California Navy veteran fighting military suicide, one pushup at a time

U.S. Navy veteran Mike Winberry served in Afghanistan. He’s now constantly accompanied by service dog Dixie while studying computer science at California's Cuesta College. Winberry and several other student veterans recently participated in a “22 Pushup Challenge” video to raise awareness about veterans’ suicide and prevention efforts.


By CYNTHIA LAMBERT | The Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 7, 2016

By Memorial Day weekend in 2013, Mike Winberry, then a combat trauma instructor at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, had been through enough.

He had been separated from his unit for more than a year. He was having some bad nights: nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety that would turn into anger.

And so one night in late May, without much forethought, Winberry got into his car, inserted IV catheters into “just about every major vein, and let them bleed out,” he recalled recently.

At one point he passed out, but then woke up and took them out.

“I thought about one of my guys who was killed and what he would say,” Winberry said, explaining his change of heart.

Winberry, now 24, is a few years removed from his military service.

He’s studying computer science at Cuesta College and plans to attend Oregon State University-Cascades campus in Bend next year to obtain a bachelor’s degree in computer science. And he has found camaraderie at the college’s Veterans Resource Center, where student veterans can connect, socialize and receive support.

It was there that John Cascamo, Cuesta’s dean of Workforce and Economic Development, asked Winberry and other student veterans if they had heard about the “22 Pushup Challenge,” a nationwide effort for servicemen and women to raise awareness of veteran suicide prevention — so named to reflect what it says are the 22 veterans on average who commit suicide each day.

Prompted by Cascamo, Winberry and six other student veterans produced a video to let Cuesta College student veterans know that they can find support at Cuesta. While doing 22 pushups, the group also shares three steps others can take if they think a veteran is contemplating suicide: question, persuade and refer.

First, according to the group, individuals should ask directly if the veteran is thinking of killing himself, and listen and provide support; then tell the veteran they care about him and believe in him; and then take the veteran to get help — to an emergency room, a therapist, to the veteran’s physician or to an urgent care clinic.

“Ask a question, save a life!” the group shouts.

Cascamo said he hopes the video will motivate community members to get trained in suicide intervention.

I think more than anything, the 22 Pushup Challenge ... was a roll call with my guys, my Marines, that we’re still here when you need it.

Mike Winberry, U.S. Navy corpsman who served in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2011

For Winberry, who was challenged by fellow service members to complete 22 pushups a day for 22 days, the exercise gave him a chance to check in with some Marine buddies.

Winberry served as a Navy Hospital Corpsman from 2010-14, deploying to Afghanistan in April 2011 with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment based at Camp Pendleton.

For seven months, he served as first responder for the infantry, first in Sangin, a rural district where more U.S. and British troops lost their lives over the years than in any other area in Afghanistan, according to The Washington Post, and then east toward Kandahar. In the seven months Winberry was there, 17 Marines from his battalion died.

He accompanied the squad on patrols through villages as they provided security and outreach to the area, constantly scanning and removing or detonating IEDs.

“As a medic I was constantly trying to scan, thinking, ‘If this person gets hit, how do I get back there’ ” to them, he recalled.

A description accompanying his Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal details how his “bold and decisive care under fire saved the lives of numerous Marines in Sangin.”

While applying pressure to the squad leader’s leg, which had been amputated by an explosive device, for example, Winberry shielded the man’s body with his own when a hand grenade was thrown near them.

And on July 20, 2011, his patrol struck an IED and came under heavy machine gun and small arms fire. Winberry, who took shrapnel to his leg in the blast, sprinted 100 meters under a hail of gunfire to an injured Marine and shielded him from enemy fire while providing lifesaving treatment.

He later received a Purple Heart for injuries he sustained that July 20 in Afghanistan.

After returning to Camp Pendleton, Winberry became an instructor teaching specialty combat medicine to Navy corpsman. But to him, it felt like playing pretend compared to the addictive adrenaline rush of being in a conflict zone.

He re-enlisted in the Navy on July 1, 2013, and planned to stay through 2017, but in October 2013, he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence and was discharged from the military.

Winberry says his drinking was a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, which he was diagnosed with in 2013 while undergoing treatment for alcohol use.

After his discharge, he drove home to Redding and reconnected with a close friend. They married in 2014, and a service dog that was given him now helps Winberry cope with his PTSD — by waking him when he’s having a nightmare, for example.

Winberry hopes that sharing his experience will prompt others to get help before something happens. He also believes that more proactive treatment for veterans returning from conflict zones might help prevent suicides.

“I think more than anything, the 22 Pushup Challenge was like a roll call for people they know, their guys,” Winberry said. “It was a roll call with my guys, my Marines, that we’re still here when you need it.”

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