How a 'zit-faced kid' transformed into a Navy SEAL — and a powerful advocate for veterans
A meeting with Mikal Vega will surprise you. Upon first glance, he fits every vision one might have of a Navy SEAL veteran. He towers over most people in size and in energy. There's a confident air about him which screams "military." You might be surprised to find this SEAL was once the creative glee and drama club teen from a troubled home who never thought about joining the military until he joined the military. As Vega says, the amount of creative in you will attract an equal darkness.
"When I was six, I knew I wanted to be an actor. I would beg my grandmother to send me to acting school," Vega says. "I started to make movies with an old Super 8 my grandmother gave me. All through Junior High and High School I performed. In drama and in glee club. I was a zit-faced, curly headed glee club kid. I was always into art, I draw and paint, anything creative."
Vega joined the Navy at 17 as a kid with little or no direction. He went into Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) at first, but found he didn't fit the EOD culture. Even though it took six years to get into the program, he knew he wanted to become a SEAL.
"My Dad was a SEAL but he wasn't around and wasn't a good influence, to say the least," Vega recalls. "So I had my grandmother and then these Navy EOD guys. They became that family for me. They played that role in my life. But once I put my package in to become a SEAL, the mood changed, friction started. They felt like I was a traitor."
Without question SEAL training is difficult. Of the 183 men who went to Vega's training class, only 11 of them graduated. Once he became a SEAL, his life began to change.
"We started doing personal security detail missions just to get into Iraq," Vega says. "I was what you call a shit magnet. I attracted action and everyone wanted to be on my assignments because they were hungry, they wanted to prove themselves, to do what we trained so hard to do. I think everyone in the military is like that. Our task group was responsible for 143 missions over six months."
Everyone with Vega was happy to be in the fight but things didn't always go as his team planned. One night, he was part of a convoy on a direct action mission on a black route (a route that hadn't been cleared or is unknown since the last clearing) when his Humvee was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED), a signature attack of the Iraq War. As his convoy approached the IED in the dark, Vega remembers seeing the flash of the explosion. Luckily it was a low-order, which means it didn't explode to its full capability.
"The IED didn't function properly, luckily for me and for a lot of guys. What it did do was slam me over the top of the Humvee," he says. "The next day, I started getting what I thought was muscle pain and ear issues. It would be another five years before I realized I had a cracked neck, and over the next few years, the symptoms were becoming unbelievable. I went to pain clinics and doctors offices here and there, but eventually they'll pull you out of the fight if you go too often. Like a lot of the guys out there, I would try to go outside the military system, or get under the table help from the corpsman. No one wants to get taken out of the fight."
When he returned home, he faced many of the issues experienced by many returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. He wouldn't sleep for days at a time. He had trouble readjusting. All he could think about was getting back to Iraq.
"Five years later, I've lost 80 percent of my grip, my pecs atrophied, I lost full range of motion in right arm," Vega says. But that was just the beginning "In the military system or the VA, the drugs they give you for post-traumatic stress don't address the hormone imbalance post-traumatic stress causes in veterans. This makes us irritable, it makes it difficult to reach deep sleep or sleep at all, memory loss... these are the symptoms of PTSD! So I revolted against the system and started doing these things that unwittingly rebalanced my hormonal system. I didn't realize until the doctors started asking me how I made so much progress. This is a scientific method of increasing the power of the central nervous system to offset the destructive powers of war."
Vega's revolt took him on a healing alternative journey, starting with rolfing (a kind of structural body therapy) to acupuncture, to meditation, to Kundalini yoga, and finally to teaching Kundalini yoga — a class he gives to veterans and their families for free every Sunday at 11am at the Rama Yoga Institute in Venice, California.
That's how Vega came to found Vital Warrior, a nonprofit veteran's resource philosophy is to provide clients with non-pharmaceutical solutions to healing, including hands-on-therapy, knowledge and skills to regaining a re-connection from within through hormonal re-balancing. His goal is to develop decompression centers within close proximity to military bases to provide alternative therapies in an effort to address trauma on a brain-body basis. When it comes to post-traumatic stress, Mikal Vega does not associate it with a disorder.
"Post-traumatic stress isn't a disorder," he says. "It's a normal response to abnormal conditions. Any job or event that exposes you to high stress environment, you'll develop these issues. But we as veterans have to take responsibility for our own experiences, we had to make sure we handle our symptoms and the deeper physiological and psychological issues we face."
In 2014 Vega's mission to get veterans off pharmaceuticals was recognized by the Citizen's Commission on Human Rights as one of four outstanding individuals presented with the 2014 CCHR Human Rights Award.
Vega was also featured in a series of short films produced by Craftsman, We Are The Mighty, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), showing how IAVA empowers veterans as they transition back to civilian life.
"I want this to be the Starbucks of healing," Vega says. "I want buses to bring this to remote areas. I want to visit men and women downrange. I want to teach these techniques in boot camp that they can use throughout their career. We can be proactive and not reactive."
Vega is now an actor, producer, and President at AK Waters productions as well as working to get Vital Warrior where he wants it to be. Their next film, 9 Line, is set to release this fall. For any returning veteran, especially creatives like himself, his advice is to consider if you are where you should be.
"Why do you want to do what you do?" Vega asks. "Is it what you're supposed to be doing? Do you know how to find out what youre supposd to be doing? No body teaches us how to look inside ourselves for this answer. We will pay other people a lot of money to tell us whats in our own mind. Consider how to get rid of the garbage and connect with yourself."
To learn more about Vital Warrior or to volunteer, visit www.vitalwarrior.org.