Marine veteran Ben Wilson serves new mission through golf

Aspiring PGA Professional found golf to be therapeutic following his military days, now he's helping veterans in similar situations through Patriot Golf Days and Veterans Golf Association

The bond golf shares with Ben Wilson is an unconventional one. After all, Wilson is one of our nation’s finest, a highly-decorated Marine sergeant who served fighting tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Let’s face it, when you’re Semper Fidelis, you don’t have much time for fairways and greens.

But Wilson was injured in battle multiple times. In one incident, he suffered head trauma from an improvised explosive device (IED), as his unit came under fire. He recovered only to be on patrol again in 2010 when the vehicle ahead hit an IED. Wilson sustained a traumatic brain injury.

Eventually, the wounded warrior had to medically retire from active duty in 2016. But you don’t just walk away from war; the pages don’t turn that easily. There have been residual issues with which to deal, skeletons in the closet, both physical and mental. That’s where golf comes in. 

Ben Wilson
Former Marine sergeant Ben Wilson is a teaching professional seeking PGA Professional certification at The Clubs at St. James in Southport, North Carolina.

Wilson was going through a therapy session one day when the physician asked him about things he liked to do before his military duty. Among the activities Wilson mentioned was an occasional round of golf. 

“His eyes lit up like a Christmas tree,” Wilson, 40, says of the therapist. “He said, ‘You play golf?’ I said, ‘Yes sir,’ and he said, ‘OK, we’re going to get you back into golf, and we’re going to use that as therapy.’ And I said, ‘OK, you can explain that one later, but OK.’ “

The physical benefits were obvious. Golf can be good exercise, if you embrace the organic demands. Spare the ride, spur the cardio. But there was more to it than that and the more Wilson played, the more those blessings became self-evident.

“I started figuring out how therapeutic golf was for me mentally,” says Wilson, now a teaching pro at The Clubs at St. James in Southport, North Carolina. “When I was having a bad day, I would go out to the driving range. And something about being on a driving range and hitting golf balls … it just was therapy, mental as much as physical. And I realized, ‘Hey, we’re onto something here.’" 

With the encouragement of his wife, Jennifer, Wilson went all in. He applied for a job as a starter at Compass Pointe Golf Club in Leland, North Carolina, and the next thing he knew, he was pursuing a professional apprenticeship. It’s been a whole new mission, another means to serve.  

"One of the things that stuck out the most to me,” Wilson explains, “is that when I’m on the golf course, I’m not thinking about anything else. I’m not thinking about being on patrol, I’m not thinking about my injuries, I’m not thinking about the military or thinking I need to worry about anything. 

“All I’m thinking about is playing golf, and maybe having a beer or two with the guys afterward. It just clicked. And I thought, if this is good therapy for my body and my head, I’ve got to find a way to get other veterans into this.”

And he has. Wilson is on the verge of achieving full PGA Professional certification. At the same time, he has embraced other means of supporting his fellow veterans and first-responders, other ways to serve.

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For one, he has become a player and assistant state director for the Veterans Golf Association, where the mission is to promote sportsmanship and camaraderie among veterans and family members. The competitive rounds represent a different type of patrol. Everyone returns home safe and sound. The only casualties are on the scorecard.

"When we go out and play golf together, we don’t have to talk about it," Wilson says. "Because we all get it. That’s just a place for us to unwind, and not have to talk about it. I mean we all feel safe, because we’re around each other, but we’re still competing like military guys and girls do." 

At the same time, Wilson is using golf to make a difference during Patriot Golf Days. Each Memorial Day weekend, golf communities partner with Folds of Honor and PGA HOPE to support the families of military and first responders who have fallen in the line of duty. Money raised during Patriot Golf Days provides scholarships and educational opportunities for those deserving families. Marines don’t leave men or women behind.

Five years ago, Wilson and three other pros set out to do their part, seeking donations to play 100 holes in one day. The effort raised $13,000. Not bad. By the third year, 2022, the pot had grown to $53,000, and the goal posts keep moving. 

This year's event was moved off of Memorial Day weekend due to inclement weather, so on June 2, celebrating the fifth anniversary of that initial participation, Wilson and his golfing band of brothers will once again play 100 holes. And in the meantime, his group will be playing host to 280 players teeing off over two courses. At dusk, when the last divot is taken and the last putt is retrieved, Wilson’s Patriot Golf Days push will have raised upwards of $100,000. 

One day, one group of people, it’s unprecedented. And it begs the question — how do they do it? 

"Well, a couple of reasons," Wilson explains. "For one, we have our own American Legion inside St. James, which is huge. We have 1,000 veterans and countless numbers of first responders. And the thing I love about this club and this community is that they’re very giving people. 

"They love an excuse to play golf, they love an excuse to donate money, and the fact that it’s for first responders and military makes them even happier. It’s just a remarkable community."

Which brings to mind a follow-up question: Why do they do it?

"You know a board member was commenting to me," Wilson says, “and he said, ‘You know that proverbial saying about checking the box? You guys are thinking outside of the box.’ And I said, ‘Well, how many boxes have we put in the ground?’ And he said, ‘Too many.’ And I said, ‘So why should there be a box for us to check?’ There should be no limit on what we do and how we do it.

“They were doing something that nobody else wanted to do, and they sacrificed themselves for their legacy and these kids. We need to take care of them. That’s where my heart is.”

Ben Wilson sacrificed. His courage, the strength of his wife and the tranquility of golf have provided him a road to recovery. He has his heart back, intact, and he’s only too eager to share it.