December 30, 2016

LITCHFIELD PARK, Ariz. (AP) — Ginger Gilbert-Ravella stood before the crowd, calmly describing the day her husband died.

Major Troy Gilbert, a U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot, was killed in 2006 when his plane crashed in Iraq. Standing on a stage on a sunny desert day 10 years later, his widow talked about their five children, the normalcy of the day, the shock of answering the door to the Luke Air Force Base chaplain surrounded by base leaders – all without cracking.

It wasn’t until she turned to the 80-plus college golfers sitting on the stage around her that Gilbert-Ravella’s voice began to crack.

“Know who you’re playing for,” she said. “Honor your parents and the people you’re playing for because they’re missed and they’re loved and they’re not just a name. They’re a dad, they’re a husband, they’re a father, they’re a brother, a son, a friend.”

Gilbert-Ravella’s speech was the centerpiece of the moving opening ceremonies for the Patriot All-America Invitational, one of the most unique tournaments college tournaments in the country.

At most tournaments, the players are there for team, the name of their school on their bags. The Patriot All-America pairs them with fallen or injured soldiers and their family, the name of that solider on their bag.

Because of the format, the 54-hole event that started Wednesday at The Wigwam Golf Club attracts some of the best college players from around the country.

“It’s definitely an honor being able to represent a fallen solider and an honor to be here,” James Madison player Ryan Cole said. “It’s great weather and we’re happy to be here.”

The Patriot All-America began in 2011, when the Golf Coaches Association of America wanted to hold a tournament at The Wigwam for the top players from all three NCAA divisions, along with players from NAIA, NJCAA and AJGA rankings.

The resort is just a few miles away from Luke Air Force Base and military families live all around the area, so tournament organizers wanted to do something a little different by having the players honor a soldier.

The format became a big hit, drawing top players from around the country, including PGA Tour players Brooks Koepka, Ollie Schniederjans, Patrick Rodgers, Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger and Bryson DeChambeau.

“When we first started this, we weren’t sure what a 19- or 20-year-old kid was going to think about it,” said Tom O’Malley, COO of JDM Partners, which owns The Wigwam. “What we found out was that they’re calling us to see if they can be a part of this event. The big surprise was that they wanted to come represent these soldiers. They play golf for a living, but what really resounded for them was the opportunity to honor the military.”

The golf is typically top notch, great players on a superb golf course.

But the opening ceremonies are often what resonates.

The players were introduced, along with the soldier they’re representing, then took their seats as the American flag was dropped in by a parachutist who landed on the driving range during the national anthem. The base commander gave a few words before an all-veteran crew flew over in private C16s in the missing man formation. Then Gilbert-Ravella spoke about how her husband’s remains had not been found until recently and were buried at Arlington National Cemetery after a 10-year wait.

“Their names still should be spoken, their stories should still be told,” she said, choking back tears. “Their families miss them. They just had a Christmas without them and I want you to think about those kids.”