Posted on November 11, 2016
“Running has really kept me on track to a very productive life and a healthier lifestyle—not just physically, but mentally as well,” says Staff Sergeant Mike Mendoza, who deployed to Iraq three times between 1998 and 2006.
“Before the 2016 Boston Marathon I ran the Marine Corps Marathon,” explains the Chicago native. “I had never run a marathon in my life. I didn’t have a coach, so I did a lot of research online to figure out how to manage my own training program.” Mike did remarkably well on his own, completing the October 2015 Marine Corps Marathon in an impressive 3:26:20.
That finish may well have paved the road to Boston on April 18, 2016. Shortly thereafter, the Semper Fi Fund reached out to Mike. “Semper Fi Fund said, ‘You did phenomenal in the Marine Corps Marathon, would you want to run the Boston Marathon?’ I immediately jumped on it.”
“The Semper Fi Fund helps me keep a better lifestyle,” Mike continues. “They’ve allowed me to stay connected with some of the other Marines I met when I was in the hospital, they helped me reconnect with some of the veterans I lost contact with.”
The hospital stay Mike refers to came about as the result of a grenade blast that occurred August 2006. He was on sniper duty on the balcony of a building in the Iraqi city of Al-Karma.
“I decided to get some shuteye,” Mike recalls. “As I’m lying there, I couldn’t fall asleep. Out of nowhere, I heard a piece of metal hit the side of the wall and start rolling around. You don’t even have to look at it, you just know: It was the sound of a grenade.”
“One of the other Marines yelled, ‘Grenade!’ and it exploded, probably about two feet from me,” he continues. “I was already on the ground and I was lying next to my backpack, which took the brunt of the blast, but so did I. I took grenade shrapnel wounds through my chest, shrapnel tore into my side, hit both my lungs, ruptured my diaphragm, hit my small intestines, ruptured my stomach and my urethra.”
Mike underwent surgery and remained in a Baghdad hospital for several weeks battling infections before he was able to travel to Germany and then back to the States to recover at the Camp Lejeune Naval Hospital in North Carolina—which is where he first encountered the Semper Fi Fund.
“I didn’t know anything about the Semper Fi Fund, but they knew about us,” Mike recalls. “I think they actually ended up putting my wife and mother up at the Fisher House; that made life a lot easier. It was right next to the hospital, and they were able to come see me.”
“Once my family got there, Semper Fi Fund was phenomenal,” Mike continues. “Our case manager was very persistent, making sure that I was okay, my wife was okay and my son, who was just born, was okay.”
Mike retired from the Marines in 2007. The Fund tried to keep in touch with him, but Mike was hesitant. “It was one of those pride things,” he explains. “I was like, ‘Hey, listen, there are other guys more in need than I am.’”
“Eddie, a really good buddy of mine, he lost both arms in 2004 when he took an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] to the chest,” Mike continues. “He’s still alive, but it took off both his arms and a piece of his face. Eddie knew that I was going through some hard times. He was like, ‘Hey, Mike, you need to get back with Semper Fi Fund.
“My perception was, I don’t need money, I don’t need anybody to help me. But Semper Fi Fund isn’t only about that, it’s about making the connection with other veterans. Eddie knew I was having a hard time transitioning to being home, and he’s the one who reached out to my case manager Christy for me, and then she reached out to me”.
“She told me about an outing in St. Louis where veterans and their families could hang out and just talk. That’s what really piqued my interest, being around other veterans. Being part of a network or community that I could relate to.
Shortly after he runs the Boston Marathon, Mike will be graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in recreation, sports and tourism (RST)
UPDATE (October 2016): Mike just competed in the 2016 Marine Corps Marathon on October 30, and is featured in History Channel’s The Warfighters, a series detailing the experiences of special ops forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can watch the episode here.
“I was contacted by the producer about our ambush in Fallujah in 2004 while I was with 1st Reconnaissance Battalion,” Mike said,describing how he got involved with the History Channel. “Our platoon of 25 men was ambushed by what was estimated to be 40-60 insurgents. At the time, it was the most significant battle to date of 2004. The Warfighers wanted to feature a Marine unit, since the stories they aired were all SEALS and Rangers.”
As for the Marine Corps Marathon, Mike ran it fresh off completing his first full Ironman competition, in Louisville, Kentucky.
“I was so excited to be running alongside my brothers again as I did last year. Being part of the Marine
Corps Marathon with my wife and son truly makes me grateful. The Semper Fi Fund has given me strength in more ways than I can explain to continue to move forward one step at a time — just as it takes one step at a time to finish a marathon.”
“The days going into the race, my wife and friends would send me messages telling me I have the gas tank and the training,” Mike adds. “Without support like that, I would have never finished strong — nor healthy. With them, I felt like I was on top of the world when I crossed the finish line. I hope they truly know how much it meant to me.”
“The entire weekend was amazing!” says Mike’s wife, Kelley. “It was great to spend the time as a family in a beautiful city. The pasta dinner was very inspirational! Running the race with our 10 year old son, Seth was really great! He loves running and it was such a beautiful course! We are so appreciative of everything Semper Fi Fund does. Thank you!”