The opening of any golf course is noteworthy these days, but the grand reopening of the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Golf Course at the Tomah Veterans Affairs facility on Saturday was even more special than most.
For Marv Simcakoski of Stevens Point, it was a moment of tribute for his son, Jason, who died of an opioid overdose at the facility in 2014. And it was a contribution for other veterans at the hospital and in the community who will again be able to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of golf on a course that will carry Jason’s name.
“It was a proud day, a proud moment,” Marv said this week. “I still get sad, every time I bring up his name I get teary-eyed (but) to see the course named after him, to see all the people gathered…
“It was a happy sad day. Sad that my son wasn’t there but happy we were able to do something for him.”
The nine-hole course adjacent to the VA hospital had been open for many years before a change in government regulations prohibited federal funds for operation of VA golf courses in 2014, shortly after Jason’s death. Marv considered the closure a big loss, remembering how he and his Marine son bonded while playing the course during Jason’s treatment and how much it buoyed his son’s spirits to be outside playing golf. Jason was suffering from mental health difficulties related to his service.
“While he struggled, I saw his mood lift and his outlook brighten on the course. Near the end of his life some of our closest moments, as father and son, were here on this golf course,” Marv said during last weekend’s grand reopening, which drew a large crowd of veterans and veteran organization officials, including U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis R. McDonough, U.S. Rep. Ron Kind and others.
After the ribbon-cutting, Marv Simcakoski played the course with McDonough, who praised the role golf can play for veterans.
“Now, other veterans will share and benefit from the magic of walking the links because of your personal, emotional, spiritual, physical and, yes, financial investments,” McDonough said at the event.
The Tomah course is the first closed VA golf course to reopen for play, thanks to contributions from the Disabled American Veterans, the city of Tomah and the Jason Simcakoski Foundation, or Simmy Foundation, which was established after Jason's death to increase access to quality mental health care for veterans and their families and to promote effective, non-pharmaceutical alternative treatments. To help cover costs of restoring and operating the course the Simmy Foundation holds a golf tournament fundraiser. The third tournament will be held on Saturday at Glacier Wood Golf Club in Iola. Marv said an almost full field of 144 golfers is expected to take part.
Two years ago, estimates of the cost of restoring the course to a playable condition were more than $300,000, Marv said. Grass on the greens was two feet high and the rest of the course suffered from neglect after the long shut-down, but Marv, his other son and other volunteers took on the job of renovating and re-seeding the greens by hand.
“Everything was done with basically (no budget),” he said. “It was stressful, let’s put it that way. It was stressful for a person who didn’t know anything about it but it was also rewarding. We’re just doing it for the vets. Obviously I’m not doing it for the money because there is none. We’re just doing it for the vets.”
Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Mary Kohler agreed veterans, and not just patients at the Tomah facility, would benefit from seeing Marv’s vision become reality.
“I’ve been to over 70 listening sessions with veterans to hear what do you need from the Tomah VA,” she told the gathering. “The question I got more than improve my health care was when are you going to open the golf course again.”
The website of the Simmy Foundation said the course will be a way to give veterans increased physical activity and to allow them to gather and socialize to find the type of camaraderie they once enjoyed during active duty.
Or, as Marv put it this week, “It’s a win for anybody there.”