After suffering a traumatic brain injury in Iraq, Matt Nicodemus turned to golf for rehabilitation–and to regain his life.
Army Staff Sgt. Matt Nicodemus reaches into his golf bag and unsheathes his weapon of choice–a 50-inch, 6.5-degree driver. After a few practice swings to loosen up his stout 6-foot-4-inch frame, the 34-year-old soldier starts blasting canary-colored practice balls across the driving range of Cheyenne Shadows Golf Club at Fort Carson.
“OK,” he says with a confident smirk. “Now I’m really going to get into one.” With a mighty swing, he unleashes a drive that shoots off the club face like a bright yellow tracer and pings the corrugated steel roof of a maintenance building on the opposite side of the fence–about 340 yards downrange. It’s not his longest drive, which was 386 yards in a competition, but the look of satisfaction on his face reveals that he made pure contact.
His 10-year-old daughter, Breanna, who with her pink bag and clubs resembles a young Paula Creamer, admires her dad from the next teeing area. “I think I found one of my dad’s golf balls on the course once,” she says. “It had a huge gash on the side of it!”
Matt smiles as his attention turns toward Cheyenne Mountain, which provides a scenic backdrop just west of the course. “I like it out here because the golf course doesn’t blow up,” he says half jokingly. “This is such a peaceful place, a sanctuary where I can relax.”
Two years ago his surroundings were the exact opposite–hostile, barren and, literally, explosive.
On a sweltering June day in 2006 while serving in a reconnaissance platoon in Iraq, Nicodemus was in the passenger seat of a Humvee rumbling down a rural dirt road about 30 miles northeast of Baghdad. Behind him was a cooler packed with ice and his gunner manning a .50 caliber mounted machine gun. The rear wheels tripped a buried IED (improvised explosive device), which blasted through the underside of the vehicle, shredding it in half. Matt took shrapnel to the back of his head and neck, and had it not been for that cooler partially shielding him from the explosion, he likely would have been killed.
Two months later, he suffered a second trauma when he took another direct IED hit, which blew off his Humvee’s hood, and even a third in October, just a month before his scheduled return. During her Webcam conversations with Matt, his wife, Amber, who holds a degree in psychology, noticed increasing signs of trauma.
“I saw a great deal of cognitive deterioration,” she remembers. “He would sit in the dark on Webcam, his e-mails became more and more incoherent, and he would hold his head because he was suffering from migraine and post-seizure headaches, but he refused to leave Iraq because of tremendous dedication to his unit.”
The IED attacks left Matt with moderate traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. His poor condition became even more apparent upon his return. He had lost cognitive ability, continued to suffer seizures and struggled with certain motor skills. One day he hit rock bottom when he couldn’t get his key into a door.
“I was so focused on getting Matt the help he needed,” says Amber. “It was very important to get him stable behaviorally, physically and help him regain his sleep, balance and vision.”
After nine months of cognitive retraining, Matt has improved physically, but still has clumsy days, which he calls “bad brain days.”
Back at Cheyenne Shadows, the 14-year soldier continues to pound balls over the range fence with Amber and Breanna watching. After seeing “a lot of bad things,” Matt is at peace on the golf course, his sanctuary, where he no longer has to worry about the horrors of war.
“People with brain injuries tend to become very isolated,” he says. “It feels so good just to be outside.”
Golf has helped Matt more than he knows.
Amber, who founded the Colorado Springs-based Cognogenesis BRRAIN (Brain-injury Resource Research Advocacy and Integration Network) Center, a centralized support center for brain-injury survivors and their families, says golf is on a short list of the most common recreational therapy programs for traumatic brain-injury survivors. She says it helps develop and strengthen motor skills, correct balance and coordination problems, improve decision-making processes, and provide a safe, comfortable method for social interaction.
“I was watching TV one day, and a show came on talking about how golfers have enhanced balance and eye-hand coordination, so I thought I’d take it back up,” says Matt, who had played golf and a variety of other sports prior to his injuries. “Now whenever I’m having a bad day, I can just hit balls and then, no more bad brain day.”
Perhaps, most importantly, golf has helped Matt reconnect with Breanna.
“When Matt came back and was playing golf again, that was something that was familiar to Matt and Breanna,” says Amber, who admits her best skill on the golf course is driving the cart. “Now that she’s older, she’s actually able to play, and that’s their bonding time. It’s helped in the recovery process for the entire family.”
And although Matt plans one day to pursue a career as a golf professional or long-drive competitor, he’s content for now just being a dedicated father and husband.
“Matt is very talented and astute,” says longtime friend and Cheyenne Shadows head golf professional Frank Jacobson. “He has the ability to be a competitor or a mentor. Of course, he can also hit the ball over 400 yards, which is something you just can’t teach.”
Matt does, however, want to dedicate some time to sharing his story and has even received offers to demonstrate his long-drive skills. One such offer came from Scott Gray, founder of the Thanks Troops Charitable Fund, which hosted its first annual tournament in August at nearby Springs Ranch Golf Course.
“It’s because of guys like Matt that we get to enjoy our freedoms,” says Gray, who founded the organization to provide recreational activities and gear for soldiers. “They’ve made tremendous sacrifices, and this is a great way to give back.”
Earlier in the summer more than 30 wounded soldiers, including 15 from the nonprofit Wounded Warrior Project (which provides unique, direct programs and services to meet the needs of severely injured service men and women), took part in a three-day clinic taught by PGA professionals from around the state and instructors from the National Amputee Golf Association.
“All of the guys were from the Warrior Transition Unit, which helps the guys cope with their injury and regain their life,” says Jacobson. “Since about 80 percent end up leaving the military, we want to give them something that will bring a sense of normalcy to their everyday lives.”
That normalcy can’t come fast enough. “If it wasn’t for this, I would have taken my .45 and blown my brains out,” one participant told a PGA professional. Despite a little military red tape and bureaucracy hindering their efforts, Matt and Frank, along with the USGA, Colorado PGA and various other organizations are determined to help soldiers in need, and plan eventually to set up regular clinics at Cheyenne Shadows.
“Golf has made me more of a person again and a productive member of society,” Nicdodemus says. “It’s my hope that other wounded soldiers can experience the same benefits.”
Support Our Troops
In addition to the Thanks Troops! event in August at Springs Ranch, two other Colorado golf events benefited soldiers this year. On Memorial Day, The Golf Club at Bear Dance, Riverdale Dunes and Black Bear Golf Club staged Trilogy Golf Day to benefit Wounded Warriors Inc. The event drew 300 participants and raised $20,000 for the organization. Another event on June 26, benefiting The Home Front Cares, hosted 120 participants at Sanctuary and raised $275,000.
Among the resources available to soldiers:
Cognogenesis BRRAIN Center719-271-9627
Cheyenne Shadows Golf Club at Fort Carson
Thanks Troops Charitable Fund719-243-6400
The Home Front Cares
Wounded Warrior Project877-TEAM-WWP
Wounded Warriors Family Support