BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - One man has found a way to help his fellow veterans deal with emotional and physical injuries from combat duty through a little sport called pickleball.
Working with the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System in Biloxi, U.S. Military Veteran Tom Linenberger is using pickleball to make a difference in veterans’ lives.
Pickleball is a combination of tennis, ping pong and badminton, and it’s one of the fastest-growing recreational activities in the U.S.
Courts like the ones at the Biloxi’s Donal Snyder Community Center are filled with pickleball players. It’s particularly popular with older Americans.
Linenberger volunteers as the Senior Pickleball Coordinator for Biloxi and Gulfport and has watched this sport grow by leaps and bounds on the coast.
“First of all, it’s a very social sport, and it’s very good exercise. It’s very popular among our senior population. When we retire, we lose a lot of our friends we may have had through work. Now, we have a whole new bunch of people,” Linenberger said.
While he is very excited about pickleball, he gets very emotional on another subject. He is committed to respecting military veterans and treating them properly.
“Veterans are sometimes not recognized for what they do. It’s important that we help them,” Linenberger said with emotion in his voice.
He is a Vietnam veteran and went to the Biloxi VA Center with an idea.
“We gave a demonstration to the clinical staff. The director was there along with over 70 veterans, and we showed them what pickleball was all about,” said Linenberger.
He pitched the idea of getting veterans, dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological issues, involved in the sport of pickleball.
The VA Center signed off on the concept, discovering that the activity can be therapeutic.
These veterans served their country, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan and developed emotional disorders after traumatic experiences.
Christopher Gray was deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army, then National Guard. And one day, tragedy struck.
“We were in south Kandahar in 2009 and that’s where I was hit by an IED,” Gray said.
Gray has been dealing with physical and emotional issues. He’s been undergoing treatment at the VA and he decided to get involved in the veteran’s pickleball program.
“It’s fun. You make new friends and meet new people. You exercise, and the more you do that, the more the pain is leaving your body,” Gray said.
A national magazine found out about Linenberger’s pickleball outreach efforts and did a success story on the intervention.
“It develops a lot of camaraderie and competition among the guys. It has done wonders,” Linenberger said.
Andre Harrell saw combat in Iraq. He came home to Mississippi with war scars.
“My family complained about me. My wife complained about me,” Andre said.
Harrell says this experience has helped him on the road to recovery. Linenberger also sponsors events that bring veterans together and give them a chance to socialize.
Linenberger is South Mississippi strong because he believes, in his heart, we must do whatever possible to help our veterans.
“Anything we can do to help these guys, we do it as a country. The VA does a good job, but they also need community and support. That’s the reason I encourage my fellow veterans to get into this program and help the guys out,” Linenberger said.
The veterans meet at the Donal Snyder Center on Tuesdays and Thursdays to help battle PTSD by competing and getting to meet people through the game of pickleball.
Linenberger runs several other programs. He and his pickleball volunteers help homeless veterans and collect needed items to give to veterans in our area.