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Vietnam veteran’s St Andrews legacy

Double amputee Vietnam War veteran Jim Martinson in action on the St Andrews Old Course.
Double amputee Vietnam War veteran Jim Martinson in action on the St Andrews Old Course.

In an exclusive interview, a double amputee Vietnam War veteran, who was this week inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, tells MICHAEL ALEXANDER how special golfing trips to St Andrews have the potential to save wounded soldiers’ lives.

Jim Martinson thought he’d left his ski-racing ambitions behind when a landmine explosion on a Vietnam battlefield took away his legs back in 1968.

The infantryman had been in Vietnam for five months — and just promoted to sergeant — when a member of his platoon tripped the explosive during a supply run.

Five days later, Martinson woke up in a Yokohama hospital with no legs “and no clue what I was going to be.”

On the verge of becoming an Olympic skier before he lost his legs, his life threatened to fall apart. There was anger and depression, and some self-destructive partying.

But with the help of friends, and a move onto the basketball court with the Tacoma Wheelmen, he found the inner strength to go on to win the Boston Marathon, become a seven-time Paralympics gold medallist, downhill skier, cyclist, and endurance racer.

In 1981 he established Shadow Products, a company that developed lightweight wheelchairs for sports.

Now the achievements just keep on coming with the Paralympian’s induction this week into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.

It’s been a remarkable journey for now 69-year-old Martinson who said: “I would never have believed for a second that I’d be able to ski after what happened to me. To be in the Hall of Fame, that’s just unreal.”

But in an exclusive interview with The Courier from his home in Washington State, he also revealed he draws strength from a recent trip to St Andrews – and the game of golf – which he describes as the “greatest game in the whole world”.

In June 2014 he joined a group of severely wounded and disabled war veterans from America who teed off on the Old Course thanks to local organisation St Andrews Legacy.

The group golf at a special facility in Washington State, recently re-designed by Jack Nicklaus, where disabled veterans can get together.

Jim took to the Old Course using a special Ottobock ParaGolfer cart that carried him along the fairways and then lifted him into a standing position to allow him to strike the ball.

And he revealed yesterday that he remains a firm supporter of using golf as a form of therapy for ex-soldiers dealing with the physical and psychological after-effects of war.

“I absolutely love golf, but trust me – I’m never going to be in the hall of fame for golf!“ he laughed.

“The funny thing is that skiing and golf are two very different kinds of sports. But I never forget St Andrews. The weather, the place where golf all began…I can’t really compare it to skiing. They give me the same satisfaction. But for those of us wounded veterans on the trip, golf was a really good way of helping take the focus off things we can’t do.”

Jim says there is no one sport that is an end in itself. Instead, he takes the view that “everything you do in life is a means to an end”. He added: “If golf helps people feel better about themselves, then great.”

With St Andrews Legacy bringing more war veterans to Fife imminently, the organisation’s founder Graham Proctor said the ongoing programme was all about using the magic of St Andrews to help those facing challenges in their lives.

“Jim Martinson is a great athlete and a true inspiration,“ said the former RAF Leuchars weather forecaster and avid golfer, who was delighted to hear that Jim had been inducted into U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.

“He gets dropped out of helicopters to ski down mountains in the wilderness, he has won Paralympic golds, broken the tape at the Boston Marathon and played his way around the Old Course – any one of those things would be astonishing for someone who lost his legs at so young an age but Jim keeps piling on the achievements.

“St Andrews Legacy has hosted Jim Martinson twice now and he acted as an ambassador for us by attending a Veterans Day fundraiser in California which paid for a full week of activities in Scotland for eight veterans.

“Jim Martinson is a strong man with a great heart and everyone at St Andrews Legacy is proud to know him.”

It’s the latest accolade for an organisation that uses golf as a form of therapy for wounded war veterans.

In August 2014, eight war-wounded veterans from the UK and Canada spent the day together on the St Andrews fairways.

And last year, another former soldier, who suffered severe post-traumatic stress disorder when he returned from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, told how a trip to play golf in St Andrews saved his life.

The father-of-two was on the verge of becoming an alcoholic until he travelled to the home of golf and “changed his direction”.

Statistics show that 22 US veterans are killing themselves every day through Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The former soldier added: “It doesn’t have to be this way, and thanks to St Andrews Legacy I’m not going to be that statistic.”

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