“My Transition” #40: Mike Ergo — Marine Infantry to Vet Center Counselor
Mike’s story is nothing short of incredible — from Fallujah combat vet to counselor and Kona Ironman, this is inspirational.
At a certain point during Operation Phantom Fury, so many friends had been killed that I consciously accepted that I would eventually die there and decided be the best Marine I could with the time remaining before I caught a spray of bullets to the face. Fast-forward a couple years to civilian life, I didn’t plan to be alive so I was unconsciously deciding to make no long-term plans and trying to get every ounce of fun, booze, drugs, trouble I could in the moment.
Walnut Creek, CA— Mike’s service as a US Marine in Fallujah was difficult to comprehend or live with. He tried drinking, drugs, and self-destruction. He felt empty and alone but ultimately turned to love, counseling, mentorship and triathlons to erase the demons of war. He graduated from UC Berkeley, works as a veterans counselor and recently completed the Iron Man in Kona. Here’s his incredible story.
DJS: Why did you join the military?
I joined the military for a few reasons:
First, I valued service to others. I had done missions work with churches growing up and working towards a common goal that would help other people felt right. My grandfather told me about Marines from World War II that he knew through his law practice. I heard stories about Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal and how the Marines who fought on those islands to defend against Imperial Japan was an incredible honor and an even greater sacrifice.
The second reason was I wanted to do something great. I wanted to accomplish something that only I could earn. Growing up in the upper-upper middle class, I knew what it was like to be given things. I appreciated this, but the only experiences I had truly earning something on my own merit was playing freshman football and trying out for the jazz band in high school. I had a growing fear that I could live my life simply “getting by” or given opportunities from my family’s hard work. Deep down there was an urge to forge my own path and earn my own way. I enlisted the spring of 2001 before this feeling went away, knowing a future of mediocrity was a looming possibility.
Thirdly, I was stubborn and somewhat of a contrarian. My parents wanted me to go to college. They were really excited I had been accepted and given a scholarship to a university near Stuttgart, Germany. So, naturally, I horrified them by enlisting in the Marine Corps delayed entry program and then failing out of high school, sealing my fate.
My grandfather told me about Marines from World War II that he knew… I heard stories about Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal…
DJS: What was your favorite part about being in the Marine Corps infantry? Any good stories?
Before I found my way to the infantry, I was in school to become a saxophone player in the Marine Corps Band. Previously, I had passed the audition and enlisted to be in the band. This was pre-9/11. I had a nagging feeling to go infantry, but I didn’t listen to it until I had gone through boot camp and MCT. At “Marine Corps Band Camp” as my grunt friends affectionately called it, I learned the band was not for me. I wanted to be in the mud, carrying a pack, being miserable through hard physical labor and be able to talk shit about it later.
After SOI, I got stationed at Camp Lejeune with 1/8 Marines. I showed up to my platoon with only one other Marine. The “boot drop” in 1/8 had happened 6 months prior and so now everyone was senior to me. Life sucked for a while. But I earned my respect from others. My favorite part about being in the infantry was the close bonds I had with these Marines. Bonds forged in miserable training, hardship, and war. I knew that without hesitation, my guys would do whatever it took to protect me, just as I would for them. This was such a powerful, primal, feeling that taught me what real love and kinship was. I was part of an elite group of warriors, whose only real fear was letting down others in the unit. This was genuine altruism with a purpose.
I was part of an elite group of warriors, whose only real fear was letting down others in the unit.
DJS: What were the most important skills or lessons that you learned?
The most important skills I learned were discipline, selflessness and courage.
Discipline was something I lacked growing up. Now it was required of me. For me, discipline meant the willingness to do things I did not want to do because ti was right and it would better the group. Even if I did not directly benefit from these actions, I benefitted from fulfilling these requirements and becoming mentally stronger. Courage came by recognizing fear and still being disciplined to do the right thing. The willingness to accept that fear but not let it control me. Both of these skills taught me to be more comfortable with discomfort. These three intangibles have served me well to achieve things beyond what I previously thought was possible, even after combat.
One story that still gives me goosebumps to recall was almost exactly 13 years ago today. My fire team was chasing 4 guys who were setting up to ambush my squad. This was in Fallujah, South Queens district. I was terrified jumping over walls and clearing multilevel houses with only three other Marines, but I knew if we didn’t the insurgents were going to get the drop on my guys from some hidden spot…
It was now or never. In the fourth house we had cleared, my point man opened the metal door to the small bathroom across the fall from the concrete stairs. We took fire from two insurgents at point blank range. All of us exchanged fire from that now-closed door. The dark house got darker with smoke. After Weis-Gomez took a round to the helmet, falling down, and Lee yelled something I couldn’t hear over the shooting, I felt a string of rounds go between me and my point man. I remember thinking, “This is it. Fuck it. I hope my guys make it out alive.”
I didn’t cry out to a god I did not believe in. There was a bit of pride to go down fighting with the guys I loved. Then while still firing, I surrendered to what would come. This is still the most alive I have ever felt. What happened next still is beyond my understanding. I remember feeling my entire body: every single cell, every hair growing out of my body, being able to almost “see” from everywhere on my body. Then the line between where “I” ended and “everything else” began started to dissolve and my consciousness connected to and spread out through my Marines, the concrete house, the insurgents shooting back at us, and outwards into infinity.
It was a timeless, peaceful place. It lasted forever and for only a millisecond. When I came back to waking consciousness I was shooting again and my team ended up surviving and killing these insurgents. Weis-Gomez was alive and had only been hit in the kevlar. Obviously, this experience did not fit into my worldview and I kept it a secret, even from myself. For many years, I drank to forget it.
DJS: Did you know what you were going to do when you left the Marines?
I had no idea what I was going to do when I left the Marine Corps, other than be with my girlfriend (now wife), go to community college, and smoke weed. My second deployment to Iraq wiped me out mentally and spiritually. I wanted to put it all behind me and move on. I was still proud of being a Marine, but symptoms of PTSD were eroding my sense of self and my trust in the world.
My second deployment to Iraq wiped me out mentally and spiritually. I wanted to put it all behind me and move on.
DJS: Did you face any struggles during transition?
I was diagnosed with PTSD not too long after coming home. For awhile I dealt with this by working out all the time and staying busy with school and work. Eventually this became exhausting and I returned to my old friend, alcohol. I drank more and more, watching my body return back to civilian form: fat and nasty. I started missing work and classes. I lied to my girlfriend and broke her trust. I did all sorts of things to feed my addiction. I was ashamed of myself overtime I saw the tattooed “Semper Fidelis” on my chest. Worst of all, I accepted pity from others and took on my own self-pity. Everybody owed me. It was the government’s fault I became this way. I deserved to binge drink and embarrass myself because I had been in combat and lost friends.
This self-pity, grief, PTSD, and lack of purpose were a perfect storm of destruction in my life. I still managed to get into UC Berkeley, but my relationship with my wife and family was heading in a downward spiral. One ray f hope I had was getting counseling at the Concord Vet Center. I only went because a Vietnam vet neighbor strongly suggested I go because in me, he saw his own struggles from decades before. I begrudgingly went and stuck with it.
This self-pity, grief, PTSD, and lack of purpose were a perfect storm of destruction in my life.
I found hope. One thing I discovered is that I did not expect to make it home from Fallujah. At a certain point during Operation Phantom Fury, so many friends had been killed that I consciously accepted that I would eventually die there and decided be the best Marine I could with the time remaining before I caught a spray of bullets to the face. Fast-forward a couple years to civilian life, I didn’t plan to be alive so I was unconsciously deciding to make no long-term plans and trying to get every ounce of fun, booze, drugs, trouble I could in the moment. There were many small epiphanies along the way thanks to my counselors and each one helped me step closer towards reclaiming the person I wanted to be.
Things came to a head in 2012 when I came clean to my wife about all of the lies I had told her. She gave me a choice: her or the booze. I chose her, though I hesitated for more than a split second because life without alcohol and cannabis was terrifying to me. They were the only things that helped me relax and avoid going into a panic attack or crying uncontrollably. Of course I conveniently let myself forget that I would cry into my beer after having 10 or 15. So I started the painful journey of full sobriety. Feeling the full tidal wave of feelings I had numbed myself from the last 7 years. Through AA, I found some other vets who were living sober and even enjoying it. I stuck around long enough to start feeling some of that peace myself.
Eventually I found this peace in endurance sports. First it was GORUCK. I did a challenge, light, and then heavy. These were monumental in helping me regain confidence in myself and my ability to tolerate physical and mental distress.
Then I found triathlon, and specifically Ironman. The structured routine of working out and moving my body has gotten me out of my head. Swimming on a swim team has brought me a community of people I care about and like to be around. Triathlon has become a way I honor the 29 Marines from 1/8 that fought with me in Fallujah and were killed there or on subsequent deployments. Honoring them through these races helps me become a better version of myself. It helps me accept the pain of loss and then connect to the joy and gratitude I have for knowing these guys.
I write about it now on my blog transitionsfromwar.com
DJS: You got your Bachelor’s and Masters in Social Work from UC Berkeley… why? What drives you to help others?
Working for the Vet Center and serving other veterans brings meaning and fulfilment to my life. Serving others is something I have done my whole life and getting paid a living wage to do it now is incredible. For a couple semesters, I foundered and changed majors at least 3 times.
Finally my Vet Center counselor asked me what my purpose was. She asked if I had considered becoming a social worker and therapist for veterans like she was. This was another “aha” moment and I committed myself to getting my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work. I knew a fellow Marine, Nathan Johnson, who worked at the Vet Center and had done just that.
Working for the Vet Center and serving other veterans brings meaning and fulfilment to my life. Serving others is something I have done my whole life and getting paid a living wage to do it now is incredible.
DJS: You now work at the Concord Vet Center. How does it feel to give back?
If I could go back to those first few months after the Marine Corps and know one thing, it would be “everything we put off feeling will come back to us eventually.” I could have saved myself a lot of pain and misery knowing this.
I could have avoided causing damage and wreckage to other people. But one thing I have learned is that journeying into the darkness has made my quest to find the light that much stronger. I’m not sure I would have listened or have been ready to give up abusing alcohol and drugs back then. Reality was that terrifying to me.
“… everything we put off feeling will come back to us eventually.”
DJS: Tell me about what you do on a daily basis at the Vet Center?
An average day at the Vet Center includes offering individual and group therapy to fellow veterans. I help them move towards the goals they set and ask questions that help them examine their unconscious habits and beliefs.
I rarely give advice, because I believe we all have the answers inside us and only need the courage to be introspective and honest with ourselves. The unconscious mind protects us from a lot of this truth, so it is a delicate process.
Some sessions involve processing trauma. Some involve connecting veterans with a community, whether it’s Team RWB, GORUCK, any of the local veterans organizations, or their own neighbors. We work right next to the Iron Horse trail, so sometimes my sessions involve walking a couple miles and talking. We also have meditation and yoga, which have been invaluable in my life for getting me back into my own body. Many veterans and other trauma survivors spend an inordinate amount of time detached from the body, living in the mind.
What one piece of advice do you have for anyone reading this?
My one piece of advice to someone reading this is to take a break from everything. Find some time to breathe in a quiet setting and just experience this moment. Most of us are so caught up in who we think are, who we think we should be, what should or shouldn’t be happening that we miss this moment.
These can be an esoteric idea until we actually do it. The mental chatter will still be there, but we can step outside and even observe that happening. This has been the most powerful thing for me to make changes in my life and to feel at peace with the things that are out of my control in this world. It’s akin to Neo traveling back into the matrix but knowing a lot of it is only an illusion.
Find some time to breathe in a quiet setting and just experience this moment.
Mike is too modest to boast all over this blog, so I’ll do it for him. He recently completed the IRONMAN in Kona and media has covered it extensively:
I grew up in Walnut Creek, CA. I enlisted in the Marine Corps during the spring of 2001. I served with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines and deployed to Iraq twice (2003 and 2004–05). The second deployment we spearheaded Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah in November 2004.
After being honorably discharged in 2005, I returned home and married my girlfriend. Sarah and I have two children that were both born in November. This changed how I experience November. It used to be all about death and destruction. Now it is about new life and joy.
I earned two degrees from UC Berkeley in social work (2010 and 2012). I live with family in Walnut Creek and have worked at the Concord Vet Center since 2012. In my spare time I train for Ironman triathlons, hike the hills with my kids, and find new ways to eat healthy food. Right now it’s all about raising broccoli sprouts. I write about all of this on my blog, transitionsfromwar.com.
Team RWB — Team RWB’s mission is to enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity.
Vet Centers — Vet Centers understand and appreciate Veterans’ war experiences while assisting them and their family members toward a successful post-war adjustment in or near their community.
Veterans PATH — Veteran’s PATH enables returning veterans to rediscover meaning, purpose, and joy in their lives through mindfulness, meditation, and a safe community.
Are you interested in sharing your story of transition? Or are you a military transition specialist who would like to share some tips? Send me an email at MilitaryTransitionStories@gmail.com
The goal of this series is to bridge the military-civilian divide in three ways: 1) Highlight the incredible skills and value that military veterans of all generations and backgrounds bring into the workplace. 2) Help transitioning veterans understand their true value and therefore aim as high as possible in their employment and educational goals. 3) Discuss the common struggles, pitfalls and indicators of success in veteran transition, in order to provide better transition assistance from both military and civilian sides.