Last weekend, I played in the second annual Aaron Gifford Memorial Pickleball Tournament.
It was fun. Met many enjoyable people from 11 different states, on two beautiful New Mexico spring days, and ran around a lot. Healthy exercise, and a chance for local pickleballers to play with referees and strict rule, and play game after game in the hot sun, even when they felt tired or dehydrated. There was even a court for beginners to try out the game and learn. If some of those folks got hooked, the exercise could improve their health and even their longevity.
Aaron was a beautiful young man, inside and out. He served three tours of duty in Iraq. He returned with PTSD — more troubled than he admitted, sleepless at night, restless. He didn’t get help. Maybe it wasn’t manly; maybe he underestimated the enemy inside him; or maybe he just didn’t want to bother anyone with his troubles. In the end — as 22 veterans do each day — he killed himself.
His mother, CeCe Hunter, has turned that unspeakable loss into a win for others. With the help of her family, and a family of pickleball players, she created this tournament.
Last year, the Aaron Gifford Tournament donated to Mission 22, started by veterans, named for those 22 daily tragedies, and designed to decrease that number by helping fellow vets. Mission 22 (and the tournament locally) spread the word that psychological help is available and can be effective with PTSD. Many vets doubt that anything can help them. If one vet who needed help got it because s/he heard about Mission 22 through this tournament, or Mission 22 used Aaron’s contribution to help someone avoid emulating him, that’s a huge win.
This year, seeking to do something locally meaningful, the tournament assisted the Community of Hope to get homeless vets into homes. This excellent local program can house a homeless vet for $3,000. Even before we played, the Aaron Gifford Memorial Tournament had presented Camp Hope with a $6,000 check. The final tally could include another $12,000 to $15,000. That’d be six or seven homes for men or women who served their country.
Energized by the task at hand, CeCe also appeared on radio shows and wrote an op-ed in this newspaper. She not only has helped spread the word to vets and their families that help is available, but has created some of that help.
The “Punisher”, an M925A2 5 ton transport truck. The Punisher was built to memorialize and honor “The Legend”, United States Navy Chief Petty Officer, Chris Kyle. It was on display during the second annual Aaron Gifford Benefit Pickleball Tournament was held on the NMSU Tennis Courts on April 6, 2019. (Photo: Polo Orta/For the Sun-News)
A huge military-looking vehicle, nicknamed The Punisher, stood near the NMSU Tennis Center during the tournament, a stark reminder of both the dangers of war and the camaraderie between soldiers. (It was built by a local Marine veteran in honor of Chris Kyle.) Many players were vets, some wearing caps identifying the nature of their service. “Thank you for your service” was an oft-heard phrase.
I have disagreed with politicians sending young folks into some wars; but our country has a clear duty to do our best to repair the damage war does to those who serve. It’s appalling how poorly we meet that obligation. It’s a sad irony that the politicians who shout loudest for war are sometimes the most unwilling to spend actual dollars to help the veterans (victims) of those wars.
Credit CeCe and Camp Hope for stepping up — and please consider contributing to Camp Hope in Aaron’s memory.
Las Cruces resident Peter Goodman writes, shoots pictures, and occasionally practices law. His blog at http://soledadcanyon.blogspot.com/ contains further information on this column.