The explosion, though a couple of miles outside the wire, rumbled through the air and sent enough smoke billowing into the sky for Cpl. Mike Ergo to see and feel its force.
Ergo hoped no one was hurt.
It was early in 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment’s deployment to Fallujah, Iraq, on July 20, 2004. The Marines had about six months to go, but this date would leave its mark.
A short while later the platoon sergeant gathered Ergo and his buddies.
“I’ve got some bad news gents,” the sergeant said.
The battalion had lost its first of what would be 21 Marines: It was one of Ergo’s closest friends, Cpl. Todd Godwin.
Godwin had taken Ergo under his wing when Ergo had arrived at the infantry unit after having quit a pathway to the Marine Corps band, seeking something more.
It was Godwin who had helped him adapt to the rough-and-tumble life of the infantry and had guided him in workouts to prepare him for their first deployment with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. A deployment that saw a stint in Mosul after the 2003 invasion.
That tour had left both Marines wanting more. Ergo returned to grunt life, Godwin sought a spot on the battalion’s scout sniper unit, where he was serving on the day he died.
The Marines marched through a tour that would include some of the bloodiest fighting of the entire war and the most intense urban combat since Vietnam ― the Second Battle of Fallujah and Operation Phantom Fury.
At a memorial service back in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in 2005, Ergo escorted Todd’s mother and father, Kathy and Bill, around the base.
“I had this entire time when I was driving his parents around, holding back tears,” Ergo said.
Despite his inner turmoil, the Godwins told recently Marine Corps Times that they had been struck by how thoughtful and caring Ergo was in their time of grief.
Seeing the camaraderie that their son had shared with Marines such as Ergo gave them a measure of comfort, Bill Godwin said.
“I was very pleased that Todd made friends with people like Mike (Ergo),” Bill said. “He’s a very giving man.”
Ergo finished his enlistment and left the Marine Corps. He tried to stay connected to buddies, marking anniversaries, even visiting Godwin’s hometown of Zanesville, Ohio.
But flashbacks and panic attacks crowded his life.
“At first, I drowned my sorrows in drugs and alcohol,” Ergo told Marine Corps Times in July.
But one day, in 2012, he went on a run. The first in a long time. Something began to click.
“I started feeling safe in my own body again,” Ergo said.
One foot in front of the other. Like on a physical training run. Like on a battalion hump. Like in a road race. Keep a pace, keep moving forward.
He went to his first IRONMAN triathlon in 2014, to watch.
Not sure he could do it but drawn in any way, he signed up to run a half-IRONMAN.
Running? No problem. But swimming and cycling at that level took a bit more work. Plunges into the San Francisco Bay near his California home and some tutoring from a cyclist friend helped put him on the path.
It was just the sort of crazy thing that Todd Godwin would have done.
He was a fitness fanatic, his parents told Marine Corps Times. He played high school soccer and basketball at Zanesville (Ohio) Christian School. But his love was martial arts. He earned black belts in two disciplines as a teenager – taekwondo and Akijujitsu.
Kathy Godwin fondly remembers her son prodding her to exercise, even coming home as late as 10 p.m. to find her watching television and telling her she should pump out some pushups instead.
The Godwins said their son had an early interest in the military but it didn’t manifest itself until he was in high school and, it seemed to them, suddenly started researching branches and talking with veterans before signing up for the Delayed Entry Program.
Bill Godwin had served in the Air Force from 1969–1973, but it wasn’t really something that he talked much about.
“When he said he wanted to join the Marines, I didn’t want him to do it,” Kathy Godwin said.
“I said, ‘when did you decide that?”
“Mom, don’t you remember me playing with those toys at around six?” she remembers him replying.
“I do, but I thought you were just playing,” Kathy said.
The DEP and heading off to recruit training became Todd Godwin’s main focus during the final two years of high school. He graduated in May 2001 and was on the yellow footprints by July 10, 2001.
When he returned home from his first deployment on the MEU, his parents were relieved. But he still had time on his enlistment and the wars continued.
On July 25, his friend, Mike Ergo, will be hauling a flag through the IRONMAN race in Delaware, Ohio, as a black streamer flutters on behind him bearing in gold lettering, “Cpl. Godwin.”
“It’s a journey’
Ergo racked up his first Half IRONMAN in 2015 and two more in 2016. The IRONMAN Santa Rosa in 2017 was his first full IRONMAN race. Those notches in his racing belt put Ergo into the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
First a 2.4-mile swim, then a 112-mile bike ride and to finish it off, a marathon, or 26.2 miles. Since starting the races he’s completed five half and four full IRONMAN races.
That’s a 140.6-mile swim-cycle-run race.
At the first race, he wore a jersey with the names of his unit’s fallen. It bears all 21 from 1/8 and another eight who fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah but died in subsequent deployments.
Since starting the races he’s joined the IRONMAN Gold Star Initiative. It allows racers to run in honor of a Gold Star family, those who’ve lost a family member killed or died in military service.
With the jersey naming his fallen brothers, Ergo also carries the American flag.
Though Ergo wears the jersey, he’s run races in honor of fallen military members he didn’t know personally.
The jersey and flag are conversation starters. People ask why he’s carrying the flag. That allows him to share stories of his buddies, of their sacrifice.
During the race, it’s just as much mental as physical.
“When I’m running I’ll have a few thoughts,” Egro said. “It’s a journey. The mental game is sometimes I’ll be processing the trauma. Sometimes processing grief, sometimes it gets really dark. Sometimes it’s ‘awww’ my legs really hurt.”
But when the physical pain begins to intrude, gratitude helps beat it back.
“I think, ‘what can I cling to?,’” Ergo said. “Ok, my legs hurt, that means I have legs, that means I’m alive.”
At other times, he’ll revisit memories of those he’s running to honor.
“I think of what Todd would be saying to me when running,” Ergo said. “It’s helped me reconnect with these guys that we’ve lost.”
Once he crosses the finish line, Ergo will hand over Todd Godwin’s flag and streamer to Bill and Kathy Godwin. They will carry it home.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.