Even before she became a piece of work—with her reconstructed face and new teeth and the acrylic eye she may yet send back for repairs " 'cause it looks like I'm giving people the stink-eye"—Breinne Travers was a piece of work, a feisty, funny and remarkably profane young woman who signed up for the National Guard as a junior at Norton (Mass.) High in 1997.
"One of my dopey friends said, 'Let's join the Army!'" she recalls, so three of them did, though within a year the other two had left the Guard and Travers was on her own. For the first couple of years she dreaded spending that one weekend a month with her unit in Buzzards Bay on Cape Cod. Slowly, she made friends, and it got easier. "I got so used to bitching about it," she says, "I didn't realize how much I loved it, and how much I loved my guys and my unit."
Fifteen years after joining the Army, she is sitting on a lawn chair near the practice green at the Olney (Md.) Golf Park, 11 miles north of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where she has undergone 20 surgeries over the last two years. In an hour or so, she'll take part in an adaptive golf clinic designed for Wounded Warriors, hosted by the Salute Golf Military Association. She'll stand at the range and fume a bit after hitting a few worm-burners, but she won't mention the nerve damage in her neck and right shoulder or the problems she has with depth perception. She'll allow herself a smile after cranking a series of arrow-straight drives. "I'm still pissed off," she'll say. "It's just a more relaxed kind of pissed off."
It's nice to see her smile. Travers has been in a dark place for a while. Golf helped her escape it.
Around 11 on the night of Aug. 3, 2010, Travers was driving an MRAP All Terrain Vehicle in a convoy out of Forward Operating Base Shank in the Logar Province of Afghanistan. The M-ATV is up-armored to protect against improvised explosive devices, which is why the Taliban hiding 30 meters from the roadside aimed his rocket-propelled grenade at the passenger's side window.
Shrapnel tore into the right side of Travers's face, knocking her unconscious. The truck plunged 15 feet into a ditch, the impact crushing the left side of her face and dislodging her eye from its socket. The 15 or so ambushing Taliban were swiftly routed by fire from a nearby Apache helicopter. When Travers came to, she was in a hospital just a few feet from where doctors were working to save the lives of two of the enemy who had attacked her.
Her misgivings that night ("Let 'em f-----' bleed to death!") have given way to a more high-minded perspective. "Just one more reason to be proud to be an American," she now says. "We'll whup your ass, and if we don't kill you, we'll help you get better, so you can feel the pain."
In the room next to her at Walter Reed was Jason Hamilton, who had lost a leg and had an eye injury similar to hers. "Both of our eyes were f-----," she says. "So we had this battle going of whose [intraocular] eye pressure was better." One week his was measured at two, while hers was 12. "I was like, 'Dude, you suck at this.'" In the end both lost sight in their injured eyes.
Their sightless eyes will gradually shrink and lose color until doctors decide to remove them. "Now we have a new bet," says Travers. "Whoever gets the ice cream scoop first has to pay the other 20 bucks."
Kirk Bauer lost his left leg to a grenade in Vietnam. He still remembers his exhilaration, early in his rehab, when his dad and a few cronies basically snatched him from the hospital and took him on the golf course. With no prosthetic, he would hop out of the cart, balance on one leg and take a cut at the ball. To his surprise, Bauer recalls, "I could actually hit it O.K."