Marine Corps Veteran, Praised for His Efforts to Assist Wounded Warriors, Named Community Hero
Nico Marcolongo, a Marine Corps officer who saw two deployments to Iraq, is a KPBS and National Conflict Resolution Center Community Hero for his success in bringing hope and opportunity to injured veterans through sports.
Marcolongo is now the senior program manager for Operation Rebound at the Challenged Athletes Foundation in Sorrento Valley. The program uses sports to strengthen the mental and physical well being of permanently injured veterans, according to the program’s website. It also provides opportunities to help veterans reintegrate into the community.
Operation Rebound’s motto is from “frontline to finish line.” It empowers individuals to fulfill whatever athletic ambitions he or she aspires to, no matter the injury.
“When I go to the hospital and I see someone lying in bed — who a month or two before was leading troops on the battlefield, and in a millisecond they lose their limbs, or they are blinded, or they are paralyzed — they are thinking what’s next,” Marcolongo said. “I’m able to tell them they are going to be able to do all the things they used to do and things they never dreamed of.”
Raúl Romero is a Vietnam veteran and athlete affiliated with Operation Rebound. Romero credits Marcolongo with encouraging him to stay active despite his leg being amputated below the knee. Romero eventually regained his ability to run and cycle and has competed in such events as the IRONMAN 70.3 in Oceanside.
“Nico has this enthusiasm that’s contagious,” Romero said. “You cannot be disappointed or negative around him. He’ll make you come out and start looking at things differently. Not only that, he is always there for you. You can call him and he’ll answer. He’s always working.”
Operation Rebound provides veteran athletes with grants for sports equipment, sporting event fees and travel expenses. Operation Rebound competitors have been involved in a wide variety of athletic endeavors, from triathlons to rowing to zumba. Wounded veterans can also participate in a surf clinic, a program of the Naval Medical Center San Diego in collaboration with the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Marcolongo said he estimates Operation Rebound has assisted more than 2,700 veterans since its inception in 2004.
Marcolongo first became connected to the Challenged Athletes Foundation in 2003. He was still in the Marine Corps and active in a nonprofit called the Buddy Bowl, which raises charitable funds through an annual flag football tournament. Marcolongo established a Buddy Bowl fund specifically for injured veterans and first responders and the nonprofit eventually merged with Operation Rebound, where he began working in 2008.
“When I got here I found out quickly it wasn’t just the physical wounds of war that we were helping to heal,” he said. “A lot of the veterans I was working with also had emotional and psychological scars. I could relate to them because of my experience with that.”
Marcolongo is candid about his personal fallout from his second deployment to Iraq. He said he returned very different from the way he left — feeling depressed and anxious. He recalls one day walking on the beach far ahead of his wife and son. His son said, “Daddy’s still in Iraq.”
“I thought that was really profound for a 3-and-half-year-old child,” Marcolongo said. “I knew that I needed to get help. That had become my mission. And I knew if I didn’t get help for myself, then I wouldn’t be able to help others.”
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. Determined to get better, he said he soon realized that other people were dealing with the same struggles, so he started “reaching out to veterans’ groups, speaking one on one with vets, and advocating for their care as well.”
Marcolongo’s personal experience with PTSD landed him and his family in an episode of Sesame Street called “Coming Home: Military Families Coping with Change.” In it, the Marcolongos and other families shared the challenges an entire family can face when a veteran returns home.
In many ways, they are the same challenges Operation Rebound athletes confront as they adjust to a new reality.
Marcolongo says providing an avenue for recovery is important for veterans.
“Providing that motivation for them, letting them know that we are here to support them in whatever they want to do, in a sport of their choosing, in the time and place of their choosing, that’s where the empowerment comes in,” Marcolongo said.