Mike Aaron was a senior at South Albany High School when the events of Sept. 11, 2001 occurred.
That day helped finalize a decision he had already considered and after graduation Aaron joined the United States Marine Corps. He served as a machine gunner and a scout sniper with the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment, seeing action in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He served in the Marine Corps from 2002 through 2007. His return to civilian life proved more challenging than expected.
"It was tough. I came home in 2007 directly after my tour in Iraq. I didn't have any family that was veteran, or especially combat veteran, so I didn't have a whole lot of people here that understood where I was coming from," Aaron, 35, said. "A lot of it was buried underneath and I didn't show it to people. It ended up boiling over in 2014 and I ended up going to treatment for post-traumatic stress."
After getting out of treatment, Aaron decided to launch Link Up Vets, an organization dedicated to serving veterans in this area.
"I understood that there needed to be connection with other veterans that are like-minded," Aaron said.
Link Up Vets has adopted the mission of helping veterans reintegrate in society by making connections with other veterans through outdoor adventures and community events, as well as by training service dogs.
Building these relationships proved very helpful for Aaron, who now serves as the President of Link Up Vets and as the commander of VFW Post 584 in Albany. He also works for Hayes Farms in Lebanon.
The organization has grown over the years. Jason Gardner is the Vice Chair and Josh Ruff, Kelly Lawson, Zach Draper and Aaron Hand are board members. Hand also provides service dog training at no charge for qualified veterans.
For the past five years, an annual golf tournament has been the organization's primary fundraiser. The tournament raised about $4,300 the first year. Last year's tournament raised $32,000 and this year's event was expected to raise $50,000, Aaron said.
Turnout for this year's golf tournament exceeded expectations. A full field of 144 players competed on Sunday at Mallard Creek Golf Course, with five more teams playing their rounds on Saturday. In all, Aaron said more than 200 people supported the fundraiser as sponsors, participants or volunteers.
GameTime SportsBar & Grill served as the primary sponsor for the event with many other companies stepping up to support the event.
Gary Crossan of Oregon Blue Label CBD was among the sponsors and his foursome enjoyed the lovely conditions at Mallard Creek on Sunday Morning.
"We support the vets one thousand percent," Crossan said.
Link Up Vets' primary ongoing sponsors, in addition to GameTime Sports, are Spartan Ops apparel, Blue Ribbon Hardwoods, Black Dog K9 Training, and Samaritan Veteran Outreach.