Golfing with a goal: Next 18 leaves lasting impact
WISCONSIN (CBS 58) -- Erin Hills is one of the most beautiful golf courses in the country. Turns out it makes a pretty good bribe, too.
"Golf is the vehicle. Golf is what gets them here."
That's former US Army Airborne Infantryman Matt McDonell, founder of Next 18, a nonprofit organization running three-and-a-half-day golf camps for veterans and first responders.
"Playing at Erin Hills is the draw. But getting them here, getting them in the seats, that's when we do the work."
The work refers to the rest of the camps. Four-to-six hours a day of mental health training ranging from yoga and breath work to journaling. The golf incentive worked for Watertown police's Jake Reitz who heard about Next 18 from a friend.
"It was golf at some sort of a premier destination with maybe some mental health, that's the way I looked at it…dude, I don't have PTSD, but I'll put in for it."
A few days later, Jake's singing a very different tune.
"It's going to be something that I use for the rest of my life, and my view on mental health has changed."
Jake is hardly the exception. Matt has run nine of these camps, with nearly 100 campers so far, and says they all follow a similar path. Day one, campers are a bit reserved, but by the end, they are brothers and sisters.
"We are all human and we need to talk. I went through some pretty dark stuff a few years ago and I felt very alone. I didn't want to die, but I didn't want to live."
It's estimated that there are about 17 US veteran suicides a day. Matt thinks the number is actually much higher.
"I've already had one of them call me with a gun in his mouth, and I was able to walk him out of that situation. So if nothing else ever comes from this, I've done my job."
I asked Logan Dietsche, who served in the U.S. Army from 2000 to 2004, if a program like Next 18 can save lives.
"Absolutely. There's people out there who have never opened up to anybody about the trauma they have experienced," Dietsche says. "Just finding ways to deal with it, to cope with it, to know that you are not alone out there, that other people experience these same feelings, these same emotions and are immediately there for you, is amazing."
Logan tells me he's leaving camp with a new group of brothers that he knows he can talk to any time, about anything.
"The network that's created out of it, that might be that one phone call a person can make before they decide to do something they can't take back."
Matt's lasting message to the campers is that they are not alone. And as beautiful as Erin Hills is, that message is what sticks with the Next 18 campers.