By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany West News
SLIDELL – “I’m surviving.”
That was the best answer Mike Thibodeaux could come up with after taking a few seconds to ponder the question “how are you doing today?”
Thibodeaux served nearly six years with the U.S. Marines from 2009 to 2015, heading to Afghanistan on two deployments that led to being shot twice, and having minor injuries when his Humvee was flipped from a roadside bomb known as an Improvised Explosive Device (IED).
His Mobile Assault Platoon took part in over 270 missions in Afghanistan, packing up every day with what Thibodeaux called “our Humvee on Steroids” with five men who patrolled the dusty terrain trying to keep the Taliban away from the innocent men, women and children who were forced to live in the midst of the military conflict.
Thibodeaux decided against re-enlisting when his time was over in October of 2015, a decision made in large part because he had gotten married in 2011 and had his first of three children.
Making the transition back to civilian life became more challenging than Thibodeaux thought it would be, something many American soldiers discover when they leave the battlefield behind and try to immediately resume the life they previously were living.
That’s where the Wounded War Heroes organization in St. Tammany Parish proved to be a life-saver, Thibodeaux said. The group uses the outdoors to provide camaraderie and support for soldiers coming back from war. In the past year they have helped approximately 100 veterans just like Thibodeaux, affecting over 500 individuals and their family members.
The annual Wounded War Heroes fundraiser is set for Friday, June 16 in the Mandeville Castine Center from 5:30 to 11 p.m. where key heroes of the service will be honored and the organization will thank sponsors to the group.
Thibodeaux is a classic case of the veterans Wounded War Heroes is helping. After graduating from St. Stanislaus High School in 2000 he initially started working in several restaurants to follow a passion he had to be a chef. He worked six years for Emeril’s Delmonico restaurant in New Orleans, but said he always had a nagging motivation to do something more.
“I always felt a calling to go into the military,” he said. “After a few years as a chef I knew I had to do something different with my life, something more gratifying.”
In 2009 he joined the United States Armed Forces, getting assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment and training as a combat infantryman for the Mobile Assault Platoon. In January, 2011 he was deployed to Afghanistan and became a point man as a machine gunner that began what would be an incredible total of over 270 missions he would go on.
Thibodeaux said it was the thorough training he received from the Marines that enabled his fellow soldiers to go out day-after-day and return home safely. While there certainly were times the Taliban soldiers had a victory with some injuries to Americans, Thibodeaux said there was only one time in the 270 missions that someone in his regiment was killed.
The daily routine involved the five-man staff in each Humvee patrolling the region around Marjah, Afghanistan. It was a common occurrence to pull up to a particular area with three of the five Humvee soldiers getting out to check local buildings.
“One of the hardest things is that it was so difficult to tell who the bad guys were or the local citizens were,” he noted. “They were all dressed the same. One guy said the only way you knew the difference was that the bad guys were the ones who started shooting at you.”
On January 25, 2011 the team came to an area of several buildings. Thibodeaux saw a well and went to check it since the Taliban soldiers frequently kept a large number of weapons down in the well.
“As I started to head back from the well we came under fire. I felt one bullet go in my shoulder and out my chest. Then I also got shot in the heel of my right foot,” he recalled. “Another corpsman got shot too, but ‘Doc’ Ellis was right there and our men provided cover fire.”
Thibodeaux said the moment was “scary,” but he knew that help was coming. “Doc let me know right away that I was going to be OK, plus the morphine helps calm you down,” he said with a laugh.
A helicopter made it there in nearly 20 minutes that Thibodeaux said “seemed like a long time,” taking him to a local hospital where they performed surgery before he was flown to Germany for three days, then back to the states to begin his rehab.
Fortunately for Thibodeaux the bullet missed any vital organs, but it did sever a vein that rendered his arm useless. Thankfully his physical therapy has improved the situation, but he still has a numb arm from his elbow to his thumb. The heel injury also required a long rehab for him to walk again, but that became an injury he was able to overcome.
Thibodeaux was told he could receive his honorable discharge at that time, but he refused.
“Why go back? When you join the military and work side-by-side with these guys it forms a brotherhood. It’s just like your family. I was committed to them, but I especially wanted to go back to use the experience I had to help train and protect the younger kids coming in,” he added.
Thibodeaux returned in March, 2013 and somehow was shot in the same right heel in May, 2013, something he recovered from in Afghanistan, once again staying right with his regiment.
“Getting shot in the same heel twice is pretty unusual,” he said. “The guys called me the unluckiest, lucky person in the world. And then they came up with a new nickname for me—Achilles.”
Thibodeaux returned to the battlefield for a third time that lasted until August, 2013 when the Humvee he and his boys were traveling in ran over the explosive, flipping the truck on its side, but fortunately not seriously injuring any of them.
“That seemed to be enough and in October they sent me home and I retired from the military,” the Covington resident said. “I did consider re-enlisting, but with a wife and child at that time I thought I needed to end my military career.”
That’s when Thibodeaux realized there was more to a return to the states than overcoming his physical injuries.
“The transition to civilian life was tougher than I thought. It was hard not being on a strict regimen and it’s easy for soldiers to still treat people like we are in the Marines,” he said. “It’s hard to separate the two after you have done that.”
Thibodeaux also said one of the hardest things to do is “not be on alert all the time. It’s never easy.”
He heard about the Wounded War Heroes group when he met Matt Cole at the St. Tammany Veterans Affairs local office, which gives veterans assistance in any way they can.
“The group has helped me so much because I’ve made friends with local people here. Previously I didn’t know many people on the North Shore, but now I get to talk to people who I can relate to. It really helps to have a group like this here in St. Tammany, unlike some other groups that are spread across the country,” he said.
Thibodeaux and his wife have made things work at home since she became an RN and works at St. Tammany Parish Hospital, while he has become the stay-at-home dad, allowing him to go to counseling and volunteer with the Wounded War Heroes organization.