LYONS, NJ — When Garret Hrynko returned from Afghanistan in 2016, his life was spiraling out of control. He had lost a close friend, Kyle Gilbert, downline. The battlefield had taken its toll. Self-destructive behaviors were pushing him to the brink. At rock bottom, he knew he needed a little hope. And hope is exactly what saved him.
“I ended up trying to end my life in February 2020, shortly before I found the HOPE program,” said Hrynko, a 27-year-old who served three years in active duty in the military. American, followed by a stint in counterintelligence. “HOPE has really laid the foundation for me to continue on a positive trajectory with recovery.”
PGA HOPE, a free weekly golf clinic for veterans taught by PGA professionals, is the flagship program of PGA REACH, which is the charitable arm of the PGA of America, an organization of 29,000 golf professionals across the country.
“HOPE stands for ‘Helping our Patriots Everywhere,'” said Chris Hunt, executive director of the New Jersey Golf Foundation, which worked with PGA of America to launch New Jersey’s first HOPE chapter at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Lyon.
For six to eight weeks, veterans receive free tuition from PGA professionals, who themselves must complete a special course to become instructors.
“You go through a full day of adaptive training; prosthetics above the knee, below the knee,” said Don Rea, vice president of the PGA of America. “Maybe it’s PTSD. Maybe it’s a brain injury. With the training at a high level, we don’t send anyone in there.”
Of approximately 475 PGA professionals in New Jersey, Chris Hunt estimates that at least a dozen are veterans themselves. He says they are all involved with PGA HOPE.
“I’ve been in the business for 43 years as a PGA professional,” said Ron Reed, US Army Green Beret from 1969 to 1975 and VA instructor. “When I found out they had a program that could help vets, I took the plunge.”
“If you’re just down for the day, they can put golf lessons aside, just have a one-on-one chat almost like therapy,” Hrynko said.
But that day in late September, he wasn’t there for therapy. He was perfecting his swing for one of the best courses in the country.
“I have the privilege of going to the Congressional Country Club in mid-October for PGA HOPE Health and Wellness Week. And that’s going to be connecting with a lot of other veterans like me, sharing our stories of perseverance,” Hrynko said.
The event ran from October 13-18, with HOPE Ambassadors like Hrynko from around the country gathering at the revered course in Bethesda, Maryland. There were group sessions, skills clinics and, of course, 18 holes in the air of the fall.
Two-time PGA Championship winner and 1991 Ryder Cup captain Dave Stockton was on hand as an instructor. On the practice green, flanked by a group of delighted veterans, he pointed to a small area next to the cut.
“How far do you think I pick a spot?” He asked. “My world is one inch, and I’m damn good at it.”
For Hrynko, this philosophy means much more than a way to improve his little game.
“He sees his world, everything is one inch,” Hrynko said. “The program, it just took that inch that I had to take and turn it into miles.”
New Jersey’s PGA HOPE footprint has expanded from the pilot program at the VA in Lyon to more than six sites helping 250 veterans across the state. There are 162 HOPE Chapters in the United States
But Hrynko is thinking smaller these days, an inch at a time.
“I never imagined such an opportunity to really pay it forward,” Hrynko said. “I want to connect with as many veterans as possible, but if it’s just one individual’s life that I can change, like my life has changed, for me, that’s all I could. ask.”
Before leaving Congress, Garret hit a monster drive on the 18 and sank an 8-footer to finish the final hole of the weekend one under par. He gave up three fingers to his fellow veterans.
“Gentlemen, we have a bird,” he said, laughing, giving daps to his friends and soaking up the last of that experience before moving on to the future.
It is a hopeful future.