If you watch retired US Army Master Sergeant Christina Olivarez on the 18th green of a lush coastal golf course in the cool of the evening, it’s hard not to feel envious.
After all, she’s living the dream, isn’t she? Olivarez worked hard, retired young and now spends his days hitting a little white ball during the endless summer in Atlantis, Florida. What could be better?
With her beloved pup, Daisy, by her side, Olivarez won’t argue if you tell her she’s living the good life. But she won’t tell you either — at least not until you know her better — how much she had to crawl to get here.
Olivarez was a student in Kansas when a sense of duty compelled her to join the United States Army. Over a 25-year career, she served in the U.S. Army Medical Command, researching infectious diseases, helping military doctors detect cancer in soldiers, and ultimately working within the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System.
His latest assignment took Olivarez to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, major landing points for U.S. military personnel killed in action.
When Olivarez raised her right hand to join the military, she was ready to sacrifice herself for her country. What she didn’t realize was that instead, she would witness the sacrifices of her brothers and sisters in arms in a different way. While there, Olivarez and his colleagues performed autopsies on battlefield casualties and then had the solemn duty to return the remains to surviving family members.
“We had to turn [your emotions] off,” Olivarez says. “After a while you learned to disengage, for lack of a better way to put it.”
It wasn’t a job for the faint of heart, and it certainly wasn’t easy for Olivarez, who is introspective by nature. The military provided mental health assistance to medical examiners, but some days were just too heavy for words.
For Olivarez, the breaking point came in 2011 when the body of a close friend and fellow soldier arrived. She admits she should have recused herself, but felt compelled to perform the exam.
“After that, I said ‘I can’t do this anymore. It’s time to retire,'” Olivarez recalled.
After retiring, Olivarez stayed near Dover for a while, but it was too hard and the memories were too raw, so she moved to Atlantis. Instead of being a fresh start, however, things only got worse in Florida.
“I was still having nightmares,” Olivarez says. “And I was totally locked up. If I had to go grocery shopping, I would go late at night or early in the morning. I just didn’t want to see the people, I didn’t want to see anything. I didn’t even want to watch the news because it reminded me of stuff I had seen.
No encouragement from friends or family seemed to help, and Olivarez eventually sunk so low that she considered ending her life. Finally, his sister Jean Marie and brother-in-law John came to visit, John bringing something he thought he could help—a set of golf clubs.
John insisted that Olivarez get some fresh air, so she reluctantly dragged the clubs to a driving range across from her house. She had only played with a golf club once in her life, so the results were what you would expect – typical for a beginner.
“I couldn’t hit the ball,” Olivarez said with a laugh. “I was just touching the ground. I didn’t know what I was doing.
But Olivarez didn’t give up. She returned to the lineup again and again. Then one day someone told him about a local PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere) program.
Much like the first time she hit the driving range, Olivarez wasn’t completely sold on the idea, but she decided to sign up for the six-week session designed to teach golf to veterans as a therapeutic tool.
“[PGA member and coach] Trish Beucher was an instructor, and I don’t know if she could tell I was skeptical or what, but she made it really comfortable,” says Olivarez. “After the first lesson, I thought, well, that’s not too bad. I’m with other vets, and they probably know what I’m going through.
Three weeks into her HOPE session, she had good contact with the ball, and the next thing Olivarez knew was that she was a golfer.
“I said, ‘What’s going on? I’m really starting to like doing that,” she says. “I couldn’t get out the front door, but suddenly I was eager to do something.”
Today, Olivarez plays golf twice a week in addition to helping out with the South Florida PGA HOPE program and checking on fellow PGA HOPE veterans and graduates.
Three years ago, she never would have imagined she would also be a South Florida Section PGA HOPE Ambassador for a sport that never meant much to her, but now she can’t imagine doing something else. She even volunteers as a golf coach for young women and golfers with special needs in her area.
More importantly, Olivarez learned to smile again. What you see on the outside is a pretty accurate picture of how she feels, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t tough days. Daisy still wakes her from the occasional nightmare, and Olivarez still struggles to go out in public.
But even when she doesn’t want to, she finds the courage and strength to grab her sticks and pick up the phone to see if another veteran — who might suffer like her — would like to play a trick.
“PGA HOPE brought me back to life,” Olivarez said when asked why she remains so committed to the program. “Before I joined the military, I was a quiet person. The military gave me my voice, but in the end I lost it. PGA HOPE gave me back my life and gave me back my I think from here, anything is possible.
If you or someone you know would like to benefit from PGA HOPE, visit www.pgahope.com for more information.