My whole body hurts. I can’t feel my face enough even to speak, but what would I say underwater anyway? Stroke by stroke, I find my breath and my rhythm in the saltwater cove. Most times I have a wetsuit on to protect myself from the freezing water, but today is the New Year’s Polar Plunge so I bare the cold. An annual tradition of many who swim and members of triathlon clubs, including my own. The majority of the bunch just jump in and get out. They are smart. But I’m a Marine, and I’m stubborn. I swim the 200 meters out to the buoy with a couple of guys to check the temperature. When we finally pulled the crud covered thermometer out of the water, it stated the San Francisco Bay was 51 degrees. While drying off and putting my sweats back on, I know without a doubt that I’m exactly where I need to be in the universe. Something about the cold water, especially if it’s a long swim, gives me the body high and peace I could never find inside a bottle or a pipe. It’s been a long ride home from Iraq, and the flights back to the U.S. were the easy part.
My name is Mike Ergo. I served with 1st Battalion, 8th Marines aka “One-Eight,” as a grunt. We did a couple of pumps to Iraq. The last tour included Operation Phantom Fury in 2004, which was the bloodiest battle of the war up to that point. It was the largest urban combat Americans had taken part in, since the Battle of Hue City, during the Vietnam War. I lost a lot of friends that deployment, and after getting out of the Corps and heading home, my life took a downward spiral.
I tried to live the barracks life back home, but it’s not as cool when you’re the only one up at 3 a.m. talking trash and chain-smoking, thinking of Iraq and missing your friends. I fell into an all-consuming trap of self-pity and blamed everyone else for my shortcomings. It was the government’s fault, the VA’s fault, the American public’s fault. BUT NOT MY FAULT. I was diagnosed with PTSD and took advantage of that label by not taking responsibility for my actions. I nearly lost the love of my life to my alcoholism and drug use. I wanted to feel better, but this was the best I could do at the time. Fortunately, my wife Sarah knew me before Iraq. She told me she couldn’t follow me down this path any longer and I had to choose her or the booze and destruction. I chose her, and in doing so, I decided to begin a journey of healing and growth. What did the ideal version of me look like? What would they do and what challenges would they take on?
Over the next year, I will be writing a monthly post talking about how I came to reconnect with my Mind, Body, and Spirit. I quit drugs and alcohol cold-turkey one summer day in 2012 and began searching for purpose and meaning in life. Through quiet walks under the oak forests near my home, and amidst the beautiful suffering in endurance sports, I found the joy I was seeking. I found peace by confronting all of my fears. No more hiding from painful feelings. In fact, fear was my beacon. I ran toward it and felt more empowered each time I saw that the fear was just an illusion. A convincing one, but an illusion nonetheless. Now I race Ironman triathlons with the names of the fallen on my jersey. I write about these experiences on my website Transitions from War.
If you’ll indulge me, I will come to you each month with what I believe my greatest struggles have taught me about the importance of calming our minds, properly nourishing and moving our bodies, and connecting to community and purpose, which I refer to as “spirit.” In the meantime, please take a look at my short guide to reconnecting, aptly named “Mind, Body, and Spirit.” It’s free to download and practical to apply. I have no agenda other than showing you what has worked for me in hopes you can listen more closely to that guiding voice inside yourself.