Mike Reilly Shares Tales from IRONMAN, the Worlds Greatest Endurance Event, in His New Book

By USA Triathlon | Oct. 10, 2019, 2:09 p.m. (ET)

mike reilly book excerpt

This is a compressed version of Mike Ergo’s story, which you can read in full in "MIKE REILLY: Finding My Voice. Purchase the book or learn more at mikereilly.net/findingmyvoice.

Whenever I call someone across who’s served in the military, I wonder what his or her story is. A number of challenged athletes were injured in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and I’ve gotten to know some of those people. 

But sometimes the trauma isn’t visible. We’re all familiar — vaguely familiar — with the condition known as PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. I say “vaguely” because very few of us, myself included, are aware of the array of specific symptoms lumped into this single diagnosis. Even people who grew up in a culture of hyper-realistic violent movies, television shows and video games are unprepared for the grisly realities of war. And for those who do manage to deal with many of war’s horrors, the one thing even they can’t fight very well is the emotional sucker punch of losing a comrade.

All of which makes me marvel at how my friend Mike Ergo, who lost 29 of his brothers in arms — 17 during a single battle in Iraq — found a way to put his life back together after nearly ending it himself.

When 9/11 happened, he didn’t hesitate before joining the infantry. That November, at all of 21 years old, he found himself smack in the middle of the month-long Second Battle of Fallujah, the fiercest and bloodiest fighting faced by U.S. Marines since the 1968 battle for Hue City in Vietnam. 

When the battle ended in late December, Mike had a small piece of shrapnel in his neck, but he was alive. Eighteen of his comrades had perished. Four others had been killed in earlier, separate actions. 

Prior to returning home he was deployed to Abu Ghraib prison. There, the reality of all those friends he’d lost began to sink in, and he was wracked with survivor’s guilt that seemed to shroud his very soul. On New Year’s Eve, just a few weeks after emerging from Fallujah, he put his M-16 rifle into his mouth and his finger on the trigger. Later he’d wonder if he wouldn’t have been better off had he pulled it. 

Even after his return home it didn’t end. One of his buddies drank himself to death. Another died of seizures caused by head wounds he’d suffered in Iraq. Another, he would learn much later, had been captured and tortured to death. Having reconciled himself to never coming home, he had no idea how to move forward once he got there. 

It was a hellish dilemma, trying to get the pain and the memories to stop without hurting his family, and the only way out was to numb himself with drugs, weed and alcohol. He wanted to get straight, but how? No amount of psychiatric talk therapy was going to lift him out of that black hole. He opened up to a neighbor who happened to be a Vietnam vet. When the neighbor urged him to get to the Veterans Affairs Center for counseling, he went. They suggested that working out, and doing it hard, had been helpful to a lot of vets.

So Mike tried it. And he liked it. 

He got sober. He got therapy. He upped his physical activity. Then he and Sarah took a vacation on the Big Island of Hawai’i in 2014. In October. During IRONMAN week. You know where this is going, right?

Mike believes that IRONMAN saved his life. 

“Maybe another sport might have helped me,” he told me, “but this one had a special pull on me and made me want to try.” For him, healing is all about actively moving forward, pushing himself and having a purpose. Once he’d taken off the uniform, his sense of purpose had vanished, and now he was getting it back.

But it wasn’t just about racing; it was about racing for a reason. As Mike began healing he looked for ways to help others do the same. He went to work for the VA, counseling soldiers who came back broken and lost. And, I’m proud to call him a fellow ambassador of the IRONMAN Foundation. 

mike ergo ironman