Natalie's Everyday Heroes: Matt McDonell, Army veteran and founder of mental health nonprofit Next 18

NOW: Natalie’s Everyday Heroes: Matt McDonell, Army veteran and founder of mental health nonprofit Next 18

NEXT:

GRAFTON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- The objective in golf is to get the ball in the hole in as few strokes as possible. Army veteran Matt McDonell sees it differently.

Golf helped him deal with PTSD. Now, he's using the game as a journey, not a destination. He's also helping other veterans with disabilities, and first responders, along the way.

"Now you should be good," McDonell said, adjusting a golfer at Fire Ridge Golf Club in Grafton.

McDonell is quick to hand out pointers, and he can analyze a swing.

"It's really good. It's really good back," he told another player.

But McDonell is not a golf pro.

"Airborne infantry, I was with the 173rd," he said of his service.

He's an Army veteran dealing with the lasting impact of his service.

"PTSD, a lot of close blast exposure, upper and lower back and knee injuries," he said.

He served from 2011 to 2015, spending nine months in Afghanistan. Like many soldiers, he suffered injury and loss.

"I lost a teammate on Christmas Eve," he said. "He was shot and killed, small arms fire out on a patrol. He was 22 or 23, he had an eight-month at home and a wife."

He tried to handle it all alone when he came home.

"I believed in the Alpha male, I can do whatever I want, I'm going to be fine because that's what's drilled into our heads," he explained of the emotions he felt.

But instead, he eventually found things like meditation, yoga, and golf to help get him through some dark times.

"We're always taught: see the objective, engage the objective, through the objective, right? In no different terms, it's kind of the same thing in golf," he said of his philosophy.

He's hoping other military members and first responders feel the same.

"These things got me through an 18-month nightmare," he said.

Now his next mission is his mental health nonprofit called Next 18. Next 18 started hosting three to four-day golf camps this year, incorporating breathing, functional movement and camaraderie. It also helps the other participants know what the others are going through.

"I retained shrapnel from Iraq, but I was wounded both in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Lt. Col. Jonathan Freyer.

Freyer has been in the military more than three decades.

"I'm going on 34 years in the military and I'm still a reservist, so at my level, I really never had time to take a knee and sort of reflect on what's happened," he said of his experience.

Recently, he's started taking that time to heal, and said Next 18 is unlike other programs.

"I don't want to say it's revolutionary, but it's something I haven't experienced," Freyer said.

"It's mental health. It's almost using golf as an analogy to life."

The camp at Fire Ridge is one of Next 18's first. McDonell hopes to expand and some day offer them across the country.

"I live by a lot of the values I was taught in the military. Honor, integrity. I say I'm going to do something, I do it," he said.

Helping to heal, one swing at a time.

"I don't see working with mental health as a sign of weakness whatsoever," Freyer said. "It makes us stronger. One term I've heard is 'post-traumatic growth,' that through trauma, you can grow."

If you'd like to learn more about Next 18, you can visit www.next18.org.

If you'd like to nominate an Everyday Hero, send Natalie a message at NShepherd@cbs58.com.

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