Pinellas golf tournament benefits soldiers' support group

Army Maj. Charles Ziegenfuss plays in the Franco Harris/Lydell Mitchell Gridiron Golf Tournament at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club on Friday.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Army Maj. Charles Ziegenfuss plays in the Franco Harris/Lydell Mitchell Gridiron Golf Tournament at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club on Friday.

PALM HARBOR

Army Maj. Charles Ziegenfuss was not concerned that every time he tried to hit a golf ball Friday morning at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, it trickled in a different direction. Ziegenfuss, of Indiana, Pa., was glad just to be able to grip the club. "They asked me what my handicap was," Ziegenfuss, 36, said with a laugh. "I have nine fingers."

In 2005, the 15-year soldier was a few feet away from an improvised explosive device when it exploded. When he came to, Ziegenfuss did not have use of his hands.

In three years he has undergone 35 surgeries. One was to reconstruct his right thumb from skin drafted from his thigh. He lost his left pinkie and has no feeling in his left hand.

It's people like Ziegenfuss that NFL Hall of Famer Franco Harris and Penn State teammate Lydell Mitchell were trying to help Friday during their 12th charity golf tournament.

The Franco Harris/Lydell Mitchell Gridiron Golf Tournament, featuring 120 golfers (including about 30 former NFL players), benefits Soldiers' Angels, an organization that supports American troops overseas by writing letters and sending care packages.

Ziegenfuss starting getting help from Soldiers' Angels at Walter Reed Army Medical Center when he received a call from founder Patti Patton-Bader.

"She asked me what I wanted," Ziegenfuss said. "I said a laptop so that I could communicate with my troops. It didn't dawn on me that I couldn't use my hands."

To assist Ziegenfuss, Soldiers' Angels purchased software that allows users to completely control a computer with their voice. Ziegenfuss said Soldiers' Angels have provided more than 3,000 laptops with the software for soldiers.

"It's nice to be in a position to be able to have a positive effect on people's lives," said Harris, who won four Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers and rushed for 12,120 yards in 13 seasons.

When he played for the Baltimore Colts, Mitchell rushed for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. Named to three Pro Bowls, he led the NFL in pass receptions in 1974 and 1977.

"We try to get involved in the community," Mitchell said. "To give back and to help a person is a wonderful feeling. We can't cure the world but we can certainly give back and try."

Between $40,000 and $80,000 is usually given to the selected charity, said Luana Harris-Scott, the tournament's event coordinator and fundraiser, not to mention Harris' sister.

Funds are usually given to a children's hospital but Harris-Scott said it was decided to change the focus this year.

"Sometimes we forget about the people in our own back yards," Harris-Scott said. "The soldiers put their lives on the line for us every day and we wanted to do something in return for them to show our appreciation."

Soldiers' Angels became a formal organization in 2004 after one of Patton-Bader's deployed sons said soldiers were not getting mail.

Now the organization sends 10,000 care packages to soldiers a week and 25,000 letters a month. They have adopted 300,000 soldiers and donated 25,000 laptop computers.

Ziegenfuss initially came across the organization because he was looking for ways to get mail for soldiers in the company he commanded.

But after his injury, Soldiers' Angels came to his aid.

"Getting the computer helped me start my recovery," he said. "It showed me that I can live my life with these injuries."

Still on active duty, Ziegenfuss visits injured soldiers regularly.

"When I walk in the room, I tell them, 'Your life hasn't changed. I'm not here to visit a wounded guy, but to visit a solider,' " he said.

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

www.soldiersangels.org

Pinellas golf tournament benefits soldiers' support group 01/30/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 30, 2009 10:05pm]

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