to reach the troops in Iraq in time for the holidays. Today, worldwide shipments go out every single day thanks to grass roots donations ranging from major companies and golf facilities to kids who live next to a golf course and send all the balls they collect to the charity.
“We have troops in all four branches who have never picked up a club. But they have someone saying, ‘Let’s tee a ball up and hit it as far as we can,’” Hanna says. “It’s an incredible experience. Yes, it’s recreation and rehabilitation, but at the most basic level it’s spreading the game of golf around the world.”
The program also provides golf equipment—and thus therapeutic and recreational benefits—to injured veterans, such as those suffering from PTSD or recovering in Wounded Warriors programs, military installations, and VA hospitals around the world.
Bunkers in Baghdad has now shipped golf balls and clubs to all 50 U.S. states and at least 70 countries. Roughly 65 percent of efforts are currently focused overseas, some quite literally—like the Navy sailor swatting balls off the deck of an aircraft carrier.
The school kids who help with the program write letters, draw pictures, make necklaces, and create songs for the troops. It’s a daily process that Hanna says is particularly “enriching.” Everything is made possible by donations, from the equipment itself to the funds required for shipping—whether it’s a box of several thousand golf balls or rolled up pieces of turf from a Topgolf facility that’s replacing its outfield hitting area. The program holds several fundraisers each year to help offset the shipping costs, such as an annual golf tournament held in Buffalo every year or a happy hour in Chicago, as well as grants from the Buffalo Bills Foundation and others.
Hanna says that 11 years ago he never could have envisioned the program would be as big and far-reaching as it is today. And now he expects it will only get bigger.
“Now that we’ve established ourselves as a credible non-profit, I see us continuing to grow and bring this sport to so many people who haven’t played and help people,” says Hanna. “And as long as we keep receiving requests from troops and vets around the world and we have the equipment and golf balls, we’ll continue to do so.”