Mental Health: Shattering the Stigma
Photo by Kohler Co.
By Stephanie Watson
Matt McDonell joined the U.S. Army as an airborne infantryman in 2011, when he was 26. He was seeking the kind of camaraderie and heroism he'd seen in movies like Black Hawk Down. But instead of creating lifelong bonds with most soldiers, he walked away with a lack of institutional trust and encountered improvised explosive devices, mortar rounds, and unit casualties as multiple soldiers died during his brigade's deployment in Afghanistan.
McDonell returned home in 2015, the horrors he'd seen tucked safely away in his mind. Or so he thought.
From the outside, his life looked ideal. He was happily married and running a successful lawn care and snow removal company in Milwaukee, WI. Under the surface, things were far from serene. McDonell was taking a cocktail of prescription drugs to help him sleep and relieve his emotional and physical pain from tinnitus, TMJ, post-concussive migraines, and much more.
But when an improper medication plan by his doctors at the VA went horribly wrong, he wondered if this was the new pain he'd have to endure. That's when he picked up his gun and turned it toward himself. "I thought about pulling the trigger," he says.
Matt McDonell in Afghanistan in 2012.
Photo courtesy of Matt McDonell
For nearly 7 years after he returned from Afghanistan, the repressed memories of war kept flooding back. Then he got an email from Semper Fi & America's Fund, an organization that supports combat veterans, inviting him to a golf camp in Denver. McDonell remembered how much he'd loved playing golf as a child.
"I hadn't played it for the last 9 years because I pushed all the joy out of my life," he says. "I really think golf saved my life."
He went to one golf camp, then another, and realized how many mental health practices were intrinsic to the game. "What club do I want to use? How do I want to approach the shot? That all requires a lot of mindfulness," he says.
The outlines of an organization started to take shape in his mind.
That spark of an idea grew into Next 18, a nonprofit program that hosts golf camps for military vets and first responders. The participants receive instruction from local pros, as well as instruction in self-care practices such as breath work, mindfulness, journaling, and yoga.
McDonell included firefighters and other first responders because of the common experiences they share with veterans. "Suicide, depression, alcoholism, substance abuse, teammates dying, teammates being killed. They all deal with it," he says. "It's really important that we take care of them as well."
Next 18's first two camps started small with a group of 20 veterans and first responders for a 4-day camp at the Fire Ridge Golf Course in Grafton, WI. They've hosted six camps with 63 alumni so far, and they plan to have eight more camps next year. McDonell, who is also working on getting his master's degree in social work, wants to grow to 15 to 20 camps a year and expand into warmer parts of the country for the winter months. "That's going to take time. It's going to take funding," McDonell says. They've hit their goal of raising $40,000 this year and are close to more than tripling it, thanks to grants from organizations like Make Golf Your Thing, and others.
During their camp experiences, participants say they are able to discuss things they may not have spoken to others about before. "I learned that it is OK to share my story and struggles," says combat veteran Joel Correa, a 41-year-old fire lieutenant for the Milwaukee Fire Department, who attended the first camp in 2021. "I've never really opened up to my peers until after this camp."
Opening up about one's feelings doesn't always mesh with the alpha-male culture that pervades the military services, and McDonell hopes Next 18 will provide an avenue for veterans and first responders to discuss their experiences to help heal the trauma that many have encountered in battle and in other places.
"I was trained to be the best … even when teammates were killed or things went negatively, I could suck it up and just keep moving," McDonell says. "We're trying to get our participants to a point where they understand that that's not acceptable. Those old-guard mentalities of 'suck it up, keep moving, don't talk about your feelings'—they're not working."
Matt McDonell discusses the stigmas that exist in the veteran and first responder communities and how Next 18 helps these groups deal with moral injury and so much more.
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