Veteran Kevin McCloskey, who lost his legs in Afghanistan, finds himself in golf
By BOB FORD | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: May 16, 2019
PHILADELPHIA (Tribune News Service) — Kevin McCloskey grips the golf club, a driver made to the length of a standard 3-wood, takes his stance, and swivels his head so his left eye, the good eye, is looking straight down at the ball on the tee. Sometimes, he isn’t quite sure if the grip is too firm or too loose, because there isn’t much feeling in his fingertips, particularly on his right hand. But since his right arm is mostly built around a titanium rod, and there isn’t any bend at the wrist, the club face usually stays square regardless of the grip, so that’s all good.
The stance is slightly closed, as it has to be. The thing about being an amputee, particularly a bilateral amputee with prosthetics on both legs, is that the centrifugal force generated by swinging a golf club can make you fall on your freaking face if you’re not braced.
Some guys have to take such an unorthodox stance – the left foot much closer to the tee than the right foot for a right-handed golfer – that they can’t do much more than punch down at the ball because they can’t get their front hip out of the way. McCloskey’s lucky there. He’s always been an athlete and doesn’t need to close up as drastically. He’s learned to control his body to keep from falling down and, anyway, it was something to beat and he doesn’t mind that.
He does have to lift the front part of his right shoe off the ground. That doesn’t help with the balance, naturally, but the right prosthesis, the one that extends above where his knee used to be, is engineered to kick forward when it senses the pressure of walking. If McCloskey pushed his weight forward on the right shoe as he prepared to hit the ball, that leg would kick out and he’d probably whack himself with the club and fall down and that would really be a dumb-ass thing to do.
Other than that, it’s no big deal once he actually climbs up to the tee box, using the club like a hiker’s staff, and gets his rebuilt pelvis and hip into proper alignment. There were seven surgeries alone on the pelvis. Seven of the 30 total surgeries, and that’s not counting the smaller stuff to treat the burns or pluck out what shrapnel, some of which still remains in place like so many black freckles. Now and then, especially when it’s really sunny, McCloskey will wear a patch over his right eye, although it’s kind of annoying and he doesn’t like to do it. But the belt that runs behind the eye and makes it move – if you look close, you can see the tip of it when he pulls back his eyelid – that thing gets hot and the pressure builds up and it feels as if someone is sticking a thumb in his eye.
On this day, at the 17th tee of Jeffersonville Golf Club in Norristown, the No. 1 handicap hole on the course, McCloskey is looking to cut the corner on a 363-yard dogleg right, and even though his depth perception sucks because of having just one eye, he’s pretty sure he can carry the drive to the fairway. It really isn’t his personality to lay up. He addresses the ball, bends his left knee slightly, closes the stance, lifts the front of the right shoe, feels for the grip, cocks his head to the right so he can see the damn thing, takes the club back slowly and comes down and through with a crack that echoes off the trees like a rifle shot in the high mountains of Afghanistan.
His is a good story, but it’s not a fairy tale. Army Cpl. Kevin McCloskey, now 31, lost his legs – the right one above the knee, the left one below the knee – when the humvee he was driving ran over an explosive device buried in an Afghan road on June 8, 2008. Along with his many obvious injuries, he suffered a traumatic brain injury and is experiencing some memory loss and migraines.
But he is living, and doing better than anyone in his platoon’s convoy would have predicted on that day. He is married to a childhood sweetheart, even though they never knew they were sweethearts back then, and he is able to work and get around, and he has golf. Every morning, though, he has to roll a thin, silicone liner onto what remains of each of his legs, and insert them into the sockets of the prosthetic legs where they are held in place by suction cups. And then he stands to meet another day.
“Everybody thinks that everything’s fine. Everybody that I know thinks everything’s fine,” McCloskey says. “It’s not freaking fine. Every day isn’t happy. When I wake up and I’m a little irritable, well, just think about it. I just had a nightmare about me getting captured, and I was in a cave, and then I woke up and I didn’t feel like getting out of bed, but I did, and now I’m trying to make myself happier. But I’m sorry if I’m not that freaking happy today.
“I haven’t said this to anybody, and I don’t want to come off as being cocky or anything, but other amputees aren’t necessarily doing the same things I’m doing, tending bar, playing golf, running around. It is a normal version of myself despite the injuries, but I have to work hard to do that, and people think it’s just the regular old me. People get it, but they kind of forget.”
It’s easier to embrace just how far he has come rather than the reality that the journey will never end, but McCloskey understands that other people can’t know what it takes every day. They can’t know what it took to get out of the hospital bed, or to resume life, or to find love, or to discover the game that allows him to compete again.
He plays golf to a 10-handicap now, and will put that ability on display next Tuesday and Wednesday in a two-day Ryder Cup-style tournament at St. Andrews in Scotland. The match is between 13 U.S. veterans of various abilities and disabilities and an equal number from the United Kingdom. The Simpson Cup, which takes place Tuesday and Wednesday, is now in its eighth year, and McCloskey has qualified twice in a row. He views the veterans from the U.K. as brothers in arms. He also wants to kick their butts.
Golf gave him a reason to get out of bed again, and not drift through an aimless succession of days when he was either depressed or medicated or unsure if there was still a direction for him to take. The game saved him, even if that might sound to some like a dramatic overstatement.
“No,” McCloskey says, turning his head slightly so the good eye is looking straight ahead, “it’s not.”
The three syllables of the neighborhood are smoothed over by outsiders, but if you are from there, it is pronounced, “Tuh-CONE-ee,” with a biting edge to the word that mirrors the nature of the working-class Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood hard by the Delaware River.
Kevin McCloskey is Tacony, and Tacony is Kevin McCloskey. He is the youngest of the three children of Joann and Tom McCloskey (Muh-KLUS-kee, not Muh-KLOS-kee, in Tacony) and he was something of a handful from day one. Not bad, just into everything. Mischievous is a nice word and will have to do, but it doesn’t quite cover it.
“He was a fun-loving kid, always joking around, making people laugh,” says Tom Boyle, who grew up with Tom McCloskey and whom Kevin considers an uncle from the neighborhood. “All the kids from there were rambunctious and Kevin fell right in line with them.”
Kevin was always slight, but fast, with legs that could carry him in and out of trouble in an instant, whether on the football field in Rhawnhurst, where he was a tailback as a kid, or on the wrestling mat in junior programs and then with the varsity at North Catholic, or on the streets. His legs were his offense and his defense.
“His speed was one of his big attributes,” says Jim Savage, who coached him at North. “And he was really, really tough. He was never intimidated by any opponents.”
At North Catholic, the motto was Tenui Nec Dimittam. It is Latin for: “I have taken hold, and will not let go.” The falcon was chosen as the school mascot, because it is the fastest of God’s creatures and never releases its prey, much like a wrestler with an opponent in his grip.
The gym at North, before the school closed in 2010, was called The Pit. It was small and the stands raked steeply from the floor so the spectators hovered over the action like gargoyles. When the wrestling mats were rolled out, those seated in the first row of bleachers had their feet on the edge of it. It was an ominous setting made for a kid who feared nothing and wanted to defend his turf.
“Mentally, I think it’s the best sport there is,” McCloskey says. “It’s a team sport because points rack up and you see which team wins, but it’s just you on the mat. It’s all on you. The slightest mistake could get you pinned, and you have to be a man about it, and stand up and shake that person’s hand. It taught me a lot about life.”
After high school, after Catholic wrestling championships his last three years, McCloskey waited for those life lessons to point him in the right direction. He stocked fruit shelves at Capriotti Brothers on Frankford Ave., and hung out with his buddies. One night, a year after graduation, at a party in Fishtown, he saw a guy he hadn’t seen in a while and the dude looked great — had a clean haircut, had lost weight, and was jacked.
“Man, what have you been doing?” McCloskey asked.
“I joined the Army,” the guy said.
And McCloskey thought, “Why not?”
The Hindu Kush mountain range slopes steadily downward from the northeast corner of Afghanistan to the southwest. In translation, the name means “Hindu Killer,” because so many of the Indian slaves transported west by way of the Khyber Pass did not survive the brutal journey through the high mountains.
It is arid at that altitude and cold at night, and the small camp where a platoon from the Fourth Brigade, of the 506th Infantry Regiment, of the 101st Airborne Division made its base, not far from the foot of some of those mountains contained perhaps 100 men in that vast expanse.
“We were almost in the mountains and it was a lot scarier, because you’re thinking: ‘Holy crap, there’s only 100 guys here. If they want to hit us, they can hit us,’ ” McCloskey says.
The camp was 60 miles south of Kabul, where they would convoy to resupply and very near a circular ring of mountains within which lay the small town of Kharwar. It was a place of interest for the Army because it was known to harbor Taliban leaders. Everyone in the platoon knew there would be missions that would take them up the switchbacks into the mountain bowl and then over the winding, exposed road to Kharwar.
“It was terrible,” says Jim Romeo, a specialist 4 who was a bunkmate of McCloskey. "There were only two passes in or out. If there was an ambush set up, there was a 50-50 chance. It was their home field. They knew where to hide.”
The platoon went to Kharwar in late May 2008 to look for “persons of interest” and to meet with village elders and hopefully persuade them to stop hiding Taliban leaders for the ultimate good of the town. It was a mission and they carried it out to the best of their ability.
“When we were pulling out to come home, we started feeling the ping-ping-ping on the side of the trucks and we were getting hit," McCloskey says. "Then, RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] started coming down and you could watch them coming in like Nerf footballs. You see them coming past you, then feel the dirt shake and see a cloud go up. There’s no explosions like on television.”
The men returned fire, started taking more from the other side, then got the orders to get the hell out of there. The convoy was seven or eight humvees. The vehicles had been up-armored on the sides and the roof, but not underneath, and a mine or bomb in the roadway posed the biggest danger. McCloskey was driving in the middle of the convoy when the humvee ahead of him hit something and exploded, threatening to close the entire line of escape.
“It blew the back of that truck up, and I hit my gas pedal as hard as I could,” McCloskey says. “If I had stopped, all the trucks would have stopped and then there was no way to get out. A lot comes down to where you were born and raised. I’ve been in 200 fights in the neighborhood. You think on the fly. I knew I had to ram him and when I rammed him through, it came over the radio, ‘Everybody’s good.’ ”
They got back to the base safely and it was quiet for a few days. McCloskey was just a couple of weeks away from coming home on leave and he was going to head straight down to Wildwood to meet up with his buddies and have a good time. One day when he had recreation time, he set up a chair outside wearing just his shorts and relaxed in the Afghanistan sun to get a base tan on his chalky Irish body. What he didn’t realize, at that altitude, under those conditions, was that he was baking himself, and by the late afternoon he had such a case of sun poisoning that the lieutenant sent him straight to the medic. The next day there was a supply convoy planned, pretty easy duty, and McCloskey was going to stay behind, swabbed with aloe, while the burn subsided.
When the day came, however, the orders changed. The platoon was going back into Kharwar.
“Back into the Wild, Wild West,” Romeo says. “When Kevin found out, you couldn’t keep him out of the truck.”
The lieutenant tried. He told McCloskey to stay put, rest up, and we’ll see you when we get back.
“I said, ‘No, you ain’t going without me,’ ” McCloskey says, and he got behind the wheel of a humvee and began the climb toward Kharwar.
Being in the Army agreed with McCloskey from the start, even if it meant getting up on time every day.
“The Army is a schedule,” he says. “I needed that self-discipline.”
His training took him from Fort Leonard Wood in the Ozarks of Missouri to Fort Campbell along the Tennessee-Kentucky border, and he was schooled as a combat engineer. He learned to make explosives and then was sent to the air-assault training program where he rappelled to the ground from helicopters. From there, he was directed toward Army Combatives, the hand-to-hand fighting that meshed with his wrestling background and mind-set.
McCloskey advanced through Combatives Level 1 and Combatives Level 2 – did some MMA-style recreational fighting on the side – and was preparing to enter the Level 3 program when his orders came through. He was sent to Kurdistan for two weeks of climate training, then flew into Afghanistan on a tandem-rotored Chinook CH-47.
The night after he moved into his barracks, a spartan 10-by-12-foot room, McCloskey and his bunkmates decided it wasn’t quite homey enough.
“We broke into the rec center,” Romeo says. “I want to say that we acquired a lounge chair, a TV stand, a dresser, and a rug.”
You can take the kid out of Tacony, but not totally.
“His personality was at the heart of our platoon,” Romeo says. “He could just walk into anybody’s room and blend in, just change the room. And his personality is a fighter’s personality. He’s not going to get beat down. He’s going to figure it out. You could call him the life of the party, but he knew when to turn it on and when to turn it off.”
He “had their six,” their “six o’clock,” the Army parlance for having one’s back, and they had his. They had the same spade on their helmets, the famous Band of Brothers regimental symbol of the 101st Airborne Division, and with Kevin McCloskey along, it seemed they could dig out of any trouble.
The second mission to Kharwar was at night, beginning about 1 a.m. and lasting until just before morning. The night provided some cover and an element of surprise, but it didn’t make it easier for the U.S. troops to see, either.
The platoon members met with the elders, did an unfruitful sweep of the town, made their presence known, and began to convoy back toward the pass that would lead them out of the bowl and back to the safety of the base.
The Taliban had buried mines in the sinuous roads across the high plain, just crude IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that lacked only an ignition system that could be hooked up in a matter of three minutes to the wire leads that stuck out of the ground. The mines were charged with C4 explosives, stuffed with metal and often covered with feces, urine, or blood to increase the chance of infection and potential amputation for their victims. Between the time the convoy entered that night and the time it left, some of those mines had been rigged.
McCloskey was driving the third humvee in the line of eight or nine vehicles, taking the turns tight and fast to keep sight of the truck in front of him, when he rounded a corner and spotted something.
“The dirt’s kicking up and I could see a little board sticking out of the road and it registers right away that it’s a pressure plate,” he says. “I can see visions of it, but I have trouble putting it all together because that’s right when I got blown up. All the guys with me said I turned the wheel as hard as I could and yelled, ‘Yo, yo, yo,’ but I caught it on the edge of my tire.”
Romeo was in the last humvee, riding with the medic, when it happened.
“You could hear the explosion and see the cloud go up,” Romeo says. “It was the worst day of my life, and the worst part was that it was Kevin. It takes away that invincibility mind-set. You realize quickly that you aren’t immortal.”
The sergeant got to McCloskey first, yanking him from the humvee and applying tourniquets. McCloskey was shattered and in shock. His legs were in the backseat of the truck. That much registered.
“Just leave me. I don’t want to go back like this,” he said, but they pulled him out of there and he was airlifted out of camp to a battlefield medical unit, and from there to Landstuhl, Germany, to stabilize his injuries, and from there to the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
Tom McCloskey was down the Shore when the first call came about his son.
“They said Kevin got burned a little and busted up an arm, and maybe there was a little eye damage,” he says. “The phone calls kept getting worse. By the third phone call, by the time I had gotten back home, they said he had lost his legs.”
At Brooke, McCloskey was put into a drug-induced coma that would last six weeks. His mother and father sat at his bedside, but he hardly knew anything. It wasn’t an easy sleep as much as a half-waking nightmare.
“That honestly was the worst part of it all,” he says. “I was hallucinating. I was in this dungeon with my mom and dad right there and I wanted to tell them to stop this guy from torturing me, but really it was just a nurse changing my IV. It felt like someone was putting a knife in my arm. There are a lot of stories like that and I’m starting to write them down because they keep coming back to me.”
When he was taken out of the coma, and enduring an endless succession of surgeries, McCloskey was able to have visitors. Romeo came as soon as he could.
“I really don’t think anyone else would have survived,” Romeo says. “You try to keep it lighthearted and let him know everyone loved him and cared for him. After a couple of days, I went to leave and I almost patted him on the leg to say goodbye, and I saw his eyes light up, like, ‘I’ll crawl out of this bed and kick your ass if you touch my legs.’ He still had that same attitude. He had not been defeated.”
Some neighborhood and high school buddies made the trip, including Alex Ryzinski and Chucky Dugan. Ryzinski, from Holmesburg, just above Tacony, had met McCloskey on the first day of school as a freshman at North Catholic. Ryzinski was relieving himself at a urinal in the boys’ bathroom when Kevin came up behind him and spun him around in circles. That was just Kevin, and they became lifelong friends, sharing the 66 bus down Frankford Ave. on school mornings, and then the El to Juniata.
“You can’t grasp the concept of what happened until you see it firsthand,” Ryzinski says. “You definitely have to hold it back. You can’t show emotion and have to be strong for him. We didn’t want to show there was anything different with him, even though there was. As soon as we got out there, you could tell he’s got this. He ain’t got no quit in him.”
McCloskey came home for the first time that October, then again for Christmas, using crutches and not allowing himself to rely yet on his prosthetic limbs. He and a big group of friends went out to a bar one night. When he had to use the bathroom and looked around for his crutches, they were gone.
“Where are my freaking crutches? I’m going to freaking pee myself right here at the bar,” McCloskey screamed.
“You can walk, dude,” a friend told him. “Just do it. The crutches are gone.”
After a good deal of profanity, McCloskey pushed himself up, and stiffly, slowly made his way to the bathroom. When he gingerly walked back out, everyone at the bar was crying.
Tom McCloskey is a union guy, a steelworker, as is Kevin’s brother, Michael, a glazier, and all the tradespeople from the nearby neighborhoods got together and redid the basement of the McCloskey house to make it accessible and comfortable for Kevin as a living space when he returned home for good. It wasn’t an easy time. Kevin fought hard with depression, and struggled to get through the days without relying too much on pain medication.
The first of the two lights that would show him the path came back into his life when he renewed a friendship with Bridget McGeehan, who had reached out to him when he was still in San Antonio. She grew up two blocks from him, and they had gone through all eight years of elementary school together at St. Bernard’s. You sit in alphabetical order in Catholic school and so they were always near each other.
“Our grade was pretty close," she says. "We only graduated seven kids. We remained friends, but we were just friends. I think he always liked me, but I would have a boyfriend or it was just bad timing. I think if we ever started dating any earlier, it just wouldn’t have worked out. For the way things happened, it was just perfect timing.”
They began to hang out together once he returned home, and both of them quickly realized it wasn’t just hanging out.
“To me, he didn’t really change," she says. "He was still the same person. It’s not like he came home this monster, even though he looks a little different. I found that I actually had feelings for him in that way. It caught me by surprise, but that was pretty much it.”
She became Bridget McGeehan-McCloskey in 2014, and they first moved to a house in Elkins Park, and then to a specially built place in Upper Southampton constructed by Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit that provides accessible housing for injured veterans.
By that time, the second light had come into his life, and that was golf. It gave him an outlet for his competitiveness, and a challenge to conquer, as if he needed another. Apparently, he did.
“Bridget and golf,” Tom McCloskey says. “That’s what saved his life.”
Chris Bowers, a Marine, lost his left leg below the knee in Iraq. As part of his rehabilitation, he became involved in some of the programs offered for veterans who had returned home injured. The one that captivated him was the On Course Foundation, begun by John Simpson, a polio victim as a child and a former executive with IMG, the high-power talent agency.
The concept is simple enough: Get disabled and alternatively abled veterans into the game of golf as a means of speeding their recovery and return to civilian life. Bowers became a good golfer, and became a recruiter for the foundation, seeking out other veterans who could benefit from the program.
Bowers met McCloskey in 2013 at a golf outing sponsored by another support group – Kevin was just getting into the game – and they hit it off immediately. They are both die-hard Eagles fans. The friendship started with that.
“I was like, ‘Why don’t I know you?’ But he had never heard of any of the programs I had been a part of,” Bowers says. “I said, ‘Where have you been the last five years?’ and he said he had been hiding at home, taking his meds, not really living. I could tell he was searching for a better way.”
Early in the first round they played together, McCloskey opened a pill container from his golf bag, and Bowers was on him.
“He comes up behind me and says, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Nothing, man, you need one?’ And he said: ‘Listen, I see your injuries. I know what’s going on, but you’ve got to get away from that,’ ” McCloskey says. “I don’t feel like I was ever addicted, but it was a dependency. Those guys wouldn’t leave me alone.”
Bowers says the fight in his friend is ridiculous. "He’s got so much heart. He motivates other people. I think he’s firing on all cylinders and enjoys being himself again. He can thank me as much as he wants. I want him to be that guy for somebody else.”
It hasn’t been all fairways and greens since McCloskey let the game come to him, but he is that guy. He speaks to veterans groups, takes part in swing clinics for amputees learning to golf, and recently took a position with the PGA’s Helping Our Patriots Everywhere (HOPE) program.
“Trusting Chris was one of the best moves I’ve made," McCloskey says. "He stayed on top of me. He’s the guy who convinced me the pain meds aren’t going to be good for you. He’s the guy who brought me to the Simpson Cup team. Now he’s the guy who calls every few days just to make sure life’s good. Do I need to talk about anything? Have I been having any bad dreams? He asks all the questions and it’s never about him, always about you. After being around all that military stuff and camaraderie, I was like: ‘I’m all-in. Whatever you guys want, I will do.’ ”
McCloskey didn’t have to go back into Kharwar, but no one could have kept him out of the truck. He doesn’t regret the way fate dealt with that decision.
“If I went back to that day, I would do the same exact thing. I like who I am today,” he says. “I learned a lot about myself. I feel like I’m a better person and life’s good. I have my family. I have the best wife I could ever ask for. I get all full when I talk about her. Some of all this has helped out other guys. That’s what it is meant for.”
The falcon does not let go of what it has taken, and McCloskey does not much believe in retreat. Like the bird, he doesn’t even need his legs to really fly. During a practice round two weeks ago, he advances slowly but steadfastly up a steep incline to a raised green, using a putter and wedge like ski poles as he climbs.
“I love hills,” he says, with a wry smile. Back in the cart, on a small radio that accompanies him during his rounds, Pat Benatar is telling someone to hit her with his best shot. Fire away. It’s just a song, and it blends into the sounds of birds in the trees, and the crack of drives from adjoining holes, but he still hears it.
“Kev is passionate not just about playing the game, but trying to conquer it,” says Joe Szychulski, another North Catholic buddy, and one who has known McCloskey since they played 75-pound football together in Rhawnhurst as 11-year-olds, with Joe at fullback and Kevin as the speedy tailback. “I started golfing after high school, and I helped him with a few things I could see. But it was all about the hard work he put in. For the longest time, I didn’t even know how bad his eye was. He’s not one for excuses, you know?”
After a few days of team training in Florida this week, the U.S. Simpson Cup contingent was set to fly to Scotland on the 18th, with McCloskey scheduled to return to Philadelphia on May 24.
The tournament is all about being in it together as a team. There is match play, but also four-ball with a partner. Every player will need some help occasionally, a shoulder to steady him if he stumbles, but eventually so will his teammate. If you believe nothing else in a life so uncertain that even walking is not guaranteed from one day to the next, you can believe Kevin McCloskey will have that guy’s six.
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