In 2014, Donald “Skip” Mondragon walked into his corner office, locked the door, lowered the shades, sat down on the musty carpet and found himself cradling his legs under his desk.
“For a period of hours, I asked myself these questions, ‘Skip, what is going on? What are you doing?’” he recalled.
Under the desk, Mondragon put the pieces together and admitted he had been depressed for the past year.
In his 27 years of in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, Mondragon spent 37 months deployed and 30 of those in combat zones as a medic. His medical career in the Army was quite successful yet rigorous. And his life-long hobby of wrestling always kept him in top shape, also providing a nose-to-the-grindstone attitude.
Now, he’s editing his book, “Wrestling Depression is Not for Wimps: Lessons Learned from an Amateur Wrestler’s Fight to Triumph Over Depression,” to remove the stigma of depression and encourage men to seek treatment if needed.
It was a cold January day in 1989 when Skip began his active-duty military career. The same day, his wife, Sherry, and their three children arrived at Reynolds Army Community Hospital in Fort Sill, Oklahoma where he worked as one of three general internists — someone who specializes in adult medicine.
Five months into the job, the chief medical officer informed Mondragon he would be the only internist doctor and was promoted to chief of the internal medical clinic and chief of the intensive care unit.
“It was the most miserable summer I’ve ever spent in the Army, including deployments,” Mondragon admitted.
The grueling hours almost seemed impossible and additional staff took months too long to arrive. In the meantime, Mondragon prepared to take his internal medicine board exams to become board certified.
The year 1990 rolled around, and Mondragon deployed for Desert Storm with the 47th Field Hospital for a year. In 1998 he served seven months in Haiti, which was not a war zone at the time. From 2003-04, Mondragon deployed to Mosul, Iraq to the 21st Combat Support Hospital.
“That time became the highlight of my career,” Mondragon said.
He became the officer in charge at the hospital, responsible for the safety and welfare of 220 personnel and patients. Mondragon recalled the heads of soldiers stroked as compassionate voices told them, “It’s going to be okay. I need you to stay strong.”
His final deployment was to Baghdad in 2010, again for 12 months. He served as an advisor to the Iraqi chief medical officer of the security forces after the previous one was assassinated.
In his time deployed, Mondragon explained he took care of soldiers who died or knew their lives would be altered forever and even proclaimed charred bodies deceased.
Mondragon does not claim his time overseas was a direct result of his chronic depression, but instead a variety of events and transitions in his life.
“Horrible, dark disease of depression,” expressed Mondragon with his head lowered, shaking and eyes shut.
In 2013, his mood began to sink, and his sleep was continuously disrupted. Symptoms of depression worsened and negative thoughts, mainly of failure, ruminated in his mind. He was often withdrawn and hobbies, which primarily consisted of amateur wrestling, were no longer interesting. Things got so bad that he started to forget aspects of his practice and was even tested for early dementia. The test came back negative.
“It was a variety of things,” Mondragon explained. “I think it was the preparations to retire from the Army. Move from Georgia back to Texas. Uncertainty in things, not having a job lined up. A lot of transitions and plus I’d had three surgeries in relatively short order, so really within six months.”
These surgeries disrupted his normal routines of working out and diet. His physical condition deteriorated. Mondragon admitted his identity is rooted in his stature.
“I was bullied as a child,” he disclosed. “I’m not a big man and as part of the reason of why I came upon wrestling as an eighth-grader was the only sport after being involved in so many things I felt like, ‘I think I can do this and be good at this.’”
After months of emotional incapability, Mondragon hit bottom in 2014, which is when he sat in that fetal position under his office desk. When he came to the recollection of his depression and set aside his work-hard attitude, he saw a clinical physiologist.
Michael Perry was his therapist during this time. They shared the bond and trust as soldiers who have been deployed, both devoted to Christ and to their families. He saw him weekly, was prescribed antidepressants and continued treatment.
A POWERFUL MESSAGE
Mondragon heard a bible study about suffering that asked, “If Christ had to suffer so brutally on our behalf, why would we be exempt from suffering?” From this message, Mondragon had the epiphany to share his experience.
In 2015, he heard about a publisher of Transformational Books, Christine Kloser. A writing contest was mentioned where the winner of a transformational book would be awarded a publication deal. “A matter of months later, I was notified that I was the winner. And between you and me I was surprised and delighted,” Mondragon said.
He utilized modules to better understand the reasons behind the message and who his target audience would be and the impact he hopes to have. He started writing in late 2015 and finished his draft near the end of 2016. He is now in the midst of editing. The book will publish before the end of the year.
He agreed that sharing his story with his colleagues, filming PSAs for the Army, confiding in a therapist and writing a book has allowed him to gain new insights about himself and was vital to his recovery. He is not confident that he will ever return to his pre-morbid state but has established his new normal and admitted recovery is ongoing.
Mondragon currently works part-time at Hope Clinic as a doctor and resides in Midlothian with his wife, Sherry. While he waits for the publication of his transformational book he created a website that encourages men to seek help, wrestlingisnotforwimps.com.
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Ashley Ford | @aford_news | 469-517-1450