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The Marines 'Totally' Turned Around Bob Parsons and He Won't Stop Paying that Forward

The origin story of the PXG founder and billionaire philanthropist begins in the Quang Nam Province of Vietnam, writes Morning Read's Dan O'Neill, and continues to this day with a dedication to help others overcome PTSD.

In early March, 1969, he might have been hanging with some Baltimore buddies, working at the gas station, drifting in the breeze. He turned 18 the previous November and didn’t have a care in the world. His whole life was ahead of him.

Instead, Bob Parsons was sitting on Hill 190 in the Quang Nam Province of Vietnam, 8,500 miles from his home town streets, a rifleman in Delta Company of the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines. He and his company had just arrived from half a world away. They were replacements for poor devils killed in an ambush just a few days earlier.

The squad leader had been among the casualties, which immediately promoted Cpl. Barry George to the position. George, who had been in Vietnam for six weeks, just turned 19.

"You think you’re coming in at Level I," Parsons remembered. "And all of a sudden, you’re at Level III."

Growing up in a financially strapped family, in a coarse part of the inner city, Parsons had not distinguished himself to that point — at least not favorably. He and a buddy joined the service six months earlier to avoid flunking out of high school. He was a nonconformist, long on fun, short on discipline. He was, in his own words, "a knucklehead."

And as he sat there in the thick vegetation of a guerrilla war, looking over endless rows of rice paddies and gnarly forest, he was certain of one thing — his whole life was behind him.

"It becomes insurmountable in your mind," Parsons recalled, as if it were yesterday. "How in the world was I going to survive there 13 months when the guy who has been there the longest had been there only six weeks? The other guys had left in bags or on stretchers. It was crazy."

Crazy, horrifying and paralyzing, but the situation also was inescapable. A "Get Out of Vietnam" card was not standard issue in a Marine’s duffle bag. Along with the other inexperienced "mokes" on that hill, Parsons had no choice but to see his reality face to face.

"When you confront your own mortality, it’s a hard thing," he said. "When I did that, it was like a dark, dark, cold feeling. I would say I was close to having the only panic attack I have ever had in my life."

Then something unexpected happened. He reached an understanding, with himself, with his maker and with whatever was to come next. And in that moment, his life was changed forever.

"The thing that turned it around is I sat there — in this little world by myself — and it occurred to me: ‘Hey, you know, I’m NOT going to survive this. In all probability, I’m going to die here,’ " Parsons said. "And I fully accepted it,"

"I mean, it took me a while, a good half-hour at least, but I accepted it. And when I did, I was fine, absolutely fine. Then I made two commitments. The first was to do my job, and the second was to be alive for mail call, if at all possible."

On Nov. 10, the U.S. Marine Corps will celebrate its 246th birthday. A day later, Nov. 11, Veterans Day honors U.S. military veterans and victims of all wars. Fifty-two years later, the scared kid is still here, to blow out the candles for "Mother Green," and salute his fellow veterans. He kept his commitment, he did his job, and he’s still answering his mail.

"Everything I’ve ever accomplished I owe to the Marine Corps," said Parsons. "I make no bones about it. It turned me around totally."

Everything Parsons has accomplished covers a lot of impressive ground. Foremost, he survived Vietnam, earning the Combat Action Ribbon, Vietnam Gallantry Cross and Purple Heart along the way. Moreover, he was transformed by it.

Upon his return, Parsons went back to school to earn an accounting degree from the University of Baltimore. The high-school flunky graduated magna cum laude.

In 1984, he taught himself computer code and started Parsons Technology, selling MoneyCounts, a home accounting program. Ten years later, with more than 1,000 employees, he sold the company for $64 million. Next, he founded the domain name registrar and Web hosting company, GoDaddy. In 2011, he sold the majority of the company for what Forbes estimated to be $900 million in cash.

Bob Parsons.

Bob Parsons.

Soon after, he started YAM Worldwide, which has been a launching pad for a myriad of entrepreneurial ventures and investments, ranging from real estate to power sports. According to Forbes, Parsons’ net worth has reached an estimated $3.4 billion.

Prominent in the mix is Parsons’ 2014 entry into golf, a sport he played with his father.

"We used to play at Clifton Park, which was a nine-hole course in a rough part of the city," Parsons said. "The hazards included getting robbed, shot or mugged."

Those handicaps notwithstanding, Parsons fell in love with the game and acted on his passion to start the high end club manufacturing company — Parsons Xtreme Golf, or PXG. Initially panned by a stuffy, unforgiving industry, PXG’s innovative designs and attention to quality have been praised by critics and mimicked by established brands like TaylorMade, Callaway and Titleist.

In 2019, PXG, which has branched out into boutique apparel and accessories, was recognized as one of the fastest-growing, privately held companies in the U.S. by Inc. Magazine. And while a pandemic has put a dent in some of Parsons’ other business interests, PXG has ridden the Covid-created recreational wave that has lifted golf.

The waters will recede at some point, as life returns to normal. But Parsons can-do, Semper Fidelis approach to business — and life — does not lean on whimsy, or shifting trends. It is unwavering.

"The thing about it is, in the long run, we’re pretty much an experiential research and development company," explained Parsons, 70, who was in Dallas recently to open another standalone PXG store. There are currently nine such stores nationwide and plans for 24 more over the next year.

"I mean, we work on making outstanding stuff — period," he added. "And as long as we continue to do that, we’re going to be incredibly successful. I think our future is bright, indeed."

Some of that teenage nonconformity still burns in Parsons. And the touch of gravel in his voice reflects the layer of grit in his heart. He’s a call-you-"brother" and slap-you-on-the-back type of guy, loyal to friends and family, unfettered by naysayers and critics. He is a proud man, and he has reason to be so. His success didn’t happen overnight or by accident. The financial records don’t reveal the scars, or explain the dues that have been paid.

Less than four hours after his come-to-Jesus moment in Vietnam, Parsons’ squad conducted an ambush. His fellow Marine, Ermil Hunt, was badly injured by a North Vietnamese grenade. He would lose an arm, a leg and an eye in the incident.

Within moments, a medevac copter reached the chaotic scene to airlift Hunt to a hospital. As the "huey" descended, Parsons noticed another member of his squad, Larry Blackwell, standing in the exact spot where the copter was about to land. Blackwell was in shock, vomiting, unable to move. Parsons sprinted across the muck and, at the last instant, pushed Blackwell aside as the copter landed. The action saved Blackwell’s life.

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One night later, the squad’s point man, Ray Livesey, tripped a hidden wire that triggered an explosion. The blast shredded Livesey’s legs and put him at death’s door. Parsons helped carry him to the nearest medevac point, which was nearly a mile away.

So it went, night after night, ambush after ambush. When they weren’t engaged in an ambush, the Marines laid quietly in the rice paddies, poised for the next one, trying to stay awake, stay aware and stay alive. On a subsequent occasion, Parsons was walking "second point" when he triggered an explosive wire. Shrapnel ripped into his legs and left elbow.

He was airlifted from the battleground and flown to a hospital in Okinawa, Japan, where he took weeks to recover. By chance, as Parsons was about to return to his unit, he bumped into Blackwell, the stunned soldier he had rescued from the landing chopper. Learning of Parsons’ orders, Blackwell was able to pull some strings and get his friend re-assigned to courier duty.

Bob Parsons, with his Purple Heart.

Bob Parsons, with his Purple Heart.

Thus, Parsons’ combat experience in Vietnam became relatively short-lived, amounting to only one month. And therein lied a misperception that would deceive him for years. The haunting visions implanted in combat are not based on minimum exposure times. One month … one day … even one minute can produce sights and sounds no one might otherwise encounter, no one can imagine, no one should have to experience.

They are pictures not easily shared or translated, memories buried deep but never erased. They can bubble to the surface, blot out the sun and push aside a world that contains nothing in common.

Parsons left his knuckled teenage head back in the villages of Vietnam, to be sure. But he brought back a damaged soul. Like other Vietnam vets, he came home without fanfare and without a pat on the back. As the war became more unpopular and protests persisted, returning soldiers were deemed part of the problem not the solution. Ultimately, Vietnam was labeled by many as a mismanaged debacle.

For those who put their lives on the line, who saw so many lost, the reception was a painful betrayal. For those emotionally conflicted, it was fuel on a smoldering fire. It would be years before Parsons accepted it, but he was among them.

"Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is exacerbated or minimized by the ultimate outcome," Parsons said. "For us to come home and not receive a hero’s welcome, or any welcome at all for that matter, it was tough.

"How the anti-war group could take things out on us, I don’t know. To this day, I have a hard time believing it."

That said, weakness and vulnerability are not parts of the soldiers’ handbook. Veterans were left emotionally stranded, separated from those who fought alongside, challenged to fit in with those who didn’t. The means by which they cope can be devastating.

Many years after the war, Parsons tried to find Larry Blackwell, the man he saved in the rice paddies, the man who saved him from returning. The result of the search was devastating. His buddy had become addicted to heroin after the war, and died of an overdose in 1993. When he got the word, Parsons phoned his old squad leader, George, and "cried like a baby."

Both men thought the world of Blackwell, knew him to be a wonderful man and a fine Marine. Both came to realize one other reality, one that affects so many, one that George put in perspective.

"You know Bobby," he said, "heroin is not the thing that killed him. That war killed him."

Parsons has come to realize Vietnam has impacted his post-war life in a much different way, but affected it nonetheless. His heroin became work. Overly intense, uncomfortable in groups, unattached even with family and friends, he buried himself in it.

"Everything that I did was solitary," Parsons said. "I played tennis, but only singles. I played golf, which you can do by yourself. I got into computer programming — I mean I can’t think of a more solitary thing than that. It was the one place where I was OK."

Things finally came to a head when Parsons was asked to speak about the war and PTSD to a Purple Heart Society. He agreed, then barely made it past "good evening."

"It was the first time I spoke about PTSD, and embarrassing enough, I cried through the whole thing," he said. "It was just everything I could to push through it. So I knew I had it. I mean, what else could it be?"

"There would be times when someone would talk about something concerning the war, or the military or something, I mean just something that would come up. And this feeling would just come over you. You’d tear up and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t keep it from happening."

Parsons began to address the issue in 2010, when he joined members of his company for a reunion in Gulfport, Miss. It was the kind of gathering he previously avoided, and it was just what he needed.

"That was a wonderful moment," Parsons said. "Just to be with them, to talk about what happened and listen to them talk about what happened. It made all the difference in the world."

Additionally, he has been helped by both neurofeedback treatments and stellate ganglion injections. He also sings the praises of clinical psychedelics, pioneered by researchers in the 1950s and more recently by Michael Pollan, the author of How To Change Your Mind.

Through it all, Parsons’ demeanor has become less guarded and his personality more engaging. His relationships — with co-workers, family and friends — have improved and the evocative episodes have faded.

Some things still hit close to home. They briefly pause his conversation and pinch the emotions — they always will. But he’s the first to say — after so many years — he’s finally come down from that hill. Now, with his wife Renee, he wants to help others.

Among numerous philanthropic efforts, the Bob & Renee Parsons Foundation donates $10 million annually to the Semper Fi & America's Fund — which is dedicated to providing financial assistance and support to combat wounded, critically ill and catastrophically injured members of the military and their families.

In association with the U.S. Marines Corps birthday and Veteran’s Day, Parsons has posted a video (above, at top) on both Semperfifund.org and PXG.com. In it, he opens up about his war experiences, his PTSD issues and his hope others will seek help. Included is a phone line for assistance (866-843-7323) that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Many are familiar with Bob Parsons’ name, his PXG golf clubs, his GoDaddy past, or his billionaire status. But they likely had no idea how truly successful he's been, surviving the rice paddies, confronting the demons and re-discovering himself.

He wants his fellow soldiers and their families to find the same path. He wants all of them to come home.

"There’s no doubt that many who served saw far more action than I did, and I’m no hero, that’s for sure," he said. "But I want people to know that if I had significant PTSD, there’s a good chance they might too.

"I want all of those who served in wars to step up and be brave one more time. It’s not easy, it never is easy to be brave, but it has to happen for them to make progress.

"I know the feeling of finally coming home, and it’s a wonderful feeling, indeed."