When avid golfer Joseph Hanna learned from a 2008 Golf magazine article that U.S. soldiers in Iraq liked to relieve the stress of wartime service by hitting golf balls, he spotted an opportunity to show his deep appreciation for their efforts. "I said to myself, the least I can do is collect some golf balls and golf clubs and send them to our soldiers," Hanna recalls of his inspiration for Bunkers in Baghdad, an organization that aims to keep a steady stream of donated supplies flowing to U.S. troops overseas.
As word spread, demand skyrocketed, and the operation quickly expanded beyond its initial target. "Our name suggests Iraq only, but it’s much, much larger than that," says the Buffalo-based attorney. "Sure, we started in Baghdad but, to date, we’ve delivered golf clubs and golf balls to thirteen different countries around the world." Hanna notes that as of early 2012, just over three years since its inception, the organization has collected and shipped more than two-point-eight million golf balls and 58,000 clubs to soldiers in active duty and in the growing Wounded Warriors Battalion programs in Europe and all fifty states. Hanna notes that physical therapists repeatedly tell him that the golf swing helps build core, chest, and leg muscles that are often injured during war, which means Bunkers in Baghdad contributes to the rehabilitation process.
"I had hopes that it would grow this large, though I didn’t think we’d be able to control it the way we have," Hanna continues. "But, as with anything that starts in Western New York, there’s always an outpouring of generosity and kindness, and that has been a major driving point for the charity." Hanna speaks from volunteer experience. In his role as a partner at Goldberg Segalla LLP and an active member of the Minority Bar Association of Western New York (he recently concluded a term as president), he has led initiatives to increase diversity in WNY’s legal and business communities, and to support kids in city schools.
In addition to community support, partnerships with schools and local and national sponsors have also contributed to the organization’s growth, according to Hanna. The Bunkers Buddies program—which gives school kids opportunities to write letters to and draw pictures for the soldiers, help collect golf equipment, and run fundraisers to pay for shipments—has grown to more than 100 schools in thirty states. "Every package we have sent overseas has included a card or a letter from a kid," Hanna says. "The feedback we hear is oftentimes more about the letters and cards than about the golf clubs and golf balls, so it’s a very special part of the program."
Sponsors such as Callaway Golf, the Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning, the Miami Marlins, professional golfers (including Ray Floyd, Jack Nicklaus, and Arnold Palmer), country music stars, and other celebrities have also supported Hanna’s mission. Looking ahead, Hanna looks forward to partnering with the Buffalo Sabres, and foresees increased involvement with organizations of women veterans.
The continued growth of the program is important, Hanna asserts, because even though war operations subside, soldiers’ needs for recreation and rehabilitation never go away. "We’re busier than ever," Hanna says. "The requests from Kuwait and Korea have increased tenfold since the soldiers left Iraq." The organization is always accepting new or gently used golf equipment, and any support through donations or participation in fundraiser happy hours or golf tournaments goes a long way toward paying the ever-increasing cost of shipping.
Supporting Bunkers in Baghdad means supporting "a locally founded charity that’s now global in scope," notes Hanna proudly. Bunkers in Baghdad has earned Hanna numerous commendations from the U.S. military and accolades such as the Daily Point of Light Award. He’s also been invited to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, and throw the opening pitch at a Marlins game. Hanna is quick to point out, however, that the most important recognition comes from the beneficiaries of Bunkers in Baghdad—the soldiers. "They oftentimes feel that they’re forgotten over there," he says, "and to hear them say thank you for sending us a slice of home, thank you for remembering us, thank you for sending us a sense of reality and of people caring about us—that’s what really hits home. The letters and cards and pictures that we get back from the soldiers make you humble. We very often forget about the sacrifices these men and women [make] in defending us, while we’re here shopping, going to movies, going out to bars, and having a great time. It’s one of those things that knocks you back to reality really quickly."
For more information or to make a donation, contact:
Bunkers in Baghdad
Attn: Joseph Hanna
665 Main Street, Suite 400
Buffalo, NY 14203
Jay Pawlowski is a writer living in Kenmore.