Inventing New Possibilities
Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative unlocks a new life for Sgt. Matt Gulick.
On August 25, 2020, Matt Gulick pitched the presentation of his life. Between deep breaths, he looked into the camera on his computer and told the CEO of the Don Ryan Center for Innovation why the center should invest in his invention — and in him as an entrepreneur.
Matt had spent the past six years working on a device for pet food bags that makes it easier to both pour and reseal. The virtual meeting was Matt’s chance to get the support he needed to develop his product and bring it to market. It was a presentation that would have wracked him with self-doubt and debilitated his speech a couple of years ago. But the U.S. Marines veteran had a secret weapon at his disposal this time — anxiety-coping techniques he learned as a 2019 graduate of Shepherd Center’s SHARE (Shaping Hope and Recovery Excellence) Military Initiative.
“I was able to control my speech, keep my composure and answer tough questions,” Matt says. “All those small things I learned at SHARE combined to create a big opportunity for me.”
Indeed, he now has a startup business deal with the Don Ryan Center for Innovation and a team of specialists working to help turn his invention into a commercial reality. The deal would be a significant achievement for anyone. For Matt, it was something more — a testament to how he’s been able to reinvent himself.
A Life on the Edge
Between 2001 and 2007, Sgt. Matt Gulick pulled three tours of duty in Iraq as a combat engineer with Marine Wing Support Detachment 273. He specialized in demolition and detonation — sweeping for enemy explosives, defusing landmines and using charges to blast through doors and other obstacles in urban warfare. It was a high-stakes, adrenaline-fueled role. It was also a prescription for long-term traumatic brain injury due to the repeated concussive damage Matt was sustaining.
“It was like being a football player,” he says. “There wasn’t one single thing I could pinpoint. It was just the reps of doing my job and accumulating damage along the way.”
By Matt’s third deployment to Iraq, he was noticing personality changes, dizziness and memory issues. He was also developing chronic pain in his neck, hands and back, along with numbness in his legs. After leaving active duty in 2007, at age 25, Matt attempted to reintegrate into a civilian life he’d never known as an adult. His chronic pain and mental health worsened — triggering violent outbursts, confusion and constant frustration. Matt’s marriage ended, he was mostly unemployed and he became reliant on painkillers and alcohol.
“I retreated from life,” Matt says. “I had this beard down to my chest, often sitting alone in my living room, holding a shotgun. I was permanently on edge. I was always this close to either snapping or breaking down and crying.”
His tipping point came when a second relationship ended. Matt reached out to a contact at a veteran-support nonprofit, the Vantage Point Foundation, who had long begged Matt to try SHARE. “I just told him, OK,” Matt says. “And I’m so thankful I did. Shepherd Center saved my life.”
Buying in Pays Off
The SHARE Military Initiative at Shepherd Center is a comprehensive rehabilitation program specializing in empowering post-9/11 veterans and service members with brain injury to live with hope and purpose by providing high-quality, comprehensive and personalized rehabilitation care. Service members receive care at no cost to them, thanks to generous donations from individuals, foundations and corporations.
AJ Veal, outreach coordinator at SHARE and a veteran, remembers Matt when he first entered the program.
“He was angry with the world, and he wanted you to know it,” Veal recalls.
Gradually, though, the two bonded over music, a fantasy football league and their shared fraternity. Matt’s perspective slowly changed, too.
“It comes down to buying into what SHARE is all about, understanding that if you put in the work, you have people here who want to make things better for you,” Veal says. “After two or three weeks, Matt started opening up. That willingness changed everything.”
Matt’s willingness to be vulnerable came about for a couple of reasons, he explains.
“First of all, they listened to me,” Matt says. “They also helped me address my chronic pain with techniques I’d never heard of before. My muscles felt like they unlocked for the first time in 15 years.”
Getting his pain under control was instrumental to everything else. Matt committed to his recreational, occupational and speech therapy. He applied himself to learning pain management and social anxiety techniques that would enable him to enjoy life more.
Near the end of his time at Shepherd Center, Matt told his story to a delegation of leaders visiting from the Military Service Initiative of the George W. Bush Institute.
“I was so proud of him for doing that,” Veal says. “This was a guy who, when he started, couldn’t talk to me — a fellow veteran — for five minutes without getting ticked off. Now he’s standing up before a group of 50 big shots, calmly telling his story.”
Equipped to Succeed
Today, home in Bluffton, South Carolina, Matt’s diving into creative interests like tattoo artistry, painting and sculpting. He’s getting out in nature again, too, hunting deer, turkeys and hogs. And the former combat engineer whets his problem-solving appetite by continuing to invent new products and securing patents for his work, drawing on an inner MacGyver that emerged during his time in the Marines.
One of Matt’s favorite titles, though, is father. What he learned through SHARE has helped him rebuild his relationship with his 9-year-old son, Breyden.
“Before, my pain and frustration would ruin so many outings with him,” Matt says. “Now, I can manage my pain and my emotions. I can go outside with him, take him hunting. It’s not about my issues anymore. It’s about tickle fights and having fun.”
His life is also about helping other veterans still mired in the darkness that he knows all too well. Matt’s long-term mission is to use his inventions to create entrepreneurial opportunities for other veterans.
“I want to bring in folks who are working on overcoming traumatic brain injuries and mental health issues, and have them work with me on these projects,” he says. “Keep them busy, focus them on a task, help them get oriented again to things they can accomplish in civilian life.”
And for those veterans who need it — and are ready — he constantly recommends Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative.
“A lot of times they’ll say, ‘Well, it’s not going to cure me,’” Matt says. “Sure, it’s not a cure. There is no magic cure for everything we bring home. But Shepherd Center gives you the tools you need to navigate the issues in your life. They equip you. The rest of it — what you do with those tools — is up to you.”
Check out Matt's Story of Courage video here.
Written by Phillip Jordan
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.