The Pinnacle of Everything
There was never any question about Mike Summers joining the Marines. As a kid, he remembers seeing a commercial with a couple of tough-looking guys in uniforms and knew, in that moment, he’d found his calling.
He answered it.
Signing up at 18, the Gillette native joined the infantry division in 2004, where he spent the next 13 years serving on the front lines, with multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a stint in Japan. During that time his then-wife gave birth to their twin daughters, who he got to see only a couple times a year with minimal phone calls in between.
Finally, he was given a three-year, non-deployed special duty assignment as a combat instructor at Camp Pendleton in southern California, where, for the first time in their lives, the girls lived under the same roof with their father.
When that stint was up, facing another deployment to the Middle East, Summers decided to resign from a career he never imagined leaving because his priorities had now changed.
“Being a Marine was everything I ever wanted to be,” he said, “but my contract ran out and my girls were way more important. They’re now the pinnacle of everything.”
Today, at age 33, Summers sits around a table with his 9-year-old twins, Olivia and Alicia, who are playing on his phone and vying for his attention. He smiles and jokes around with them as they try to remember how many times they talked to their dad while he was overseas and how old they were when he came home. He’s no longer married, and his girls are visiting from Missoula, Montana, where he plans to move in a year for graduate school and to be closer to them.
Right now, he’s finishing up his degree at Gillette College in education with an emphasis in history. He plans to work toward his master’s and eventually teach either college or high school history. In addition to the classes he takes, Summers also works as a tutor in the Help Zone and in the library, and recently served as vice president for the student veteran’s club on campus, which has more than a dozen members.
He loves the support of being able to talk to others who have been where he’s been, which for a civilian who has never served, is pretty hard to explain.
Harder yet, is the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that he’d begun to struggle with when he was in Iraq but kept at bay for fear of getting kicked out of the military. He knew he had a problem that he’d eventually have to deal with but waited until he was honorably discharged and back home in Gillette before doing anything about it.
Don’t wait to get help, he would now advise anyone struggling with PTSD.
“It only gets worse,” he said, looking down at his hands on the table. “We all have our issues, and it’s different for everyone.”
In his case, night terrors plagued him and certain smells and noises were triggers. It definitely was impacting his mood and life, so he sought help at the VA hospital in Sturgis and also sees a counselor. It took him a while to get there.
“There’s definitely a stigma to admitting you need help,” he said. “Nobody wants to do that. We want to feel like we’re tough and can handle it. Especially if you’re in the military. But it doesn’t get easier. You can’t escape it, and there’s nothing wrong with admitting you need help.”
Everybody suffers in one way or another, he added. Everyone feels the trauma in some form.
First responders are also among those who develop PTSD from the daily trauma they experience on the job. They’re meeting people on their worst days, Summers noted, but for them it’s just a Tuesday. The next day, they get up and do it all over again.
Supporting one another is a big help and events, like this weekend’s “Oscar Mike” 5K Ruck March, are a great way for people to get together and show their support. This will be the second year for the weighted race, which kicks off Saturday at 10 a.m.
Last year, local service members, some in uniform, threw on 20-pound backpacks and joined in the run, while others jogged along or walked beside them. Some just came out to thank them for their service or cheer them on.
“Even if you aren’t an athlete,” Summers said, “come out and be a part of the day.”
The entry fee is $10 with all proceeds going to support the Blessing in a Backpack program and Meadowlark Counseling for free counseling sessions for local veterans and first responders.
“We would love it if everyone came out to support veterans and first responders,” he said.
And though there’s no shortage of support for these groups in Gillette, there’s also something really tangible about people physically showing up.
“Just come on out,” he smiled. “There’s no better way to let people know you appreciate them and care than showing up.”
To register for the “Oscar Mike” 5K Ruck March, click here.