On his third tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2010, a roadside bomb ended a promising military career for Marine Sgt. Russell Skals. "I've had a continuous headache for 820 days," Skals, 27, said on Monday, still visibly suffering from concussive injuries. He developed an extreme sensitivity to light, the disruption of his sleep patterns and a loss of energy. After his retirement from service earlier this summer, he has faced a difficult transition back to civilian life; one he shares with wife, Rebecca, and daughter Sara, 6. "I just wondered what I would do next," he said.
One of the family's chief concerns — the search for a home adapted for his special needs — has been satisfied by the Birdies for the Brave project of PGA Tour Charities. The Skalses received a symbolic brass key to their new home at the opening ceremonies of a Birdies for the Brave Charity Golf Tournament on Monday at TPC Tampa Bay golf club in Lutz.
House Speaker John Boehner, in Tampa for the Republican National Convention, addressed the Skalses and supporters of the charity: "Freedom and democracy aren't free. They come with a price. This is why we thank the soldiers and their families for all they do … Birdies for the Brave is a great idea. This is a job well done."
The nonprofit charity was founded in 2005 by Phil Mickelson and his wife, Amy, and includes several PGA Tour players and corporate partners who have contributed millions of dollars to help wounded service members and their families. Mickelson, for years one of the tour's biggest stars, contributes $100 for every birdie he makes and $500 for every eagle during the season.
Skals and his wife said applying for help was a simple process. Soon they were notified they would be awarded a 3,386-square-foot home in the Lake Bernadette neighborhood of Zephyrhills with five bedrooms and three bathrooms.
The Skalses were living in Arizona after his retirement but wanted to relocate to Florida because they have family in this area. Birdies for the Brave money went to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation for the home construction. The land was donated by Wells Fargo and the home built with creative input by the Skals family.
"Our daughter wanted a purple bedroom and she got one. She got a play room too," said Rebecca, 26, smiling. "I got my dream walk-in closet, and all new appliances."
The family also will receive a year's worth of free Verizon services, including TV and Internet. Verizon, a corporate partner of Birdies for the Brave, also is supplying a $15,000 donation toward the construction of a future Birdies for the Brave project.
What Russell Skals got was a place to heal. Designed in soft and soothing colors, the home boasts a second floor quiet room equipped with a big comfy bean bag, as he specifically requested; dimmers on all light fixtures; modified seating in his bath and shower areas to accommodate possible dizzy spells; and special tinted windows. Plus he has a garage hobby desk to work on projects that are relaxing and constructive.
"This house is amazing," he said.
The Skalses hope to find work in the Pasco area, where Sara has just started first grade at New River Elementary School.
"We're both going to find jobs, so we can give something back," said Russell. "We want to expand our family. And I want to start my own business."