The Story Behind Veteran Chris Paulsen (Part 1 of 2)

“By the end of the year in 1995, I had learned how to swing a club, learned the game of golf, and actually accomplished walking 18 holes of golf with a prosthetic leg in 1995. It was my motivation.”

Chris Paulsen (center) with Golf & Guitars artists Josh Grider (left) and Jason Michael Carroll (right)

There is a connection that Chris Paulsen has with Whidbey Golf Club of Oak Harbor, Washington.

He became interested in golf, in 1994, when he was in the U.S. Navy, stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, attached to VAQ-131 Lancers.

Prior to a six-month deployment aboard the USS Constellation during the Gulf War, Paulsen expressed a desire to get some golf clubs, take lessons and learn about the game.

When he returned, Paulsen was wearing a prosthetic – the result of having his lower left leg, just below the knee, amputated in April of 1995 at Royal Bahrain Hospital.

He was 23 years old at the time that he had his leg and foot run over by an EA-6B Prowler, an aircraft, when he was on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier in January of that year.

EA-6B Prowler

“We had just pulled out of Singapore heading into the Gulf War,” said Paulsen. “I was attached to a squadron out of Whidbey Island.

“What had happened was I was checking a missile for its stability while (pilots were) taxing to the catapult and I got caught between the missile and the tire and the tire caught my heel and took it underneath the tire and stopped right on my foot.

“I got hurt pretty bad. It smashed my foot. Eighty-five percent of my bones were either destroyed or dislocated.

“Gangrene set into my leg, so they had to amputate. I’m amputated 10 centimeters below the knee, which is perfect for a prosthetic leg. I have not had any other reconstructive surgeries since the amputation.

“I have had no problems fitting in a prosthetic at all. I got 99 percent of my walk back within three months of getting my first prosthetic. I’ve had seven different prosthetics since then.”

Paulsen, a 1990 graduate of Downey High School in Modesto, was medically honorable discharge retired as an E4 Third Class Petty Officer.

He was looking for something to try and do, to stay as active as possible. He turned to golf – a game that he so very much wanted to get to play and experience.

“I was like, ‘You know, I’ve got these golf clubs that I bought. Hey, let me give it a try. Maybe I can swing a club. Maybe I can do something,’ ” he said.

“By the end of the year in 1995, I had learned how to swing a club, learned the game of golf, and actually accomplished walking 18 holes of golf with a prosthetic leg in 1995. It was my motivation.”

Paulsen was in the U.S. Navy from 1990 to 1995.

“Back when I was 23 years old, I had two young kids. I was like, ‘What can I do, athletic-wise? I’ve got to do something, some kind of physical exercise to keep me going, for my kids’ sake, for my health and for my family’s sake,’ ” said Paulsen.

“Before I lost my leg, I was an avid bowler. I would bowl three times a week. I bowled in leagues. And I was really, really good at competitive bowling. But after I lost my leg, I tried to bowl again. And I fell and I said, ‘Well, I can’t do that sport anymore.’ ”

Paulsen took up golf – a game that provides so much beauty and scenery, as well as so many challenges.

“I figured, ‘Why not golf? I can be out in nature.’ And I’ll tell you what – some of the golf courses up in Washington are gorgeous.

There’s nothing more beautiful than hitting a golf ball up in the air and hitting toward the ocean or the Puget Sound,” said Paulsen.

“I liked it. I met some friends that did it. And it made me feel human again, that I can do a sport and enjoy it. I didn’t care what score I got. I just enjoyed the fact that I was doing it.”

Whidbey Golf Club, a semi-private club that is “Set in the midst of a quiet, lake and tree lined glen of Oak Harbor WA,” according to its website,, has special meaning and significance to Paulsen.

Whidbey Golf Club – Oak Harbor, WA

The par-72, 6,537-yard layout is the first golf course he ever played. It’s the first golf course that he ever walked – the full 18 holes – following his amputation.

There is also an emotional component to Paulsen’s connection to Whidbey Golf Club.

After first playing the course in 1995, he returned to Oak Harbor in November of 2018 during Thanksgiving week to see family. He also wanted to play at Whidbey Golf Club again – his first round there since 1995.

“I got to play the golf course. I played with three other guys that were local, that play it every week,” he said.

“To have the privilege to come back and play a course that you first walked after you lose your leg … I didn’t care about the score when I walked that round. I cared about, wow, oh my god, I could walk 18 holes of golf and not hurt. It was an accomplishment.

“I didn’t care if I shot an 80, 90, 120, 130. It was: I can walk. And, well, that’s something for me – that I pushed myself, because people can do things.

“To me, I do it because I want to not only prove to myself that I can do it, but to show and to prove to other people that don’t let a disability hold you back.”

The prosthetic is attached to an artificial foot, allowing Paulsen to wear socks and shoes.

Paulsen became involved in golf in the Sacramento area in 2004 by meeting other amputee golfers through the Western Amputee Golf Association. He found out that half of those players were veterans.

He became an advocate and a big supporter for veterans with disabilities and those who are disabled in the game of golf.

“I was learning myself that this game is very therapeutic, that you monitor yourself,” said Paulsen, a Sacramento resident, who works as a program analyst for the Veterans Health Administration.

“You can go out with your friends, your fellow veterans and really enjoy the company for four to five hours. That’s where I wanted to grow with veterans’ golf.”

The story continues, find out how Chris Paulsen’s passion for competition shaped the future of veterans’ golf in our next blog!

* Marty James is a freelance writer who makes his home in Napa. He retired on June 4, 2019, after spending 40 years as a sports writer, sports editor and executive sports editor for the Napa Valley Register, a daily newspaper in Napa County. He is a 1979 graduate of Sacramento State and a member of the California Golf Writers & Broadcasters Association. He was inducted into the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame in 2016.

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