Mike Ergo knows fear.
The 34-year-old Marine spent two tours in Iraq, including fighting in Operation Phantom Fury during the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004, a six-week battle considered the bloodiest of the Iraq War.
He came home intact, physically at least. Many of his friends did not.
Ergo, a veterans counselor in Concord who spent time in Santa Rosa as a youth, has channeled that fear into an emotional fundraising effort to remember his fallen comrades and help other veterans reintegrate into society.
In Saturday’s Ironman Santa Rosa, he will compete with the 29 names of his buddies from the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines on his triathlon shirt.
His campaign has raised $6,790 of an $18,000 goal (1-8 for the battalion’s nickname), which will go to the San Ramon-based Sentinels of Freedom. That’s a nonprofit that takes a holistic approach to helping severely wounded or injured post-9/11 veterans become self-sufficient and productive members of their communities as they return to civilian life.
The organization puts veterans into a two- to four-year program, provides them a vehicle, career training, ongoing mentoring and other assistance re-entering their communities. They attend school and have the option to buy a home at the end of their four years.
Ironman organizers spotted Ergo’s application for the Santa Rosa race and pounced on the opportunity to help spread the word about his efforts.
They surprised him with a gift entry into the mother of all Ironman triathlons, the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, in October.
When Ergo came home from war, he admits he was lost. He felt no purpose, no mission, no connection to himself or others. He began drinking. A lot. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was drifting.
“After a few years of heavy drinking to avoid the pain of combat memories, I changed my life and sobered up,” he writes in his blog. “I found connection with family, community, and a purpose — to help others heal just as my counselors helped me.”
He saw himself heading down a self-destructive path. After finally taking a Vietnam veteran neighbor’s advice to seek counseling, Ergo realized he was in danger again — unless he acted fast.
“That scare the living daylights out of me. I used fear as a guide to move toward my next step in life,” he said.
Shortly after that, a friend gave him a gift certificate to a half-marathon, which he completed.
Then, in 2014, he happened to be in Hawaii the same time as the Kona triathlon. He believes things happen for a reason.
“I felt that same sense of fear. But I thought, ‘I could do something like this. I have no idea how I could do this, but this is my next step,’” he said.
“I used to be controlled by fear, and when that happened I’d head straight for the bottle. Now, I use it. It’s mixed with excitement now. I know it’s become my friend and so I’m OK.”
Ergo was speaking with a veterans counselor about how he was feeling and what he had planned for the future, and the counselor asked if he’d ever considered helping other vets.
“I had this a-ha moment. I felt, ‘Yes, if I could provide someone with just a little bit of the hope this woman gave me.’ I found my purpose.”
He got sober, went to college, graduated from Berkeley and now is a counselor at the Concord Vet Center.
“Once I opened myself up and just started being kind to myself and other people, I’ve watched the universe open this path for me,” he said. “When I got home, I was like ‘Man, what now?’ Many of us didn’t expect to come home.”
While running in his first triathlon, which he signed up for with a vague sense of purpose, an overwhelming feeling came over him.
“At first it was some sadness, but then this overwhelming feeling of joy,” he said. “I could feel my friends running by my side. I can’t really explain it. But I knew this is what I was missing, this is exactly where I’m supposed to be. I wasn’t running away from pain; I was running toward gratitude, joy and purpose.”
Saturday’s Ironman Santa Rosa was supposed to be his “big race,” until the Ironman organizers surprised him with the entry into Kona.
He has fond memories of Sonoma County from visits to his paternal grandparents’ home when he was younger. His father went to Montgomery High School. Now Ergo will use both races to keep the memory of his friends alive, and to honor their sacrifices.
“I’m so grateful to have known so many great men I served with,” he said. “This is to let their families know they’re not forgotten; they will live on in our hearts.”
With the exposure he receives in both races, Ergo is that much closer to his goal.
You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @loriacarter.