“I was digging me a hole, big enough to bury my soul. Weight of the world, I gotta carry my own.” – Mac Miller, “2009”
Mike Ergo enlisted in the Marines in the spring of 2001, in a world, as of yet, untouched by the horrific events of September 11, 2001. He had no idea how much his world was going to change or the impact it would have on the rest of his life.
When Mike enlisted, he chose the delayed entry program for the Marines, as he was still in high school. His parents had dreams of him heading off to a college in Germany and living happily ever after. Naturally, being quite a contrarian, Mike enlisted in the Marines, to the horror of his parents. Why the Marines? Mike valued service to others, which he had gained experience with through church mission trips, and he wanted to accomplish something that only he could earn instead of just getting by. He was also inspired by stories his grandfather told of World War 2 Marines fighting in the Pacific. Originally, Mike had plans of joining the Marine Corps Band as a saxophonist and had passed the audition for that. While at “band camp,” he realized he wanted to feel the sense of pride of carrying your gear through mud and sand with a group of brothers around you who felt the same thing. He enlisted in the Infantry and began his career at Camp Lejeune with the 1/8 Marines. He developed close bonds and respect with his fellow Marines through training, hardship, and war. The powerful, primal feeling of knowing that you were part of an elite group of warriors whose only fear was letting each other down gave Mike the sense of genuine altruism. The Marines taught Mike discipline (something he didn’t have much of growing up), courage (by recognizing fear & still being disciplined to do the right thing), and selflessness, as well as being able to be comfortable with discomfort.
Shortly after, Mike was deployed to Iraq. In his own words, here’s an account of what he encountered while there. The account is graphic but real life.
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 multi level 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. Now or never. In the fourth house we had cleared, my point man opened the metal door to the small bathroom across the hall 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 he fell 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 those 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.
While Mike made it back to the United States after his second deployment, 21 of his fellow Marines did not. He carried the weight of them, along with a hefty dose of survivor’s guilt. However, he didn’t know that’s what it was. He came back a changed man, but still had to fit into the conventional standards of going to college, dating, and dealing with his unfamiliar feelings. He attended community college for a while and began dating his wife. He began to recognize that he had this sense of eroding trust in the world and he began questioning himself. He turned to drugs and alcohol to deal with his emotions. He pushed everyone away, lied to excuse his behavior, and hid his demons. His “Semper Fidelis” chest tattoo, once a symbol of the pride he felt, became something that mocked him. He managed to get into UC Berkeley but his relationships were suffering. He was lying and feeding into his addictions. He started attending counseling sessions at the Concord Vet Center, after a neighbor, who was a Vietnam War Veteran, recognized the behavior patterns. Mike’s counselor helped him come to the realization that he never thought he’d make it home from Fallujah, that he thought he’d die there with his friends, and that he was trying to fit every ounce of fun (drugs, alcohol, partying) into every single second he had, in case it was his last second.
In 2012, Mike opened up to his wife about everything. She gave him a choice: her or alcohol/drugs. Honestly, he hesitated for a minute. Alcohol and drugs were a coping mechanism and they helped Mike handle everything he was feeling, or so he thought. He decided to get sober with the help of AA and his wife. While attending meetings, he found other vets who had been living sober. He saw that they were living life and enjoying it. This was an inspiration to Mike and helped him turn his life around. Sports also helped him. Since returning to civilian life, his body had changed and become nasty. He looked to endurance sports to regain the feeling of pride in his appearance. First, was GORUCK, which helped him regain confidence and begin to tolerate the feeling of mental & physical discomfort. Then, he found running and Ironman. It was love at first run. The strict routine of working out helped Mike get out of his head and connected with his body. Through counseling, becoming sober, and working out, he started to work through his now-diagnosed PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Ironman competitions are a way for Mike to honor the memory of the 21 Marines who didn’t make it home from the deployments he participated in and the 8 Marines who were killed in subsequent deployments, succumbed to wounds, or died by suicide. It’s made him a better version of himself.
Mike now works for the Concord Vet Center as a counselor. He holds a bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in Social Work and has focused his life on helping others who have been in a similar position as him. He helps other veterans examine their lives, their unconscious habits and beliefs, and how to set and work towards goals. Mike isn’t one to give advice, because he believes that all the answers lie within ourselves, but that it takes courage to be introspective and honest with ourselves. However, he does advise to take a break from everything and experience the moment you’re living in; connect with your body and strengthen it. Too often, veterans (and civilians) spend a significant amount of time in their own head but detached from their bodies. Reconnecting with himself and processing through his trauma ultimately helped Mike realize his was a life worth living and that he could still honor his fallen comrades.
Photo credit to Melissa Ergo Photography.