A former Marine who spent nearly a year recovering from physical injuries sustained in a grenade explosion is now on a new mission.
Former Marine Sgt. Michael Mendoza spent a good part of the past decade overcoming the mental and emotional effects of the 2006 incident when a grenade blew up in front of him. The 38 year-old was a sniper in Iraq and the explosion caused extensive injuries to both of his lungs, collapsed his diaphragm and damaged his stomach and small intestines.
“When I was injured, I kept to myself a lot, withdrew from my friends and family,” Mendoza told Fox News on Tuesday. “There are still family I don’t speak to and I needed to go through that.”
But becoming active again as he recovered helped Mendoza realize the mental health benefits for himself , and ultimately for other military men and women returning home from overseas service.
“It all started clicking. I started to become outdoorsy. I started feeling really good,” he said, as the former high school track athlete returned to running and met other veterans and athletes along the way. “Recovery through sport and recreation – that’s my goal, my mission.”
Mendoza ran his first full Ironman last year and has now set his sights on a higher goal. He hopes to break the Guinness World Record for more Ironman 70.3 – or Half Ironman – races in a single calendar year. Mendoza hopes to run 26, breaking the record of 23.
“In December I was sitting on the couch and I told my wife I wanted to break the record … she said ‘You’re crazy,’” he told Fox News. “[I said] that if I put my mind to it I could do it.”
And putting his mind to it is obviously something this former Marine has no trouble with, completing about four Ironman races a month since his first Ironman 70.3 in March in Arizona. Last weekend he ran his 18th in Maine and is headed to number 19 at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Sept. 9 as an Ironman Ambassador.
“I don’t have a break,” the Chicago-native said. “It’s almost like an addiction — a good addiction.”
Mendoza holds 11th place overall worldwide in his age group and 6th in the United States for the Ironman 70.3 which is made up of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a half-marathon, which covers 13.2 miles.
“I never give up. I push myself every race,” Mendoza said.
But his mission is not just for his own benefit. The desire to give back is a driving factor for Mendoza as well as he plans to raise money for the Semper Fi Fund, the organization that helps injured and recovering service members and which Mendoza credits with helping him and his family after his injury.
“They flew my wife and son to my bedside, put them up in the Fisher House. That really helped me, emotionally and mentally. Had they not been there, I could have gone down a different path. So Semper Fi is very close to my heart,” he said.
Though he has been away from home almost every weekend since the spring, the former Marine said his relationships with family and friends has only strengthened.
“I have such a great support system,” he said. “My wife knows it’s only temporary … my son and daughter, they push me to race harder every week.
Mendoza was awarded the Navy Cross in January, upgrading his previous Silver Star to the second-highest military decoration awarded for valor in combat. Returning service men and women are his constant motivation.
“My buddy lost his eyesight, my other buddy lost both his legs,” he said. “They have their challenges and [it’s why] I don’t want to give up.”
Mendoza has raised nearly $20,000 and hopes to reach his $25,000 goal by Veterans Day weekend when he will run his final race in Mexico.
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