Birdies for the Brave: These "Birdies" Fly like American Eagles, Building Shelters for Our Injured Troops

By Abney, Allen | The Saturday Evening Post, November-December 2006 | Go to article overview

Birdies for the Brave: These "Birdies" Fly like American Eagles, Building Shelters for Our Injured Troops


Abney, Allen, The Saturday Evening Post


August 18, 2004, was a hot summer day. While professional golfer Phil Mickelson was shooting a round of golf as part of the PGA Tour, Army Specialist Russell "Kyle" Burleson was living in a very different world, perched on top of an Army HumVee in Sadr City, Iraq, putting his life on the line.

Little did either know that soon the two different worlds would meet.

A winner of 29 PGA Tour events since his debut in 1992, including three major championships since 2004, Phil Mickelson is putting his golf skills to work for veterans and their families through a program called "Birdies for the Brave." It's a special giving program started by Phil in 2004, and this year it's become an official charity of the PGA Tour and PGA Tour Charities Inc.

In golf, a "birdie" means playing a hole at one stroke under par. That's a rare feat for weekend golfers, but not unusual on the pro tour. Under Birdies for the Brave, people everywhere can go to the pgatour.com website (or www.birdiesforthebrave.org) and pledge to make a charitable donation of whatever size they choose every time Phil scores a birdie or an eagle. Donors can pledge their support for a particular tournament or for the whole season.

Donations made through Birdies for the Brave go to both Homes for Our Troops and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, dedicated to providing college educations to the children of Special Operations forces soldiers lost in combat or on training missions. Special Operations forces include elite units in the Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force, including the famous U.S. Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs.

Returning injured veterans like Kyle Burleson clearly need other housing options, and Phil Mickelson and an organization called Homes for Our Troops are addressing this need. Working with local organizations around the country, Homes for Our Troops is providing new, handicapped-accessible homes for disabled veterans like Kyle or remodeling existing homes to make them accessible. Doing this, of course, involves raising millions of dollars, and that's where Phil enters the picture.

Special Operations forces are often the first on the ground in any dangerous operation. They are trained for behind-the-lines stealth missions, lightning-fast raids, and counterinsurgency fighting. All this training makes them a prized asset in today's dangerous world, but it also means they head for the most high-risk situations and, according to the Warrior Foundation, Special Operations troops have a casualty rate four times that of conventional soldiers.

"I think sometimes if you are a military brat, you don't always realize what kind of job your father or mother might be doing," said Stephanie Matos, daughter of Sgt. Major Santos Matos, U.S. Army Special Forces, and Warrior Foundation student. "You see them in the morning and say goodbye just like any other morning, and you don't think about the possibility they won't come home." But in 1991, a tragic accident during parachute training took the life of Sgt. Major Matos, leaving then-13-year-old Stephanie and her older sister and brother without a father.

Stephanie, along with twelve other Warrior Foundation students, graduated from college in May, for a total of 92 graduates since the foundation began 26 years ago.

"It's like a gift from my dad," explained Stephanie. "The Warrior Foundation has given me the education my dad would have wanted me to have and would have provided himself."

This year alone, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation will cover complete college costs for more than 100 sons and daughters of Special Ops troops. This foundation gives Special Ops troops the comfort of knowing their children's education would be remembered by a grateful nation.

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