By Barry Janoff
February 28, 2017: This is the story of how a feature news piece that ran on 60 Minutes and a subsequent road trip during the MLB post-season led to a life-altering decision for a lawyer in Buffalo, NY.
Joe Hanna, a native of Buffalo, is a partner at law firm Goldberg Segalla, where he chairs the Diversity Task Force and heads up the firm’s Sports and Entertainment Practice Group.
A self-described avid golfer, Hanna in 2007 saw a segment on CBS' 60 Minutes that focused on U.S. troops stationed overseas who used golf to relieve stress and to stay connected with their lives back home. Hanna also found out that golf was used as part of physical therapy to help injured soldiers strengthen neck, shoulder, arm and leg muscles.
When he discussed the golf-military connection with his brother-in-law and a close friend during a trip to see the Boston Red Sox play the Cleveland Indians in the 2007 American League Championship Series, their support encouraged him to turn a concept into reality.
From that was born Bunkers in Baghdad, which sends new and gently used golf balls and clubs and other golf-related items to members of the military worldwide and throughout the U.S.
As he worked through the extensive logistics of how to collect and then send the equipment to military bases overseas, Hanna discovered that his non-profit project was attracting a lot of support. Callaway Golf came aboard, which since has been joined by such groups as Arnold Palmer Enterprises, national entertainment and restaurant destination Topgolf and The Home Depot (which donates large sections of outdoor turf to use as part of miniature golf courses); and sports teams including the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks; the NBA’s Boston Celtics and MLB’s Miami Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates.
Also among the list of supporters are former presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
To date, Bunkers in Baghdad has sent some eight million golf balls and 600,000 golf clubs to members of the military stationed in 60 countries as well as Wounded Warriors programs, VA hospitals and other military support platforms in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Concurrently, "Bunkers Buddies" encourages students to write letters, draw pictures and design cards that are included with the clubs and golf balls.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Hanna about the challenges, rewards and future of Bunkers in Baghdad.
NYSportsJournalism.com: Bunkers in Baghdad has been in existence for about eight years. Can you talk about how it came about and why you wanted to be involved.
Joe Hanna: I was watching 60 Minutes. One of the stories talked about how our soldiers stationed overseas were hitting golf balls in the desert as a form of relaxation. I thought, That’s pretty cool. Soon after, I read an article by David Feherty in Golf Magazine that detailed his experiences on a USO tour in Iraq and Kuwait and talked about the opening of a driving range at Camp Victory (in Iraq). According to the article, there were a number of makeshift driving ranges throughout the area because golf had become a favorite form of stress relief for the soldiers stationed there.
NYSJ: When did Bunkers in Baghdad actually become a reality?
DH: I wanted to find a way to support our troops and I thought the least I could do was to get some new and gently used golf balls and golf clubs and then ship them overseas to soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I started to focus on our troops in Baghdad during the surge (in 2007 when then President George W. Bush increased the number of American troops to provide security to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province). The first time I actually talked about it was during a road trip I took with my brother-in-law and a good friend to the ALCS in Cleveland. I told them about the soldiers and golf and said to them, This is the charity I want to start and this is the name I’m thinking about. And it hasn’t slowed down since then.
NYSJ: What was it like getting the project from concept to reality?
JH: The big challenge was getting the equipment to the troops, The military does not take gifts or donations on its aircraft. So early on the challenge was raising money to ship the equipment overseas. We created a non-profit tax exempt 501(c)(3) public charity. And you can’t just put a package together and ship it to nondescript 'troops' or a 'soldier'. It has to have a specific name on it. So we went to local schools in the Buffalo area to find students whose parents or other relatives were stationed overseas. And then we were able to ship the equipment directly to specific soldiers (beginning in late 2008).
NYSJ: As you figured out the logistics of getting the golf balls and clubs overseas how difficult — or easy — was it to actually collect the items?
JH: Once we put out the word about what we were doing, getting donations of golf balls and clubs was not a problem. We held a club drive. And the law firm at which I work, Goldberg Segalla, gave us so much support. Without them, we could not have gotten this off the ground. We started to collect equipment and store it in my uncle’s garage. Then a veteran donated a garage so that we could store more equipment. Then Callaway Golf came on, and since then they have donated a million dollars worth of equipment. That gave us even more legitimacy.
NYSJ: Judging by your Web site, the numbers are staggering.
JH: We now work with nearly 500 schools nationwide. To date, we’ve shipped over 7,800,000 golf balls and almost 600,000 clubs to Afghanistan plus 59 other countries around the world. The Bunkers program also includes injured veterans who are currently recovering in Wounded Warriors programs and other military installations and VA hospitals across the United States and we’ve sent golf balls and clubs to facilities in each of the 50 states. We provide equipment to help with their rehabilitation and as a form of recreation. Also, as you can imagine, the families of wounded troops spend days and nights with their injured loved ones. Because of this, many medical centers have set up therapy programs for the families, which we will also contribute to.
NYSJ: How did you get sports teams, athletes and other celebrities involved?
JH: When we hit one million golf balls donated, we sent out post cards to sports teams. The Miami Marlins (then known as the Florida Marlins), were the first team to jump on board. They are still strong supporters. I’ve been fortunate to go to games there to promote our cause and even throw out some first-pitches — I did okay, so you won’t see me on the worst first pitches of all time. Then we partnered with some of their players. The Chicago Blackhawks have given us a grant. And we have worked with Patrick Kane, among other NHL players. Locally we work with the Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills, but there are many, many other teams, such as the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Boston Celtics and Pittsburgh Pirates.
NYSJ: Has the support within Buffalo from sports teams been strong?
JH: Absolutely. The Bills and Sabres have given us grants, and they both sponsor our annual golf tournament.
NYSJ: In addition to the golf companies, do you get support from individual golfers?
JH: Many of the top players know about us and support us. Nobody is more generous than Ray Floyd. He was born at Fort Bragg (North Carolina), where his dad was serving in the Army (and was also the golf pro at the enlisted men’s golf course). So he has that military bug in him. He has been unbelievably generous. Tom Watson is another big contributor. Arnold Palmer, before he passed away, was a big supporter. He served in the Coast Guard and was an incredible person. If we would ask him for a contribution, two days later it would arrive. Billy Casper, before he passed away, was a great friend of the charity. Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, great supporters.
NYSJ: According to your Web site, the support reaches all the way to the White House.
JH: We have had several U.S. presidents donate to the charity: President Clinton, President Carter, President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush.
"We hear from people in the military every day. The response is an overwhelming sense of joy. The biggest response we get: Thank-you for not forgetting about us."
NYSJ: How has word spread among the troops overseas?
JH: This has been mostly word-of-mouth among the troops. We get requests from soldiers asking for the equipment. So a John Smith would send me an e-mail saying he is the captain overseeing 325 troops, could you send equipment. Or someone in Korea would ask for clubs because they are working with soldiers. So every request is individualized.
NYSJ: You talked about the mental aspects of golf, but what about the rehabilitation process?
JH: We work with VA hospitals and Wounded Warriors programs in all 50 states. We’re based in Buffalo, but we are global in scope. We work with physical therapists at VA hospitals who use golf as part of the rehabilitation process. Swinging a club to build arm muscles, leg muscles, thigh muscles. They have made the correlation that using golf for physical therapy to help build muscles has absolutely enhanced and bettered the lives of our troops who are returning home.
NYSJ: Looking at what you do, it seems like a no-brainer to get new or gently-used golf balls and clubs and send them to men and women in the military. But it has to be much more difficult than it seems looking at it from the outside.
JH: It’s a very simple idea. It’s caught on. People appreciate it. Partnerships such as the one we have with Topgolf are huge steps for us to get golf balls and clubs into the hands of our military. I like to stress that no one draws a salary from the charity. We are 100% volunteer-run. So between our students in the schools and our vets who are willing to donate their time, effort and energy, every dollar that comes in goes right back to the charity.
NYSJ: What have you heard from the members of the military and their families?
JH: We hear from them every day. The response is an overwhelming sense of joy. The biggest response we get: Thank-you for not forgetting about us. There are a lot of things going on in the country. At the end of the day, whether you support the war or not, we are still deployed overseas. We are still the neighbors, brothers, sisters, cousins of the people in America. The fact that you haven’t forgotten about us and that you are trying to better out lives, it means the world to us.
NYSJ: You have been working with and are continuing to work with Topgolf. How important is that relationship?
JH: It is amazing. In 2016, Topgolf donated 11,000 golf clubs, 600 yards of turf squares and 21,000 golf balls to the charity. Topgolf plans to continue to work with us. With the way they are growing, the sky is the limit for them. It’s obvious that they are a major player in the retail, entertainment and golf worlds. In a decade, when they have 200-plus locations, it will be a great thing for us to have been partnered with them long-term. They are supporting the communities in which they have locations.
I was in their Dallas location for a few hours, and the culture in the building is amazing. It’s the laid-back approach. It’s the very familiar atmosphere. It’s the employees. It’s their very open floor plan. The culture there. That’s how we are. We want to work with our troops. We want to put our best efforts forward. We are always willing to help. We are responsive. That’s why there is a great fit for us with Topgolf.
NYSJ: You went into this project with great expectations but not really knowing how it would develop. Eight years later, has it exceeded even your expectations?
JH: When you are involved in something in which people are passionate, the goals are unlimited. This isn’t some crazy equation. People love our military. People are very passionate about golf. And when you add the educational component of it, it’s an appropriate mix to kick things off the ground. Did I think it would come this far and grow this fast? No. But we’ve been able to build with the great support we have in Buffalo, across the U.S. and around the world. It doesn’t surprise me that we’re doing as well as we are and that we continue to move forward.
NYSJ: What do you see for Bunkers in Baghdad moving forward?
JH: We’ve had charities attempt to mimic what we do. It’s challenging. It’s not east to fund-raise. It’s not impossible to collect golf equipment. People always have golf equipment lying around. A widow cleaning finding her late husband’s golf clubs in the garage. A weekend hacker who has gone though his equipment for six seasons and now wants a new set. Or a scratch golfer who is changing out his irons every year and a half or two years. There is always an opportunity to collect the equipment. The challenge is collecting everything, storing everything and logistically getting it overseas. We’ve been very good at it for eight years. And we’re going to keep doing it.
People ask where we see the future of Bunkers in Baghdad. And the answer is simple: As long as I keep getting requests from our brave men and women overseas, and our warriors here at home, and we still have the support of the community and great partners like Callaway, the Buffalo Bills, The Home Depot and Topgolf, we’ll keep doing what we do.”
PHOTOS: COURTESY BUNKERS IN BAGHDAD
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