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Difference Maker

Healing the visible – and invisible – scars of war through flag football

Iraqi war veteran Nico Marcolongo founded the ‘Buddy Bowl’ to benefit military veterans.

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“I decided that, when that happened, we were going to make this more than a football tournament,” he says. The players passed a coffee can around, raising $550 for the families of the fallen.

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In 2003, Buddy Bowl became a nonprofit.

“We thought we could help more people that way,” Marcolongo says. That same year, the Challenged Athletes Foundation asked if Buddy Bowl would support its program. Later, the CAF established Operation Rebound, which offers coaching and financial support to disabled military personnel and first responders who compete in road races and triathlons – and, of course, Buddy Bowl.

Then war intervened. Marcolongo was deployed twice to Iraq as a Marine intelligence officer, for two months in 2005 and for nine months a year later.

In early 2007, he came home from his second tour under a mental cloud he couldn’t seem to shake. Suffering from debilitating depression and anxiety attacks, Marcolongo was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and given an honorable discharge Feb. 15, 2008, after 14 years of service.

But PTSD didn’t slow him down for long. Instead, he used it as a platform to reach out to even more military veterans suffering from the same “invisible wound.”

“It took me seven months to get my uniform on and get back out in public,” Marcolongo says. “I put an ad in the paper and started speaking in my uniform” about PTSD to encourage other vets to get help, he says.

His wife, Lisa, 6-year-old son, Rocco, and even the family dog, Tali, are part of his healing entourage. Together they appeared on a “Sesame Street” special about military families coping with change.

Lisa, who ran the tournament when Marcolongo was deployed in Iraq, once signed a Christmas card to Marcolongo “Buddy Bowl supporter for life,” while they were still dating. A year later, in January 2002, Marcolongo proposed with a football-shaped diamond ring.

“Nico believes in everything he is doing,” Lisa says. “If you need help finding help, he will help you. I call him ‘information central.’ He leaves his cellphone by his bed and takes calls at 2 a.m. from vets or active military who are having a crisis. If they ... just need someone to talk to, he is there.”

As suicide rates in the armed forces climb, and more returning military are diagnosed with mental trauma, Marcolongo’s own struggles have only deepened his connection with the challenged athletes who compete in the San Diego Buddy Bowl tournament with prosthetic limbs or in wheelchairs, 22 athletes to date.

“Nico is very involved in the community as a whole,” says Lauren Hinton, the marketing director for Operation Rebound. “He has a huge impact on the groups he represents.” The cheerleading from Marcolongo, along with the way Buddy Bowl re-creates the kind of team experience the participants had in the military, has a healing effect. “All those things add up to the next steps to make them whole again,” Ms. Hinton says.

As part of his tireless efforts to raise interest in and support for Buddy Bowl, Marcolongo maintains an e-mail distribution list of about 4,000. Last fall one of those missives ended up in the in-box of Chip Fagan, the organizer of the Millis flag football league. Inspired by what Buddy Bowl was doing, he picked up the phone and called Marcolongo.

“I said, ‘We can’t get a team out to San Diego,’ so Nico said, ‘What if we bring Buddy Bowl to you?’ ” Mr. Fagan recalls.

“I said, ‘I do not have the time to do this.’ And he said, ‘Good! Let’s set a date.’ ”