Marv Simcakoski and his son, Jason, used to play golf together on the course at the Tomah Veterans Administration Medical Center.
“It helped him break up the monotony of the day, and it gave us a chance to connect,” Marv Simcakoski recalled.
Jason Simcakoski, a former Marine, died of a drug overdose at the Tomah VA in 2014, but the golf course where he and his father played will be revived in his honor. Tomah VA staff, elected officials and members of the Simcakoski family gathered Friday for the groundbreaking of the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Golf Course.
The golf course had been a fixture at the Tomah VA for many years and was open to the public until 2014, when it was closed due to federal regulations that prohibit using government resources for its operation.
The new course will be a cooperative effort between Disabled American Veterans, the city of Tomah and the Jason Simcakoski Foundation. DAV will handle the day-to-day operations (collecting greens fees, running the clubhouse), the city will assist with maintenance and the Simcakoski Foundation will fund rehab work on the fairways and greens.
The nine-hole course will be a par-36 and open to the public with VA patients getting tee time priority.
“It’s not going to be like a country club,” Simcakoski Foundation secretary Terry Polich said. “It’s more analogous to a public golf course. It will be a fun course to play.”
The cost of reviving the course was estimated two years ago at $375,000, but Polich said much of the work will be done on a volunteer basis and that the greens “weren’t in as bad of shape as we thought.” He estimated the foundation will contribute $50,000.
Polich anticipates the course will open in September, weather permitting.
Wisconsin DAV deputy director Robert Hilliard said there won’t be a shortage of volunteers to operate the course.
“I’ve had five people come up to me today and ask, ‘Where do I sign up?’” Hillard said.
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, said the course will be an asset for patients at the VA. The facility came under fire in 2015 after an Inspector General’s report, released after Jason Simcakoski’s death, found that opioid painkillers were being overprescribed, which led to the resignation of the medical center director and firing of the medical chief of staff.
Since then, Kind said the Tomah VA has been in the forefront of alternative pain therapies. He said the golf course will allow patients to “get out, get some exercise, get some fresh air, decompress and have fun on this beautiful golf course.”
“This fits nicely with the whole health concept that is being developed here,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, said the Simcakoski family has done extraordinary work since Jason’s death. She said the family was instrumental in convincing Congress to pass the Jason Simcakoski Memorial and Promise Act, which reformed how opioids are prescribed at VA facilities.
Baldwin said that same commitment revived the golf course. She said the family refused to “tak(e) no for an answer” when presented with bureaucratic hurdles that kept the course closed for four years.
“This is all about turning tragedy into amazing hope,” Baldwin said.
Marv Simcakoski described the groundbreaking as “a proud day for me and my family.”
“For veterans at the Tomah VA, it helps bring them outside ... and provides precious opportunities for veterans and their families to spend time together that is much needed in their recovery ... I know Jason is looking down on us right now, and I know he is proud of what we’re doing, and I know he’s telling us to keep going because that’s the kind of guy he was.”