Photo: Lori Van Buren, Albany Times Union
As he readies for his fifth season on the East Coast Snocross Series, one would be hard-pressed to find a competitor more grateful to be racing snowmobiles than Matt Stonesifer.
The circuit season kicks off Saturday in New Hampshire and, among the many blessings in his life, including his first child due in the spring with wife Sarah, Stonesifer’s road to the ECSS has been more challenging than most could imagine.
An Army staff sergeant and team leader for an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit, the risk was high during two Afghanistan deployments (2011-2013) and Stonesifer has suffered from the effects of exposure to nearly 100 explosions of improvised explosive devices (IED’s) from his tours.
Living with chronic headaches, Stonesifer has been dealing with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), a brain disruption that has affected all facets of his life.
Stonesifer uses his love of snowmobiles, which began with riding with his father Dan back in his hometown of Newmarket, N.H., as an outlet to help forget about the pain, even if momentarily.
“It’s an obsession now. After my first deployment, I went through this period that I was going to try everything I dreamed about trying. I just went for it,” Stonesifer said. “It instantly clicked that I was in love. It is a rush; 10 minutes would be a long race, but it is the most fun that I’ve ever had in my life.”
For a time, there were very few aspects of life that Stonesifer, 29, would categorize as fun.
“I have headaches, every morning I have a headache when I wake up until I go to sleep,” Stonesifer said. “Some days, it is more reasonable, some days I can’t go to work.”
Stonesifer joined the Army right out of high school in July of 2007 and eventually made his way to Fort Drum and the 760th EOD company.
His first tour led him to the southern tier of Afghanistan, the Kandahar province.
“Our first deployment was very active. A lot of people picture Afghanistan as big armored trucks, bomb suits, things like that,” Stonesifer said. “We didn’t have any of that. We came in on a helicopter, dropped into the desert, walked three, four, five days, they pick you up in a helicopter and go back to base.”
Stonesifer and his unit were tasked not only with identifying IED’s, but to retrieve them for evidence before overseeing a controlled explosion, the sum of which eventually led to his TBI condition.
“We were significantly closer to the explosion when we blew off the explosives,” Stonesifer said. “Being close, the blasts cumulatively kept adding up. You don’t realize it at the time. We’d find them (IED’s), use remote beams to probe into the ground, get it out of there, which meant pulling it with a rope. You try to collect evidence. They prosecute terrorists using forensic evidence.”
Instructed to trust his instincts, Stonesifer considers himself fortunate.
“I never directly stepped on one. I was very close to some that went off unintentionally,” Stonesifer said. “I was within 20 meters of a 100-pounder once. I’ve almost stepped on land mines. We learned in school to trust your gut. You stop and look down, and you say, ‘There is an IED’. I got really lucky.”
As exposure to the explosions piled up, so did Stonesifer’s headaches, a condition he tried to conceal with near disastrous results.
“After first deployment, I was trying to keep my things hidden,” Stonesifer said. “I went through a spell with drinking, but I cleaned it up. I came to the realization that I was drinking myself to death. You just try to make everything else go away. Drinking does not make PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) better.”
With conditions worsening, Stonesifer – sober now for six years – sought help at the Fort Drum TBI clinic.
“I went on my second deployment and everything went downhill fast. You can’t hide it,” Stonesifer said. “I wasn’t sleeping, I was taking 10 times the medication that you should take. She (Sarah) had moved in and said she wasn’t going to stay unless I got help.”
“He had gotten sober but he was still going to work, coming home, and going to sleep,” Sarah Stonesifer said. “That was it, that was his whole life. He was hiding.”
Matt Stonesifer also struggled reconciling his injuries with those others suffered by members of his unit.
“I worked with guys that came home with no eyes, missing legs,” Stonesifer said. “(I thought) I had a lesser injury. I looked at it that I wasn’t really hurt because I knew guys missing legs.”
The condition led Stonesifer to open his own home inspection business – “MIL inSPECt” – as he needed schedule flexibility due to the uncertainty of his headaches.
“It is why I’m self-employed,” Stonesifer said. “I tell my customers that I have an altered schedule. Everyone has been very supportive.”
Stonesifer has worked with the Boston Veterans Administration neurologist Katherine Turk, a noted expert on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and has been open about his condition the past two years.
Fitted with a specialized racing helmet from FLY Racing to reduce his risk in the event of a crash, Stonesifer keeps tabs on CTE research as the disease is a current topic in the National Football League.
“I have to be conscious of crashing. If I take a header into the ground, I have to make sure I don’t take the hard hit,” Stonesifer said. “You see football players that have CTE and they go downhill. I’m aware that you have a brain injury and things go downhill degeneratively at some point. I really try to make the best of where I’m at any point of time.”
The ECSS racers will be competing in Lake George on Feb. 2 and at the Warrensburg Fairgrounds for a two-day event the following weekend.
Sarah Stonesifer is eager to watch her husband race his 2018 Arctic Cat TR-6000 sled, doing what he enjoys so much.
“Watching him race, he is a different person. He is out there having fun, doing what he loves,” Sarah Stonesifer said. “He gets to be, he doesn’t have to be the guy with the brain injury.
“It’s the one thing he has control over,” she said.
Sean Martin, a local freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to the Times Union