University College student, Army vet studies ‘the language of science’ to advance programs to veterans
Could service be an antidote to suicide?
Mike Pereira needed to know. It was 2008, and he had just buried friend, fellow veteran and mentor Tim Nelson, who shot himself inside his Bellingham, Wash., apartment. Pereira felt part of him die with Nelson.
“Before I met him, I didn’t want to see the day,” Pereira said.
Today, Pereira is a student at Washington University in St. Louis’ University College, studying anthropology and psychology in Arts & Sciences. At the time of Nelson’s death, Pereira, a former sergeant in the U.S. Army, was suffering from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after six years in the service, including two combat deployments.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that up to 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD and that every day, 22 veterans commit suicide.
“All I did was play ‘Rainbow Six’ on Xbox, watch movies, drink,” Pereira said. “Tim got me enrolled in school, took me to my first therapist appointment, got me a work-study job. He saved my life. But as I cleaned the blood from his apartment, I was lost.”
Pereira thought of Eric Greitens, the dynamic Navy SEAL he met in Iraq.Greitens told him to call if he ever doubted himself. Pereira did a Google search on Greitens and learned that he had founded The Mission Continues, a St. Louis-based organization that connects veterans to service projects in their own community.
“I read all of the stories and watched all of the videos,” Pereira recalled. “The idea made so much sense to me — that civic service could provide the same sense of purpose and community as military service.”
In Bellingham, Pereira put together a group of veterans to help the elderly, the ill and the disabled. He named their first project “Objective Helga,” after a 92-year-old woman who needed her garage cleaned. Other projects were named after soldiers lost. After six months, the veterans had put in 450 service hours.
“We cleaned the black mold and the rat poop — all of the jobs no one else wanted,” Pereira said. “It was only then that I wrote Eric. I said, ‘You’re right. It works.’”
Greitens recruited Pereira to St. Louis to serve as fellowship director.Greitens said he wanted Pereira not only for his passion and his commitment, but also for his discipline.
“There is the morality of intentions and the morality of results,” Greitens said. “A lot of people will congratulate themselves just for showing up, but we want to make sure that the investment of time, energy and money makes a real difference in veterans’ lives. Mike understood that it requires discipline and a willingness to change if something isn’t working.”
Pereira loved the work, but he wanted to return to school. He enrolled in University College in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, where he has worked on numerous studies investigating the connection between service and psychological health.
“I wanted to learn the language of science so I can bring validity to my experiences in a way that will influence how others understand them,” Pereira said. “If I can serve as that door to insight, it will help others understand the trauma and challenges so many veterans face.”
‘Born into trauma’
Pereira’s battle didn’t start with the war. He grew up in Watsonville, Calif., “Steinbeck country,” he said. His father was an ex-convict who worked as a mechanic. His mother was from a family of Mexican immigrants. Before the age of 10, Pereira had survived a house fire, the 1989 earthquake and an escape from the commune where Pereira lived with his mother and sister after his parents split.
“It was more like a cult,” Pereira said. “One day, we chased after a logging truck and got out. It was a run-for-your-life type of thing. It seems like I was just born into trauma.”
Pereira’s parents got back together and moved to Bellingham. By sixth grade, Pereira was skipping school; by 15, he was homeless. He dropped out of high school and got a job as a mechanic.
“I was living off of Home Depot hot dogs and canned cheese,” Pereira said. “One day, I came home for lunch and I was trying to get the grease out of my nails. I remember my dad saying, ‘You never get the grease out.’ I just prayed, ‘Let me get the grease out.’ I felt this sense of empowerment. I decided I would graduate from high school because my father didn’t, nor had anyone else in his family.”
The day after his high school graduation in 2000, Pereira enlisted in the Army. He was stationed in Germany and bonded immediately with his fellow soldiers.
“They all came from circumstances as tough as my own,” Pereira said. “But we all wanted the same thing — we all wanted to live the Lysol commercial, the stable, happy, family life.
“Then 9/11 happened and things got serious.”
Pereira was sent to Afghanistan, where he analyzed intelligence reports gleaned from prisoner interrogations. Pereira was good at his job, but when a friend died in a roadside bomb attack by a terror cell he had been tracking, Pereira was overcome with guilt. He worked harder and longer and, when his Army stint was up, he signed on as an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense in Iraq. Pereira was there nearly two years when he nearly died in a helicopter malfunction. That was it; he was done.
“I got tired of the sleep cycles, the constant stress, seeing all of the KIAs (killed in action),” Pereira said.
A heroic quest
Pereira couldn’t see it then, but that suffering would one day give him wisdom. Greitens gave him a copy of “The Odyssey,” perhaps the first great work about a returning vet. Pereira realized he was on his own heroic quest.
It’s a quest rooted in service to others. Since coming to St. Louis, Pereira started the Pathfinder Initiative, a program that teaches veterans to train therapy horses for disabled children; received asocial venture challenge grant at the Clinton Global Initiative University; was named a fellow of The Resolution Project; helped found Washington University Students Veterans Association (WUVETS); and began volunteering at Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care, where he works with dying veterans.
And, as a student, he immersed himself in rigorous research, analyzing outcomes of The Mission Continues fellows. The work has impressed Steve Ehrlich, associate dean for academics in University College.
“He’s willing to look at issues of the head and the heart and how both relate to how we learn and grow as adults,” Ehrlich said.
“Higher education doesn’t always pay as much attention to the heart,” Ehrlich said. “It focuses more on the life of the mind, which is why we do what we do. But equally important to growth and development is paying attention to the heart and thinking critically about yourself, about others, about your environment, your institutions. He has a unique way of doing that.”
Pereira’s honors thesis investigates post-traumatic growth — the concept that tragedy can lead to wisdom. The idea is as old as ancient times, but the field of study as it relates to veterans is relatively new.
Pereira expects to find that veterans who participate in civic engagement through groups like The Mission Continues report less severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and have improved quality of life, self-efficacy and resiliency.
“The approach mental health takes is that there is something wrong with you and whatever is wrong is making your life less optimal,” said Pereira, who plans get his doctorate in clinical psychology after earning his bachelor’s degree from Washington University this spring.
“So they target what’s wrong. That is great for some people — you have to stop the emotional bleeding. But that takes people from negative-five to zero. How do we get people from zero to five? That’s where post-traumatic growth comes in. How do you use your experiences as fuel to expound on your potential? I believe the key is through civic engagement.”
Greitens says Pereira’s research has helped The Mission Continues refine its program to better serve veterans and, hence, attract more donors who want to make their dollars count. He applauds the support University College has offered Pereira and other student veterans.
“One of the reasons why he has been so happy and successful at Wash U is because he is in an environment where people not only recognize the importance of action, but thoughtful action,” Greitens said. “I can see how much he has grown.”
Still, it would be a mistake to believe Pereira has completed his journey. He still can’t talk about Nelson or four other friends he has lost to suicide without showing emotion.
“They’ll never have that Lysol commercial,” Pereira said. “But their memory inspires us to work hard so other veterans can. A lot of my tears are happy. Learning to accept the life you never thought you could have is the hard part.”