PTSD among war veterans and families left behind is common, and healing can be a long process. Today’s guest, Mike Ergo, started the Gold Star Initiative to inspire other veterans like him to keep moving forward and never hold back in reaching their goals. Coping for the loss of his friends during combat was traumatic for Mike, but by finding others who are going through the same situation, he found a new purpose – connecting triathlon with helping Gold Star Families heal from moral injury, grief, and PTSD. He once lived in fear but found a different relationship with it, recognized it, and conquered it through running. Know more about Mike’s amazing advocacy and see how you, too, can do your part to help.
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IronMan And Gold Star Initiative: Sharing Healing For Veterans With Mike Ergo
I have a great guest here. I had the honor of running for a cause that he has started with Ironman called the Gold Star Initiative. This gentleman has a story that will keep you wanting to drive forward in your life. Mike Ergo, it is great to have you on the show.
Rob, thank you. It's good to be here with you. Good to be talking to you again.
When I was out there, I did the Superfrog 70.3 and I got to carry the flag for this program that you and Lisa started, the Gold Star Initiative. It's such a powerful program. I felt it for myself, but also it was great to give some healing to the family. Can you give us an idea of how this Gold Star Initiative started and what it is about?
I can start at the beginning. I got into triathlon as a way of healing my trauma coming back from combat. I did a few years in the Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq a couple of times. My second deployment, my unit lost 21 Marines, a lot of them that I knew closely and it wrecked me, that wrecked me getting back trying to, first of all, figure out what to do after you get back from the war zone. How could I possibly do anything that mattered as much as serving with a lot of brave men that had my back and kept me safe? I floundered for a few years trying to find purpose and got mixed up in a lot of drugs, a lot of booze, it wrecked my marriage. It wasn't until I cleaned up my act and got away from the drugs and the booze and reconnected to the values I had in life.
I happened to be in Kona in Hawaii the same week as the Ironman World Championship happened. At the time, it seemed like a coincidence. I saw these people in spandex running around biking and there was this buzz to it, I didn't understand it. I was drawn to that energy. I saw that people had something that they were passionate about and I missed that, I said, “There's something to it. I don't know what it is.” I started looking it up on my phone. I'm watching on a race day and people are speeding by on the bike on the Queen K highway. I'm looking, a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and then a marathon at 26.2 miles and I got scared, I got pissed. Why would people do this? It bothered me because I saw people that were connected to passion.
It was a look in the mirror and what I saw reflecting back at me, was someone who would have given into fear. I had a lot of work to do to heal from trauma, heal from PTSD. What I found is that it’s a way to connect to the grief I hadn’t processedfrom losing all my friends. It was shortly after I got back from Kona that I saw a video of a woman named Lisa Hallett who started running after her husband was killed in action in Afghanistan and she said, “I needed to get out of the house. I needed to do something. I was tired of sitting in my grief.” She started running and then eventually, she dedicated the run she would do and races to her husband. I sat in my house and I started crying for the first time in a long time. I realized that that's what it's all about. She found something that made her body feel good and connected to purpose.
I had already signed up to do a Half Ironman and I decided, “That's what I'm going to do now. I'm going to dedicate this race to my fallen friends.” From then on, it was like this bolt of lightning of motivation, of inspiration, a purpose. I wasn't running a race. It felt good. I had started moving my body again and I felt good but it didn't have that true purpose until I decided that this is the way I can remember my friends. I don't have to cry into a cup of beer. I don't have to grieve my friends by sitting around and feeling lost and stuck. It changed my life because I had purpose again. I felt good. It got me through tough workouts and early mornings because there was a purpose to it. It wasn't something for me.
Eventually, I connected with a woman named Lisa Anderson. I was checking into Superfrog where we met Rob. She was volunteering and she had a bracelet on and anyone who's a veteran knows this bracelet is killed in action memoriam bracelets that a lot of us vets wear. I saw a name on there and said, “United States Marine Corps.” I asked her, I said, “Is that your son?” She looked at me seriously and she said, “That's my son, Nick. He was in the Marine Corps and he’s killed in Iraq.” We started talking. I learned that I was in Iraq at the same time, a different unit. I didn't know her son but we connected.
I told her a little bit about why I was racing and the names that I had put on my triathlon jersey, the guys that I honored. I told her, “We're going to do something powerful together, I feel it. I don't know what it is but we're going to do something cool together.” Eventually, we decided that what if we find local Gold Star families, local families who have lost someone who served in the military? What if we carry aveteran for that Gold Star family, invite them to the race to be the VIP guests of honor and we include them? Here's what we discovered talking together and it's something I've felt and she felt and we realized we're suffering in the same way but alone. She was telling me that she was hurting and missing her son.
She was sad too because a lot of the Marines in our unit were hesitant to talk to her because they were feeling their own grief and I recognize that in myself. It took me a long time to connect to the families of the guys in my unit who were killed because I felt guilty. I felt guilty for surviving and I said, “I know what it's like to be the person who avoids you, Lisa, because I am that person with a family of my own guys.” We figure out, it's like, “We're all suffering alone when being together feels much better.” I was worried that if I talked to the families of the guys I was in with, they would resent me and think I was less than the person that their son was. I had failed by not bringing them back. It’s the farthest thing from the truth. It sucks.
It’s a debilitating feeling and you used other means to subside that feeling of fear or that feeling that you are lesser.
It was fear. My body was still experiencing PTSD, which the way I describe it is that your mind and your body are giving you different signals. I'd be driving to school and my mind would say, “I'm in Northern California, things are safe, things are happy, things were good.” Everything was a normal civilian day but my body was giving me the signal that you're about to die, something bad is about to happen. I would have trouble breathing. I start going to a panic attack. I start getting tunnel vision and have this feeling that I either needed to fight somebody or run away or freeze and disappear. That got old and I didn't know what to do except to drink and smoke myself into oblivion until it didn't work anymore.
A couple of things happen. I was able to feel my heart pumping and my blood pressure getting higher, my pulse getting higher through triathlon but it was a safe feeling. I could be in my body. I was able to start processing trauma. My body was able to get the signal that, “It’s okay. You're in a safe place. You're in a place where no one's shooting out you.” I knew that in my head but my body had to catch up a little bit. The other thing is that I was able to process the grief too. If you have trauma, you have to process that first before you get to the grief, especially if they're linked.
Once I started learning in a bodily way that I was okay, that I was not about to die, then the grief came out and it was heavy stuff. I would feel it on the run. I feel it on bike rides. I feel it in swimming. On the run, I’ll be running down the road and allow myself to cry or allow myself to feel the presence of my friends. It was heavy at first but then it felt good because I’ve broken through the anger and the numbness and the hurt. The reason I hurt badly is that I was bonded with these dudes, people of immense moral quality, people that I looked up to. Once I connected with that, I was like, “I can do that. I can process all these feelings out on the racecourse.” Lisa, she's had the same experience of processing grief on the racecourse. We have the Gold Star community, we have the veteran community and then we have the civilian community and we're all trying to figure out how to help each other but we all are too uncomfortable to get together.
Can you explain to everybody what a Gold Star Family or what’s a Gold Star? A lot of people hear that or they see it on a car and they don't understand what it is about.
The thing started in it might have been in World War II where if a family had no sons or daughters deployed, they would have a blue star and they hang that on their window and that meant you had somebody fighting in the war, somebody deployed. If you saw that same design but the star was gold, that meant that their son or daughter had been killed and they paid the ultimate sacrifice. The Gold Star families are families who have lost someone serving in the military. It doesn't have to be in war. It's someone who's died serving.
These free camps, we’ve got the veterans, we have the Gold Star families and we have the community. We all want to help each other but it's too uncomfortable because we don't know what to say, we don't know what to do and I said, “That positive race energy that I first tapped into at the Ironman World Championships when I was spectating it, this is that buzz, this is a good energy to connect all three of us, the community, the veterans and the Gold Star families. What if we get them all together and see what happens? Show that people have not forgotten your son or daughter. We all want to remember them.” It worked out.
I tried it out myself in Santa Rosa in 2018 and I carried a flag for a marathon. That's the running portion of Ironman for a local Gold Star family. He's this Army Corporal, Josh Kynoch. I carried it and Josh’s mother was there and then Josh’s daughter who he had met as a newborn. He went back to Iraq and was killed shortly after his daughter Savannah was born. I got to carry the flag and tell them, “Your son is not gone. He's not forgotten. Your dad is not gone. He's not forgotten. He's in our hearts and we're carrying his memory. We're carrying him with us. People remember him. People want to embrace you.” We embraced at the end, gave them the flag and it felt good. It’s cool because I had this picture in my head as a Marine that service has to be something miserable and service had to be picking up cigarette butts or digging ditches or carrying sandbags and I was like, “That's service. It has to be something you hate,” but then I was like, “No, it can be something you like doing.” It's lightning in a bottle. It's cool.
We've taken this Gold Star, Ironman saw how positive the reception was from the family, from other veterans, from me, from the community and I asked them, “Can we make this something national? Can we bring this to other races, so it's not a one-time thing that I did in one location at one point in time for one family?” Sarah Hartmann, Head of the Ironman Foundation said, “Absolutely.” You participated in the Gold Star Initiative. We had it in four different races. Coming in 2019 and then in 2020, we're going to have ten races. I know it needed to spread. It needed to be something that other people got to take part in and we got to honor a lot of families who are suffering and cut off from the community.
Here's one thing that catapulted me into believing this needed to happen and how important it was, I talked to more than one family, but I remember one in particular. This Gold Star mom told me that after her son was killed, there was a lot of support from the community, everybody rallied behind her and her family up until the funeral. After the service for her son, nobody knew what to say anymore. They didn't know what to do. She noticed she was being ignored and shunned. Some friends were uncomfortable being around her because they didn't know what to say. Their own discomfort further shut her out from the community. Imagine this, she not only lost her son but then she loses her friends and her community so I was like, “This sucks. This doesn't need to happen.” We have this event that we all gather around that everybody can participate in, spectators, athletes, and families. It’s cool. It feels good and it's fun and it's a great place to be. You got to experience that down in San Diego earlier in the fall.
It was an amazing experience. Having raised my fire gear, I understood the power of your passion, of your purpose and wearing it on your sleeve to say, “Your actions are going to speak louder than any words that you could ever say.” The feeling that I got from that day in San Diego, 8 miles in the sand wasn’t beautiful, slogging away. It was powerful not only for myself and that was something that I didn't expect to take away and you touched on that, finding that passion, that purpose. Speaking to a lot of veterans who may be following, it is finding that purpose to keep driving forward. Before, when you were in the military, having been in the Air Force, I understand that the concept of you have that drive, you have that mission, that objective and once you get into civilian life, there isn't one. It's not clear cut. You were speaking about that. You went to Ironman World Championships and saw that happening. How did you get that mindset? How did you suddenlychange that mindset to be able to say, “I need to live my life now.”
It was finding a different relationship with fear. I’ve done some intense therapy. I remember getting back. Thereare a lot of experiences being out in the crowd or being around people I cared about in public. I felt fear all the time. That bodily fear, that PTSD trauma fear got confused with other kinds of fear. It’s a fear that I'm excited to do something but risky. It's something I've never done before. That fear of opportunity, maybe you call it. What I learned is that the more I stepped back from fear and gave in to say no to something I wanted to do, the more powerful the fear became and how much it controlled my life and it got smaller. All I was doing was hanging out with my dog in my house, playing video games, drinking all day, because that's how small my world had become. Everything else was fear-inducing.
Once I started working on taking steps into fear and recognizing fear for what it was, there's some nervous energy, that's part of fear. What I also recognized and this was the life-changing thing that fear was a beacon of what my next step was. The same feeling of fear you get, for me, before I asked my wife out for the first time when we started dating, like, “This is something my heart desires that I want and I'm scared of it. I want it. I hope I don't fail.” The same kind of fear when you're risking yourself like, “This could go horribly wrong. I could get rejected.”
There's also the excitement and that's the signal that I was missing. That's always there in that kind of fear. That excitement is always there. It's your heart saying, “This is something that I deeply connect with. I want to do this. Will I take that step though?” Once I recognized that fear was something to step towards and not shrink away from, that's where it changed. When I saw then I got scared watching these people ride bikes and doing Ironman, I’m like, “Why am I getting scared? I'm just watching it. I have nothing to be afraid of.”
I saw that fear and I was like, “This is my next step. I don't know why but I'm going to trust that there's something here that maybe isn't in the front of my mind but it's something that I know I'm supposed to do something because I want to.” It says something that lines up with my values. I started taking steps into fear and then the more I did that and the more I took one step forward, not even jumping in but taking one step forward and signing up for my first triathlon right after I got back from the vacation. Showing up at a pool to take lessons, as a grown man, watching seven-year-olds and eight-year-olds, smoke me equally in the pool. The fear of showing up to my first triathlon be like, “Where do we put our stuff?”
Trust me, I got beat by a 75-year-old lady the first time I did a Half Ironman, I was in my twenties and I thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I got out the water at the top and got on the bike and then got to the run and this lady, 75 years old, comes past me and says, “You're doing a great job. Keep going.” I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” It’s humbling but at the same time, there's much power to the time that you have by yourself. You spoke on that, when you're in training and when you're in the race, there's a lot of time that you're in your head and for individuals that have PTSD.
That's not a good thing, because we don't have a good headspace. The internal conversation is not the greatest thing. For myself, I remember learning how to start to talk to myself. The pain also was something that I felt was a catalyst to be able to help me have a good conversation and say, “You need to do this. This is time for you to do this.” Was that what you felt too? You got to compete at the Ironman World Championships which is the granddaddy of them all. Being out there, was that one of those things? You're like, “I'm not even supposed to be here but this is amazing.”
It is a trip walking around and seeing people recognizing that they're a lot faster. Maybe you've been training for this for the whole life and then you’re walking around seeing pro athletes who are another species of human. Being out there in the course, here's what I remember, my body was hurting badly on the run. My legs hurt. One of the nice things about this sport is it forces me, it gives me the opportunity to be completely present because at a certain point, it takes too much energy to resist the discomfort and I say, “I'm here. I accept the fact that it's uncomfortable. I'm going to stop trying to run away from it and accept the pain.” There's a scene in Fight Club where you let go, accept the pain. It’s maybe not as dramatic. I remember my mind started to go dark and the sunset, too. I'm running by myself in the dark through a lava field thinking like, “This sucks. I'm by myself. Nobody's clapping. No cowbells, just lava.”
Everything looks the same, that one was the worst part.
It's like a treadmill in the dark.
That is the best description of it.
Followers who haven't seen a picture of me, I'm a fair-skinned, red-headed person. You can only imagine the sunburn. It was full-onnasty, second-degree burns on my arms. All that is happening, my mind is going dark and starts to replay the scenes from combat I had blocked out that I didn't want to think that we're still in there. They still carried a charge. I was grasping for anything, I was like, “I can't do this for another 10 miles. What do we have to grab on to?” I said, “My legs hurt.” I stuck with that for a few minutes and eventually, I said, “That means I have legs and my legs work and that also means I’m alive.” That’s awesome.
I'm alive and I have legs that work. It took a little while for that, to me, to stay with that thought. I'm grasping at straws at this point. Eventually, I was able to harness that feeling of like, “I'm going to be okay. I'm hurting and I'm okay. I'm hurting and I'm going to finish this race. This is uncomfortable, that's fine. I can deal with that. This is awesome. I'm living every triathletes dream, being here in Kona right now.” The power of looking at the fear that things were going to keep hurting worse or that it was never going to end and stepping into that fear even farther was the secret. I learned there's no going around, there's no trying to negotiate with, it’s going in the fear and being in my body and saying, “I'm right here, right now.”
That's the best way to put it in. It's hard because everybody always asks, “The finish line has to be amazing. The finish line has to be fantastic.” It is. Talk to me more about the journey to the finish line. I always tell people, my favorite part is about a mile from the finish line where there are not that many people. It is my favorite part because I know that I conquered the challenge that I set forth for myself. How about you? What does the journey to you mean?
For me, I've set my last couple of years of racing with the goal of being exactly where I am in that race as much as possible. A shorter race is not as bad. Let's say for an Ironman race, for me, we're looking at about 12 hours of wishing I was at the finish line is 12 hours of suffering. I'm spending the entire day wishing I was somewhere else. The fear of like, “I can't keep going. This is going to be wrong.” There's much about a race day from showing up and the adrenaline. Now that I've learned to grow and not shrink in that energy and recognize that, “This is excitement. There's no fear. I'm not about to die. This is excitement, I’m tapping into that.”
Seeing people on the dock waiting to jump in the water and seeing people getting out of the water, on the bike ride, noticing I'm in a beautiful place, moving my body, having the opportunity to be alive and be healthy enough to even be there on that day. It wasn't a few years ago that I'd wake up in a creek, either wearing my uniform or not sure how I got there, wondering like, “What did I do the night before? Do I have my wallet and my keys? What actions did I perform that I'm going to regret, that is going to destroy my marriage?” I don't have to have that anymore. I don't have to live in fear.
During the day, in the race maybe, it's the entire run. There's a lot of positive feedback when people see the flag being carried. It could be a big ego boost but what I try to do is keep that in perspective and say, “People are happy that I'm home, but people are excited that we're keeping somebody alive and that we're embracing this family who's suffering and missing their loved one.” People believe in this. This is a real thing that people are excited about. I get to share the story along the run about whom I'm carrying the flag for and what this is about and see how people get excited about that too.
We're all sharing in the energy. We're all sharing getting each other to the finish line and that comes out on the run because I’m on a bike, for me at least, I'm getting passed by people. I hear this sound of solid disc wheels in the back passing me and I'm like, “There goes another one.” It’s not a lot of time to talk. On the run course, you get time to talk. I love that too. That minute, the last mile before you get to the finish line, you can hear it, it's that silent time where you can say, “It's happening. It's real.” The things that are out there, I'm not limited by, I saw them, I step forward anyways and I kept going. To celebrate like, “I got here.” Full of gratitude, full of excitement to be alive and be like, “I discovered purpose.” There is a purpose. I never thought it was possible to feel a sense of purpose after I got out. I'm lucky enough to have it again, having an awesome race community, family, friend and support network that supported me to do this.
You have a great adventure that you're going on for this next 2020 Ironman Kona, you and one of your good friends.
I asked the Ironman Foundation if we could bring the Gold Star Initiative to the big stage, to Kona again. One, I needed some redemption. I needed to learn how to put on sunscreen the right way to not get burned. Two, this time I get to carry the flag for Lisa's son, Nick and it's bringing it full circle. When I met Lisa and I said, “We're going to do something powerful together.” I've always wanted to be able to give her that feeling of being able to know how many people can appreciate or honor the sacrifice that her son made and that her family made and let her know how embraced she is. I cannot wait because I'm going to get to carry the flag for her son Nick and come to that finish line. This is the greatest finish line in sports around the world and bringing that flag down Ali’i Drive and being ableto give that to her. I'm going with the Ironman Foundation. I'm raising $30,000 for the Ironman Foundation who funds the Gold Star Initiative among a lot of other things. I'm trying to spread the word, get as many vets as possible involved in other Gold Star Initiative races that are happening in 2020. Spread that message of hope.
To all the vets that are following as well as those who are family or friends that are Gold Star families, how would they get in contact with Ironman to be able to be a part of this amazing program?
The Ironman Foundation, it’s IronmanFoundation.org. They have a link on there that says Gold Star Initiative. All you have to do is click on there and it talks about what it is. You'll see a picture of a pale, ginger carrying a flag, that'll be me. That's when you know that you're at the right spot. I'll say, “How do I get involved? What is this?” Veterans click to fill out the application, it's free, there's no cost to fill it out. On the same page, it says, “How do Gold Star families get involved?” They click a link and fill out who they lost and if they want to be part of it and what race they'd want to take part in. We get together and select the best fit for the races coming up and match a veteran with a Gold Star family.
It's a fantastic program. Mike, your story and everything that you gave to us in this show, I can't thank you enough for your service, not just the country but for those individuals that are fighting that invisible fight. To most people, it's personal. It's a powerful fight that they're having in their minds. To hear your story and to hear how you came out on the other side and continuing to move forward, I hope that a lot of people can take away something because it doesn't have to be military members or fire department or police, it can be anybody in everyday life, going through a struggle to understand.
For all of us, no matter where you've been, if you can tap into that fear and take one step forward, the payoff is immense. It's beyond what I thought was possible. First of all, to know you can go through fear and second of all, there's a purpose. Knowing you’re exactly where you need to be in the universe, without a doubt, nothing beats that feeling.
I always end all the shows with three questions and then we have a rapid round. You can't get these questions wrong because it's all your opinions. Don't feel nervous about it. The first question is what is one thing you haven't done but it's outside your comfort zone?
Ultraman, that's Ironman times 2 or 3.
I'm going to hold you, do that one too. Here's the second one, your favorite quote and why?
My favorite quote is from Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly as he's leading the charge for Marines fighting in World War I in Belleau Woods. He said, “Come on you sons of bitches. Do you want to live forever?” as they charged the Germans.
I should have known what you would pick. Here's the third one, this one is a little more complex but it's good. If you could pick to have coffee with three other people and they could be living or deceased at a firehouse table, nothing is off the table to talk about. Who would it be and why?
One person, for sure, would be my best friend at the Marine Corps, Todd Godwin, who was killed in action in 2004 in my second deployment. I would want to personally thank him for how much he inspired me to go beyond what I thought was possible and mentored me. That would be one. I miss that dude. The second one I'd want as part of that table, I'd want to hang out with The Rock because that guy oozes motivation and drive and love. He seems like the ultimate man’s man who everyone wants to be. I'm going to choose Wilson from Castaway.
Here we go. The rapid round question, all you have to do is give me one of the things that I'm going to tell you. Tell me which one you’d pick. Are you ready?
Paper or plastic?
Soup or salad?
McDonald's or Taco Bell?
Camping or hotel?
Fly or drive?
Sleep in late or wake up early?
Wake up early.
I'm talking to a Marine. Run or walk?
I’m going to go with walk.
Partly sunny or partly cloudy?
Fire or water?
Use a Porta-Potty or continue to drive or run to the next physical bathroom.
Coke or Pepsi?
Go big or go home?
Mike Ergo, it’s been a pleasure talking with you on this show. If anybody wants to contribute, what is the best way to help you raise funds to go to Ironman Kona and to contribute to the Ironman Foundationin honor of what you're doing?
The best way, it's Bit.Ly/Mike2Kona.
Thanks for being on this show, Mike. You've been a great inspiration and you started something amazing with Gold Star Initiative as well as being able to talk to other vets and help them along the way. Thanks for being here. I look forward to talking with you again.
Thank you, brother.
I love you, brother. Have a good one.
I love you, brother. Thank you.
About Mike Ergo
My name is Mike Ergo. I served as a Marine rifleman with 1st Battalion, 8th Marines from 2001-2005 and deployed to Iraq twice. Coming home from combat was rough. My body returned, but my mind and spirit were still in Fallujah for many years.
On October 10th, 2020 I will compete in The IRONMAN World Championship in Kona. As any triathlete will tell you, this is the chance of a lifetime. Though as exciting as this is, the greater honor will be carrying the American flag for the 26.2-mile run in honor of Lance Corporal Nick Anderson. At the finish line, I will present the flag to his mother, Lisa, to recognize her family's sacrifice. Lisa is a good friend, and the cofounder of the Gold Star Initiative, so it is only fitting that we honor her boy by carrying the flag all the way down Ali'i Drive to the finish line.The Ironman Foundation has allowed me to connect my two passions: bringing healing to those who suffer, and endurance sports. Last year the Ironman Foundation took me up on a challenge I gave them: to take my experiment of carrying an American Flag for a Gold Star Family at an Ironman triathlon and make it a national movement
Friends, I can't do this alone. I'll be running the race, but I need you on my support team. You can help by donating today and sharing this with others who can also contribute to this cause. Let's join together to show our Gold Star Families that we acknowledge their sacrifice and pray for their peace.