Retired Solana Beach Marine Corps major helps veterans recover 'visible and invisible' injuries

Nick Marcolongo, his wife, LIsa, and son Rocco are seen on the Sesame Street set, which Nico said "was almost surreal.  There I was sitting on the steps at 123 Sesame Street, walking around Mr. Hooper's store and climbing in Oscar's trash can."
Nick Marcolongo, his wife, LIsa, and son Rocco are seen on the Sesame Street set, which Nico said "was almost surreal. There I was sitting on the steps at 123 Sesame Street, walking around Mr. Hooper's store and climbing in Oscar's trash can."

By Kathy Day

Nico Marcolongo is going back to Sesame Street – well, sort of.

The Solana Beach resident and retired Marine Corps major and his family were featured on the April 2009 prime time show “Military Families Near and Far,” in one segment of “Talk, Listen, Connect.” The multimedia outreach program that includes TV segments, magazines and support materials is aimed at helping children and their families cope with deployments and injuries – visible and invisible.

In one segment, in which Marcolongo says “I lost my smile,” his son Rocco – then 3 — talks about his daddy crying a lot after he got home and then adds, “My daddy is still in Iraq.”

It was a revealing moment for the tough Marine.

“With physical injuries, it’s very obvious – you get on it right away,” he said, but with “an invisible wound you don’t understand what is happening to you.”

Now manager of the Challenged Athlete Foundation’s Operation Rebound, the La Jolla High school graduate, his wife Lisa – also a San Diego native — and Rocco shared the story of his invisible scars from post-traumatic stress disorder. He calls it post-traumatic stress injury, saying if you lost a limb “you wouldn’t call it amputee disorder.”

On April 18, he will participate in a conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., when Sesame Street unveils its findings from “Talk, Listen, Connect.” He will be answering questions from the perspective of an injured service member and how the findings helped his family, and particularly his son.

Moderated by Bob Woodruff, the ABC newsman injured while covering the war in Iraq, and his wife Lee, the program also will include military medical and Defense Department personnel, researchers and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Joining them at the end will be Sesame Workshop’s senior VP for outreach and educational practices — and a skit featuring bilingual Muppet Rosita, who Marcolongo says with a smile, is on his speed-dial list.

“Sesame Street’s work has been groundbreaking on a national scale,” he said in an interview on April 2. “It creates a context for children to understand … it’s an injury, they still love you.”

A veteran of 12 years in the Marines who served two tours in Iraq, Marcolongo said he first realized he was suffering from “PTSI” after his second deployment to Iraq ended in 2007. Acknowledging that he felt depressed and anxious – “like the world got really small” – he said when he realized he wasn’t feeling any love for his wife Lisa or 3-year-old son and felt more committed to the military, he knew something was wrong.

It took him a while to get his head around his injury, but when he did he set out to find a solution. Marcolongo, a major who served with the Marines Regimental Combat Team 7 in Western Anbar, put an ad in the newspaper seeking a support group for military officers facing similar issues. But it was four months before anyone responded and that person was an enlisted man. He knew then, he said, that he wasn’t alone.

With the help of his wife, who works with the Elizabeth Hospice, they found a place to meet and the group grew. Today, under the leadership of Bill Rider and Jack Lyon, the American Combat Veterans of War has a permanent facility in Oceanside where troops get assistance in transitioning back to civilian life.

And Marcolongo has his own role in aiding those who came home from war with injuries of their own. CAF’s Operation Rebound program offers opportunities through sports and support to both military and first responders who have permanent physical injuries.

“You have to want to get better, whether you are an amputee or have an invisible injury,” he said. “Living a healthier lifestyle can lessen the negative consequences you have.”

He proudly escorts a visitor around the center, which features a full gym with specialized equipment, a court that can be used for wheelchair basketball and classes. There are also story boards about the athletes who have found new life through sports and their equipment – such as the specially designed handcycle that Oscar “Oz” Sanchez rode to his Paralympics gold medal.

And Marcolongo displays a sports card – just like the baseball cards he collected as a boy – that tells Sanchez’s story: “In 2001, while being transferred to the Navy SEALS, Oz was in a motorcycle accident that resulted in a spinal cord injury, causing paralysis and neurological complications.”

Marcolongo and his wife also volunteer at the Naval Regional Medical Center, where he takes Tally, his black Lab service dog from Canine Companions for Independence who often brings a smile to patients and is a calming influence on Marcolongo at moments when he still feels anxious.

He also still works with Buddy Bowl Inc., a football charity for injured military and first responders that he founded and is now in eight states; helps with surf clinics in Del Mar; and thinks of new ways to deal with the future for injured military personnel.

“As the war winds down, we will continue to see major impacts,” he said, noting that as well as helping those injured, the ongoing programs can help keep the military ready for future events.

For him, the hope comes in knowing “there is a way to overcome anything if you want to,” he said. “You may have an injury or disability that will be with you for the rest of your life, but you don’t have to let it define your life.”

For more information, visit www.operationrebound.org or email nico@challengedathletes.org.

To see Nico Marcolongo’s Sesame Street appearance in 2009, visit www.familiesnearandfar.org/resources/changes/ and click on “Homecomings” and then click on “For Families: Homecoming Stories”

   
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