For 10 years, haunted by the memory of 29 Marine comrades who fought with him in Iraq and didn’t make it home, Mike Ergo numbed his sorrow with drugs and alcohol, hoping that each time he passed out drunk, it would help him to forget.
Nobody is more surprised than he is that on Oct. 14, he’ll compete in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, in honor of the same soldiers who once visited his nightmares.
Ever since he kicked his addictions five years ago and decided to channel his frustrations into competing in Ironman contests, “I feel like a new person with a sense of purpose,” Ergo, 34, of Walnut Creek, California, tells PEOPLE.
“When I’m running, I can feel the presence of the friends I lost, and not just in a metaphorical sense,” he says. “Several times, I’ve had the profound spiritual experience of feeling them running alongside me. I used to feel sadness, but now I’m overcome with gratitude and joy.”
Ergo, who was invited to compete in the Ironman championship as an ambassador athlete after he did well in two other competitions, says he’ll be thinking of his “lost brothers” this weekend when he swims for nearly two-and-a-half miles, runs 26 miles and bikes for 112 miles on the Big Island of Hawaii with more than 2,400 other athletes.
He learned about Ironman competitions by accident three years ago when he was vacationing in Hawaii at the same time the world championship was going on.
“I thought, ‘Why would people do this?'” he says. “It terrified me — it seemed impossible. But it really struck a chord with the Marine in me, so after doing some research, I decided to try it. And after that first time, training and competing became something that I could do to restructure my life.”
It was 2004, when Ergo, then 21, was sent on his second deployment to Iraq with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, as an infantry team leader. In November, he ended up in the Second Battle of Fallujah — the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War and the heaviest urban combat for Marines since the Vietnam War.
“It was so intense — I felt pretty certain that I was going to get killed,” Ergo tells PEOPLE. “I surrendered to that happening, and focused on trying to protect my friends and fellow Marines. But after one month, 29 of them were gone. I really don’t know how I survived, and I felt tremendous guilt about that. How did I escape with just a small piece of shrapnel in my neck, while so many died?”
Returning home to California, he married his high school girlfriend, Sarah, but in spite of her emotional support, he kept turning to alcohol and cocaine to numb his pain.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2012, when his wife told him that she would leave the marriage if he couldn’t get clean, that Ergo decided to seek help for his addictions and counseling for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
After the birth of his daughter, Adeline, now 3 (he also has a son, Liam, almost 1), “that’s when everything changed completely,” he tells PEOPLE. “She was born in November — the month that everything bad happened in Fallujah. Suddenly, instead of November representing the horror of my friends being killed, I had something to celebrate: new life, love and a new purpose.”
Instead of emptying a bottle of whiskey or vodka, Ergo, who today works as a social worker for the Veteran’s Administration, now thinks about his comrades while wearing a jersey covered with their names when training and competing in Ironman events. He also writes a blog about his newfound passion and is raising funds through the Sentinels of Freedom Foundation to help severely wounded veterans.
“I want their families to know that I carry these guys’ memories in my heart,” Ergo says, “and that they’ll never be forgotten. My memories no longer have to be sad, because I now have the honor of telling people about what outstanding men they all were.”
Family members of the deceased Marines are thankful for his compassion.
“We are so grateful to know that our son made friends such as Mike in the Marine Corps,” says Kathy Godwin, whose son, Todd Godwin, Mike’s best friend, lost his life in Iraq at age 21.
“Although I can’t bring my son home,” she tells PEOPLE, “I’m thankful there is help available for his wounded friends, and it is comforting to know that Todd will not be forgotten, as his name and story go wherever Mike goes.”
“I’ll be thinking about him and all of the other guys when I compete in Hawaii,” adds Ergo. “Those who we love are never truly gone. We carry them in our hearts forever.”