Zachary Politte served three tours of duty in Iraq. As a Marine staff sergeant, he was an electrical engineer and door gunner on a CH-46 helicopter.
Politte was part of a casualty-evacuation unit, HMM-161 of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, call sign DUST-OFF, or Dedicated Unhesitating Service To Our Fighting Forces. Politte and his crew weren’t just in harm’s way; they were staring it down. They risked life and limb, transporting battlefield casualties under the most dire circumstances.
During one such operation, fire broke out and the helicopter lost an engine. The damaged ship pitched violently to the left, nearly throwing Politte out the open door. He was saved by the .50-caliber machine gun blocking his exit. Politte was banged up but survived a hard landing for the third time.
In his pocket, he kept a good-luck charm, an angel medallion. The trinket was given to him by the parents of Gregory Millard, 22, an Army paratrooper who was killed when an improvised explosive device detonated on Memorial Day 2007. Politte’s unit was there that day, responding to the crisis.
Politte didn’t know Millard, but he held the soldier in the helicopter that day, trying to get him out, trying to comfort him, as he did so many dying young men.
“He was unusual,” Politte remembered. “Everybody in that situation is scared they’re going to die. But [Millard] was calm, almost as if he accepted what had happened. Right before he passed, he grabbed my hand, looked me in the eyes and smiled.”
Months later, Politte was back near his base in San Diego when he walked into a bicycle shop. He struck up a conversation with the owners, parents of the soldier pictured on the wall. Their son was killed in Iraq, they explained. The parties became fast friends, and Politte came to visit the shop frequently.
He didn’t realize it initially, but then something clicked. Politte researched his missions log book, flipped through tattered pages and scribbled entries until he reached Memorial Day 2007. There it was, sure enough. He knew the soldier pictured on the wall … the owners of the bicycle shop were Gregory Millard’s parents.
He sat with them, told them of the final moments of their son’s life, told them how he died at peace. The grieving parents had a closure they never would have known. Politte had a connection with one of the dying men whom he had held in his arms. And on a hot Memorial Day service in 2008, sweating in full Marine dress blues, Zachary Politte stood for hours, stood for Army Spc. Gregory Millard, stood for respect, duty and honor.
They are things from which so many of us benefit, and so frequently take for granted. And they are, essentially why one small woman purchased one big golf property, and why she keeps chasing one remarkable dream.
Andrea Politte is Zachary’s mom, and she is a golf course owner. Not because she is wealthy; far from it. Not because she is a golf nut; farther from it. She was a high-profile stylist by trade, worked on TV and movie sets, even had future President Donald Trump as a client.
No, Andrea Politte has put every penny she has earned and every ounce of energy that her 5-foot-1-inch, 105-pound frame can muster into operating Fore Honor Golf & Event Center at Deer Creek USA in House Springs, Mo., for people like her son.
She has turned a forlorn golf property located 30 miles southwest of St. Louis into a therapeutic place for military veterans and first-responders, a sanctuary for fallen heroes. It is a public 18-hole facility, anchored to a 30,000-square-foot clubhouse that can host weddings, parties and other activities.
But above all, it is a place of pride and reflection, a place of respect and honor.
“History doesn’t get made very often, and it doesn’t get made easily,” Politte said. “But creating it is so special. I want to do something here that’s never been done, and it’s gonna work. I just need people to support it. I need people to get behind it.”
Politte acquired the remote property in late 2013. The golf course was built in the late 1980s, just before Tiger Woods mania would flood the country with golf courses. There were ownership changes, budget squeezes and things digressed. With 200 acres of scenic landscape, Deer Creek always had potential. But the overpopulated golf course industry is crowded with rose-colored potential.
Politte has started from scratch, with the course, the carts and the clubhouse. It is an all-in challenge, a work in progress, with no end in sight. From a business standpoint, she is her own worst enemy. Deer Creek offers free green fees to military veterans and first-responders, a sponsorship that added up to $33,000 worth of golf from 2014 to ’16. Last year, the club made $50,000 in charitable donations. Meanwhile the bills and expenditures keep coming.
On Dec. 18, Politte is lending the clubhouse to the Byrnes Mill Police Department for its annual “Shop With A Cop” banquet. The holiday program provides 100 foster and underprivileged kids with presents, a visit from Santa Claus and a real Christmas.
“We’re trying to give where we think there is a need,” she said. “There’s always somebody worse off.”
Politte envisions commemorative statuary and patriotic presentations throughout the property. She has dedicated space in the expansive clubhouse to therapeutic and wellness services for those who served. Studies have shown ecotherapy can help ease symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
None of it comes easy, and none of it comes gratis. In April, Andrea Politte suffered a herniated disk and was incapacitated until August. She has stayed afloat with the help of her small, resilient staff and generous volunteers, but finances are perilously thin. Efforts to attract investors and secure funding have been difficult. Politte is considering selling 110 acres of the property – the golf course covers 89 acres – in order to keep her dream afloat.
Zachary Politte now lives in Pensacola, Fla. His lungs are damaged from inhaling so much helicopter exhaust, and he suffers from PTSD. His mom regularly sees veterans like him, some who have lost limbs, lost homes and lost themselves. She lacks for money, not motivation.
“I can’t be discouraged,” she said. “I sometimes get that way, but that’s just because that’s life. That’s being human. I know I have to keep moving forward.”
It’s Christmastime, a time of giving. Zachary Politte put his life on the line over and over, for country, for freedom. Andrea Politte is giving everything she has, for her son, for those like him.
Maybe people will step forward to give to Deer Creek (deercreekusa.com) and make the dream viable … for the Polittes … for respect and honor.
Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @WWDOD