THREE YEARS ago I was flying my F-16 back to Qatar during one of my last missions before coming home from a second tour of duty in Iraq. It had been a long and busy night.
We were 31,000 feet over the Persian Gulf. The visibility in Iraq is notoriously awful with all that dust in the air. Usually, you can't tell the sky from the ground. My wingman, Scott (Rookie) Rooks, called me on the radio and said, "Hey, Noonan"—that's my call sign, from Caddyshack, of course—"turn your cockpit lights down and look up." The sky was suddenly clear and dark. The Milky Way glowed like the top of a cappuccino, frothy with stars. Those were the most beautifully serene three or four minutes I've ever experienced. The F-16 is a quiet plane, and riding out front in a bubble canopy with setback wings ... let me tell you, it's the closest you can get to a magic carpet ride. It was strange, though. I went from flying in a combat zone with intense things happening to this Zen moment of total, utter peace.
That's when a revelation hit me: I'm about to go home, but others never will. Or they won't go home whole. A lot of veterans or their surviving families need help. I didn't know what I could do—I simply knew that I had to do something.
Three years later I have an answer: golf. That's not surprising. I'm also a PGA golf professional. I grew up in Stillwater, Okla., played college golf at Kansas (I wasn't good enough for local powerhouse Oklahoma State) and tried the mini-tours. It was a great adventure, though unprofitable.
My buddies in college laughed when I told them I wanted to be a fighter pilot someday, even though I'd never even flown a plane. They figured I'd watched Top Gun one too many times. But I was serious. So I gave up pro golf, earned my pilot's license and joined the Air National Guard. Many tests and interviews later, I was one of the chosen few given 2 1/2 years of intense military aviation training. Going from Cessna to supersonic in seven months is like trying to drink water from a fire hose, but I loved it.
I'm 35 now and stationed in Tulsa with the 125th Fighter Squadron. I fly eight training sorties a month, and the rest of the time I'm a PGA professional at Grand Haven Golf Club in Michigan. (I'm also a part owner of the course.)
I'm headed back to Iraq in September for my third tour of duty. First, though, I have a request: Your country needs you to play golf on Labor Day weekend. When you tee it up on one of about 5,000 participating courses on Patriot Golf Day (www.PatriotGolfDay.com), you'll be asked to donate an extra $1 to the Folds of Honor Foundation (www.FoldsofHonor.org), a nonprofit program that provides scholarships to family members of those who were killed or wounded in action. We raised $1.1 million in our first try last year and handed out more than 200 scholarships. With the PGA of America and USGA on board this year, we're hoping for even more.
It's not about the golf. It's about taking care of deserving servicemen and -women. They are real American heroes.
GOLF PLUS will next appear as a Sept. 16 Ryder Cup preview issue