On the green, thoughts of heroes in dusty lands

On Monday morning, on the edge of the practice putting green at TPC Summerlin, some Nellis airmen were milling about a tent in which huge Rambo-type machine guns were displayed. This is something one doesn’t see every day at TPC Summerlin, not even when Happy Gilmore is trying to sneak in a quick nine before dark.

Eyes were drawn to the heavy machine gun, which can fire more than 500 rounds per minute and has a range of 7,400 meters or 8,092 yards — roughly one trip around the TPC and a stroll to the nearest Starbucks on Town Center Drive. And here you thought John Daly and Big Bertha were a formidable combination.

One of the airmen told me the weapon, like Daly and Big Bertha, isn’t very accurate from long range. But, he said, it will get you into easy birdie distance on the par 5s, with the caveat that it also might take off somebody’s arm on the next fairway.

This was the backdrop for Birdies for the Brave, a golf outing supporting the U.S. armed forces and the families of military men and women who have been killed or gravely wounded.

We were having fun, playing around with the machine guns and the other weapons of limited destruction, making jokes about former wives and editors and guys who popped up with the bases loaded and a wad of cash on the money line, when a woman with an Eastern European accent approached. She was handing out laminated cards.

One side of the card showed Pfc. John Lukac of Las Vegas in his dress blues; the other, his casket draped in a U.S. flag. Johnny Lukac was only 19 when a suicide bomber drove a Chevy Suburban into a truckload of Marines on Oct. 30, 2004, near Fallujah, Iraq, killing Johnny and seven others.

Helena Lukac’s voice is still wrought with emotion, her eyes still moist with tears when she thanks you for remembering her son, and all the other sons. And daughters.

And then one feels kind of sheepish for having made jokes around the machine guns.

Out on the course, I was introduced to retired Lt. Cmdr. Tom Deitz, 49, a Navy SEAL during Desert Storm when, in his words, he blew up a beach.

On Feb. 23, 1991, Deitz was in charge of commandos who raced toward the shore of Kuwait in speedboats, swimming the final 500 yards while toting heavy C-4 plastic explosives. The idea was to set off fireworks, to trick the Iraqis into believing they were being attacked.

Two days later, Deitz and his SEAL team received a message from Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, operation commander, that read: “Enemy forces moving towards beach. Allied forces going in behind. You have saved the lives of many fellow soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines. Bravo Zulu!”

Bravo, indeed.

Deitz was the commanding officer of SEAL Team 5, based at Coronado, Calif., across the bay from San Diego. SEAL Team 6, out of Dam Neck, Va., was responsible for the raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 1. Members of SEAL Team 6 also were among the 30 Americans, 22 of them SEALs, killed on Aug. 6 when their helicopter was shot out of the sky by Afghan insurgents.

“Lucky shot by the Taliban,” Deitz said quietly as we rode in his golf cart.

Lucky shot that also left him numb.

“Yeah, especially as a retired SEAL,” said Deitz, a New Jersey native who wrestled at the U.S. Naval Academy. “It’s frustrating because my day is gone. But still, you’re always a SEAL. and you want to do something.”

On Monday, he was doing something, talking up the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, a charity that pays for the college educations of students who have lost loved ones on the fields and in the theaters of battle. He asked that I focus on that.

I was thinking about Deitz’s selflessness and patriotism on the way back to the clubhouse, and how people are quick to label guys who score touchdowns and hit home runs and sink baskets as “heroes,” when, during my lifetime alone, 308,415 American military personnel have been killed or wounded. And because perspective was called for, I started thinking about the 30 Americans who died in that helicopter.

It seemed like a pretty big story, that crash. Even for sports fans. There were moments of silence. And then Tiger Woods’ former caddie started running his mouth and odds were posted on the first week of NFL preseason games and Dan Uggla started hitting to all fields and …

And then, as usual, we forgot about the real American heroes in the dusty, hostile and faraway lands. Guys with camouflaged faces and bayonets between their teeth and kung-fu grips who volunteer to watch our backsides, and sometimes die while trying to protect them.

Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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