If you’ve ever flown on a commercial plane before, you know the safety briefing always includes the instructions to put your mask on first before helping others. This sound advice is something retired Staff Sgt. Armando Mejia knows all too well.
“I tell Soldiers to self-triage because sometimes you are so used to taking care of others in the military you forget to triage yourself first for a more affective outcome.”
The Motor Transport Operator was severely injured due to an explosion and firefight in Mosul Iraq in 2004. Staying in Medical Hold while recovering, Mejia was eventually one of the first to experience the Army Recovery Care Program when it was stood up as Warrior Care and Transition.
“I was so focused on getting back to Iraq and be with my squad. I didn’t think at all about mental or social issues I was having. Then I learned I wasn’t going to be able to run and do normal things with my legs. That’s when it hit me, I wasn’t ever going back. I think I cried about two or three nights- it was tough to hear.”
He wanted to serve over 20 years in the Army. He loved his job, the camaraderie and being able to serve our country. The father of three had to accept that he wasn’t going to be 100% anymore and that was the biggest challenge, one he met with fortitude and attitude!
“So, I tell people now I’m 75% because of my injuries and trust me I did not let that take me down. I said to myself I’m going to make myself better. I now say my 75% is better than most people’s 100%.”
It started with recognizing all his wounds.
“The injuries you don’t see are the hardest ones. You may not even realize you have them. At first, I didn’t accept counseling. It took me two years before I opened up. I was taking so many medications I wasn’t the same person I was before my wife met me. I was yelling and punching walls, I didn’t know there was something wrong with me but luckily, I have my wife who saw it and helped me get through it.”
Remember the instructions to self-triage… aka put your mask on first? Mejia’s next step to helping himself get better was the decision to help others. He needed once again to self-triage before offering help.
He had a First Sgt, Mathew Heatherly, who encouraged him to not sit around and go get an education.
“I was in a wheelchair back then and he asked me, your ears work right? Go get your education!
While in the WTB I started school and they helped me keep my appointments, and communication was key. They really supported me in helping me find the resources I needed to recover and overcome not only for me but my family,” said Mejia who added he only had a high school diploma and knew he needed a plan for the rest of his life.
He earned his associates in general studies at Pierce College where he met a Professor Dr. Vinny Thompson who gave him a life-changing assignment. “He saw me in a wheelchair, and he wanted me to talk about what was wrong with me, so I did it, and I got an F… he told me to do it again.”
Mejia wrote about PTSD and the light bulb went off. “That paper really got to me, writing about PTSD, and unpacking what happened, I told him everything… I ended up getting an A and then he asked me what I was going to do with a general studies degree and that I should keep going.”
He told the professor he wanted to help people and give back to the community. The professor suggested he do social work. He got his bachelors from the University of Tacoma. “I was so happy, then Doctor Vinny said what’s next? You’re on a roll keep going! “So, I ended up getting my master’s in social work too,” beamed Mejia.
“It’s full circle I tell you, because for my master’s program I did my internship at the place where it all started…WTB at Fort Lewis McChord. I was there for almost a year, and I was a case manager. It was amazing to help Soldiers in need. Usually what helped the conversation was me letting them know I went through the program.”
Many remember Mejia’s big break immediately following, working for the Seattle Seahawks. He ran a program highlighting veterans for 8 years and now he is in his fourth year at Boeing where he is the Sr Global Engagement Community Investors lead. He handles the Heroes portfolio in Washington State where they build better lives for military veterans and their families.
“I love what I do. I fund military and Veteran programs here in Washington State. I have a wonderful team and we have great leadership. What helped me the most in this role is the networking I did that started at the WTB. That’s my biggest tip to Soldiers is to connect and network because you never know who you may come across in the future.”
Along with the reminder to self- triage, Mejia joyfully shares advice and a glimpse into his road to recovery.
“Follow your passion and your dreams and surround yourself with positive people. Most importantly, There’s NO excuse to not be living your full potential.”