Episode 54: Wounded in Combat: A Veteran’s Journey to Healing with Michael “CQ” Carrasquillo
Episode 54: Wounded in Combat: A Veteran’s Journey to Healing with Michael “CQ” Carrasquillo
In this week’s episode, Alyssa sits down with veteran, PTSD survivor, and comedian Michael “CQ” Carrasquillo. Michael provides an in-depth perspective on his time serving in the military, from the moment he enlisted until the very moment in Afghanistan when he was shot 5 times in an ambush. Following two years of being in the hospital, Michael talks about his battle with PTSD, the survivor’s guilt he struggles with, and how he came to find joy and laughter in life again. He is truly a hero, an inspiration, and resilient beyond belief.
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Alyssa Scolari [00:23]:
Hi everybody, welcome back to another episode of the Light After Trauma podcast. Welcome, welcome. Hope everybody is doing well. We have a really special episode happening for us today, a really special guest speaker. This was quite an emotional episode. It’s a lot of tough stuff. But this episode is truly the epitome of finding light after trauma. So I am really looking forward to diving in. I know it’s going to be a tough one, but it’s an incredible story and I am really looking forward to hearing all of the details and just being able to bear witness to the strength that our guest speaker has today, to be able to bear witness to the strength that our guest speaker has.
So today we are meeting with Michael CQ Carrasquillo. Now, Michael is a combat wounded army airborne infantry man. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan at the height of combat operations in the early 2000s. He spent two years in an army hospital recovering from his injuries, underwent 40 plus surgeries, actually died twice and was eventually medically retired from service. Since then, he has tried just about everything from skydiving, golf, scuba diving, hunting, et cetera. Eventually, he found himself performing stand up comedy and loving it. That paved the way to hosting a weekly live internet radio pop culture talk show on WTF nation radio called POP Culture Warrior. All right, so with that being said, also, side note, I just want to incorporate in there that I sort of did the Spanglish version of Michael’s name, during the introduction. So it is not the way that I first pronounced it. We’re going to be as American with this pronunciation as possible, and it’s going to be Carrasquillo, right?
Michael Carrasquillo [00:23]:
That’s right, that’s right.
Alyssa Scolari [02:39]:
That just feels wrong.
Michael Carrasquillo [02:41]:
Well, yeah, if you want to go Spanish, it’s Carrasquillo.
Alyssa Scolari [02:44]:
Carrasquillo, that feels right. That feels right to me.
Michael Carrasquillo [02:44]:
Alyssa Scolari [02:51]:
So hello, Michael, how are you?
Michael Carrasquillo [02:54]:
I’m good. I’m good. And for the simplest simplicity of it all, everyone refers to me as CQ. So feel free, CQ, a lot less formal. And got to-
Alyssa Scolari [02:54]:
Michael Carrasquillo [03:05]:
… respect the brand.
Alyssa Scolari [03:07]:
Oh, oh, my God, your hat.
Michael Carrasquillo [03:09]:
Alyssa Scolari [03:11]:
Dude, that’s so cool. Okay, so everybody calls you CQ. That’s just-
Michael Carrasquillo [03:11]:
Alyssa Scolari [03:16]:
… All right, all right. So we’re rolling with it. So we’ve got CQ with us today. I have read about your story in the articles that you linked, and then obviously in the short description that you sent me.
Michael Carrasquillo [03:33]:
Alyssa Scolari [03:34]:
Holy, Holy Mother of God.
Michael Carrasquillo [03:39]:
Am I what you expected? I’m just curious.
Alyssa Scolari [03:43]:
Well, when I was reading the articles, I thought to myself, this is somebody who has taken everything that he’s been through, and he’s really… I mean, I’m a big fan of humor therapy. Because it’s like, if we don’t laugh about it, we’re just going to sob about it. So I have a very dark sense of humor. And I got that, that it’s almost like you have been able to find the humor in all of this, which is just incredibly powerful. So is it what I would expect? No, I mean, to the listeners out there, I’ve got, like the background that I’m looking at, he’s super into Marvel, we’ve got the Iron Man fist, the Iron Man, helmet, [inaudible 00:04:24] Man, some Funko Pop figures, which is like, as many of you know who are listening, right up my alley.
So as soon as I saw the background, I was like, ooh, tell me what you have. Let’s talk about all the toys you have. So yeah, and I mean, I guess, my first question, just to be able to inform the listeners so they can get on the same level as us is, can you talk just a little bit about what happened to you? I mean, first and foremost, just from my introduction alone, they know of your service, I know of your service. So I, and the listeners, thank you for your service.
Michael Carrasquillo [05:04]:
I appreciate it.
Alyssa Scolari [05:06]:
And could you talk to us about, how did you even end up enlisting in the first place?
Michael Carrasquillo [05:14]:
Yeah, from a 40,000 foot view, it’s such a big, large chunk of story. And I really don’t want to bore anybody with all the minutiae of little details. But kind of just from a high level, I was born and raised in New York City. Very poor upbringing. Literally kind of the ghetto, Spanish Harlem, upper Eastside. Teenage mom, dad not in the picture. So starting out in not the greatest of places. And I was a senior in high school when 9/11 happened. And so at that point, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I was kind of lost, college wasn’t for me. It was looking like just getting a job and working. And then when that happened, that kind of just… the military had never been a thing to me. It had never been like, oh, something I’m considering. Guys like me didn’t join the military.
Alyssa Scolari [06:12]:
It wasn’t even your radar.
Michael Carrasquillo [06:14]:
Yeah, if I’m being 100% honest, I think at that point in my life, I didn’t know we still had military. You know what I mean? I’m 16, 17 years old, whatever. I’m like, wars aren’t a thing anymore?
Alyssa Scolari [06:26]:
Right, it’s old school. You have that kid mentality of like, that’s not even a thing anymore.
Michael Carrasquillo [06:31]:
Exactly. Pre 9/11, this wasn’t for those that weren’t around, it had been a while since there had been any conflicts in my lifetime. And so when that happened, obviously it felt personal, even though obviously they’re attacking the country, they literally attacked my home. Places that I roamed very frequently, my school wasn’t that far from ground zero. And so obviously there was big uptake in commercials for the military and things, as the [inaudible 00:07:02] went on. And it just became this idea of, yeah, get some payback, like very immature. But at the same time, it was also, as I looked at it as more of a thing that was possible, it became this thing that was, I can get out. This is my way out. I come from a poor background, I come from nothing… I don’t know, it was a way for me to kind of escape what was going on in my own life, and get away and do my own thing. And a way to be successful, I guess, on my own.
I saw kids I grew up with that were into drugs and to gangs, they were either getting arrested or ended up in dead end jobs. And I was just like, there’s got to be more to life. And yeah, so I enlisted, basically, almost right out of high school. I graduated, and then there were so many people enlisting at that time. They had thing called the Delayed Entry Program, since there were just so many people coming through and wanting to join that, you just basically signed in, you’re sweared in, and you did all this stuff. But so I did that in the summer, I graduated, but it wasn’t until January of 2003 that I actually officially entered into the army, went to basic training and did all that. So yeah, I joined the infantry, for those that don’t know, when you think army, those are your guys. Those are the ground level combat troops. You’re not a mechanic, you’re not a cook, your whole job is fighting. You do nothing but train with weapons and explosives and things and conduct raids and all the things you would think about typical army guy stuff.
Alyssa Scolari [08:44]:
Did you have a choice in that or that was just kind of what you were given?
Michael Carrasquillo [08:50]:
Yeah, so basically, when you join the military, you’ll take what’s called the ASVAB, it’s an aptitude test. And based on your scores, will be what jobs are available to you to sign up. Now, of course, you could score really well, and then, but I don’t want to be a, I don’t know, X-ray technician, and you scored well enough for it. But then there’s things like needs of the army, where if there’s too many people in that job, they’re not going to keep accepting those people in the job. So there’s facets of how you get into certain jobs. I scored well enough that I think out of the 240 odd jobs available, I qualified for 238 of them.
Alyssa Scolari [09:30]:
Michael Carrasquillo [09:30]:
I think the only one was like something to do with nuclear technology or something like that, I didn’t qualify for. But I scored really well on my test. Luckier brains, I don’t know, a little bit of both. But at that time, silly me, I didn’t think about a job, I didn’t think about a career, I didn’t think about what would help me when I leave the military. I thought about like, I want to shoot guns, I want to blow shit up. I want to do that stuff. And so I joined the infantry. And also, airborne, so the idea of jumping out of planes and directly engaging enemy combatants, to me, that was like, yeah, this is what I want to do.
Alyssa Scolari [10:06]:
That was like an adrenaline rush for you. You were like, absolutely.
Michael Carrasquillo [10:09]:
Oh, yeah. And so yeah, so I joined in January 2003, I started. And I went to Fort Benning, Georgia, did my basic training there, airborne school there. And then straight out of there, was sent to the Vicenza, Italy. I was stationed with the 1/73rd Airborne in Vicenza, Italy. It’s an American-based, it’s not Italian in any way. It’s a quick reaction force, so the idea being, in a time of peace, we have a unit there overseas, where if something happens, we’re able to react to that much faster than anyone in the states can. We’re the tip of the spear, so to speak. We’re halfway there. And so it’s one of those things that, it was exciting, because this is really like the first time I’d left the country. Just turned 19 at that point, and green behind the ears and was like, oh, my God, I’m this infantry guy now, I’m this airborne guy now. And now I’m being stationed in Italy.
And then right out the gate, they’re like, oh, by the way, we’re jumping into Iraq, we’re invading Iraq. So I went from basic training and just getting into the military, to being in combat within a few weeks.
Alyssa Scolari [11:19]:
Oh, my gosh.
Michael Carrasquillo [11:21]:
Yeah, a lot to process, a lot to process.
Alyssa Scolari [11:25]:
Right, and zero time to do so. Because it’s just like, hey, here we go.
Michael Carrasquillo [11:30]:
Yeah, pretty much.
Alyssa Scolari [11:32]:
Wow, so did things change for you in that moment of like, when it became clear to you that you were going to invade Iraq? Or were you still in that mindset of like, yeah, let’s do this.
Michael Carrasquillo [11:48]:
I was terrified, I was absolutely terrified. It becomes real, real fast. Signing up for it, and doing the training, super gung ho, and then you get there. And honestly, it might have just been the fact that being a literal new guy, like somebody who, I’d just got there, I didn’t feel very prepared. Because as much as you… basic training, they teach you to march and salute. It’s why it’s called basic training, you learn the basic things of being in the military. How to make a bed, how to dress in uniform. But as far as how to fight, we spent days at the range learning how to shoot, how to communicate with the team, but I really knew nothing. I mean, I knew nothing. I’d never been in a Humvee, the military vehicle. I’d never been in a Humvee before. Outside of the range, I’d never handled live ammunition. Like these are guys that, when they got the word, they had about six months. I mean, obviously, we train as part of our day-to-day, but this specific deployment, they had trained for six months to really gear up and be ready for it.
And here I am, I show up like three weeks before the event. And at that point, it’s not about training, it’s about saying goodbye to your families and packing up rooms and getting the gear ready to go. And then going. So I really had no training leading up to that deployment with those guys. And so it was really difficult, really difficult at first. And a lot of these guys were, they had known each other for a long time and they trained together. And I’m this X factor that just shows up, that literally knows nothing. And it was difficult. The first six to eight months, it was not… I messed up a lot. I’d love to say I was this amazing, excellent soldier, but I messed up a lot. And it was just because I didn’t know any better.
Alyssa Scolari [13:46]:
Right, how could you not? How could you not? The world is frantic, coming off the heels of 9/11, how could you know any differently?
Michael Carrasquillo [13:57]:
Yeah, pretty much. But I made it through the deployment and I found my way and kind of gained the respect of the guys by the end of the deployment. We were supposed to be there only three weeks, that’s what we were told. We jump in, we secure some airfields, they bring in the rest of the army, and then they pull us out. And that’s what the families had heard, that’s what the wives and the kids and everybody. That’s what we packed for, was three weeks. The unit was there a total of 15 months, continuously. And so yeah, about a year and some odd change. And finally, they pulled us out. And at that point, obviously we’re a cohesive team and we’re clicking on all levels. And I remember we get back from Iraq, and literally we touched down a couple different stops and then our final destination is in Italy, is in Aviano, Italy.
And they’re going to put us on a bus to go back to our base in Vicenza. And they say, hey, get it, we’re back, enjoy this, celebrate it, spend time with the families. But just know, we just got word we’re going back in a year. So this year is going to be all about training. We got to get better, we got to be better than we were before. And we find out quickly after that, that we weren’t going back to Iraq, we were actually going to Afghanistan, the next one. And they said, as hard as you thought Iraq was, Afghanistan is going to be worse. And so that was kind of a buzzkill, as we got down. But that started the clock, that gave us an idea that in one year’s time, we had to be ready to go back and do it again.
This time, knowing from the start, that we were going to spend a year there. They told us, look, it’s going to be a year. And so, it’s a lot to ask of a person, of a man, a boy, really, barely.
Alyssa Scolari [15:52]:
A kid, right. You’re barely an adult.
Michael Carrasquillo [15:56]:
Yeah. But that was tough. But we spent that year training hard. Spent a couple months in Germany, training in the mountains and really getting ready for it. And obviously, I felt much more prepared by the time that deployment came around. I was leading a team at that time. And yeah, I made it six months through that deployment. And then during a mission, I got ambushed. And I ended up getting wounded. I ended up getting shots. Another guy went down first, and I was kind of dragging him out of the situation. And I got shot twice. And then through the continued fighting, got shot three more times. And then my body was like, you know what, we’re done. We’re taking a timeout. And I kind of just collapsed. And yeah, was fortunate to survive. And I’m here now.
Alyssa Scolari [16:49]:
No, I was reading, you had what’s called, is it the life saving, a type of specific training?
Michael Carrasquillo [16:55]:
Alyssa Scolari [16:57]:
Combat Lifesaver, okay. So you had that specific training, so you were actually able, for a little while there, to kind of tell somebody how to care for your wounds immediately.
Michael Carrasquillo [17:09]:
Yeah. So what happens is, the way we did things. Because I’m sure every division, every company, everybody does things differently. But the way we did, you have a four-man team, two teams make a squad. So in your four-man team, there’d always be one guy who went through this course, Combat Lifesaver. You’re not a medic, I never claimed to be a medic. They just teach you very, very important skills of how to splint the leg, how to start an IV, how to put on a tourniquet, how to treat a sucking chest wound. The things that like, these are things that are time critical. Because it could take a medic, who knows how long, to get to somebody. So the idea being, if you just know just enough to keep them stable for a medic to get to them, it increases their chances of survival.
So in my team, my four-man team, I was the combat lifesaver. And it was a squad of us. So there was another team and they had a combat lifesaver guy as well. So when I got wounded, which, that’s technically why, to explain why I was dragging a guy through gunfire, it’s because we were doing an air assault mission. So as we landed, as we exited the helicopter, we got ambushed. They had the high ground, they started shooting at us. I look up the leaves, one of my guys got shot through the leg. But before I knew he had been shot, what had happened was, I had already exited the aircraft. And I was looking back and I just see him on the ground grabbing his leg, and I’m thinking, crap, he stumbled out the plane, he rolled his ankle-
Alyssa Scolari [18:45]:
Right, he sprained his ankle or something.
Michael Carrasquillo [18:47]:
Yeah, something. He’s grabbing his leg, something, and I could see that he was kind of, I don’t want to say screaming, but I could see he was yelling. And I’m like, ah, maybe he broke something. And so in my head I’m thinking, all right, I’m going to have to splint this leg, I’m going to have to fill out a report. We’re going to have call in a 9-line MedEvac and get him out of here. I’m thinking, ugh, this is great. I’m just like, ugh, Jesus Christ, another thing I’ve got to deal with.
Alyssa Scolari [19:07]:
Right, one more thing I got to do.
Michael Carrasquillo [19:08]:
And then when the helicopter took away, because it’s very loud, that’s when I heard the gunshots, and I hear him screaming, “I’m hit, I’m hit, I’m hit.” And so in that moment, I had to like, I just did what I did. I ran out, grabbed him and started dragging him to what I thought would be safety, a big rock with boulders, trying to drag him back to that. And as soon as I drag him back, my thought was all right, I’m going to have to check his wounds and everything. But as a team leader, you have to assess the situation and you have to coordinate with the guys, and make sure everybody’s doing what they’re doing, what they should be doing. And luckily, we trained so much. And this was, like I said, we’re six months in, we’re used to this kind of stuff. Everybody’s doing what they needed to do. Nobody needed direction. We all know how to react to this.
And so as I was trying to assess the situation and everything, that’s when I got shot again, and I was down. The other team had kind of rotated towards, and that’s when the other combat lifesaver guy saw me, and ran over to me. And he started working on me. Now, obviously, bullets are flying, explosions are happening. So it’s a very intense situation. And like, we’re talking to each other. Because at this point, I’m out of the fight. It’s not that I don’t want to be in the fight, my body was just like, you’re done. You’re taking the time out. And so I’m walking through him, like in my mind, I’m talking to him, and I’m like, “Hey, I think I’m in shock. I can’t move.” And first thing, I’m like, “I hope I didn’t get hit in the spine.” I don’t feel anything, but I’m like maybe I severed my spine, and now I’m quadriplegic. And I’m telling him, “Hey, check my back, do you see anything?” And we’re just talking it out.
And he’s like, “I see blood.” I’m like, “Where?” He’s like, “Everywhere.” I’m like, “That’s not good. Check my spine.” I mean, I could kind of move my neck, I could kind of move my chest, but I was having trouble breathing. And what had happened was I had took two rounds to the chest, which my armor had stopped the rounds. But it had shattered all my ribs on one side and collapsed my lung. So I was having trouble breathing. And I’m just like, “Okay, check this, check this, check this.” And as the adrenaline was starting to come down, I’m like, “Hey, something’s wrong with my shoulder.” And so he slid his hand in my vest, and he immediately pulled it out, and it’s just drenched in blood. And he’s like, “Dude, there’s a hole in there.” And I’m like, okay.
And I know, again, for my training, entry holes, where the bullet goes in, typically very small, exit holes, very large. The larger the caliber, the larger the hole, it’s a very, very big hole. And typically, when someone bleeds out and dies, that’s the cause, is the exit hole. And so once he told me, there was a big hole in my back, I said, “Well, how big is it?” And he just kind of held up his fist to me, and he’s like, “It’s about that big.” “All right, well, we need to… You got to get…” I’m recalling all my training, I’m like, “All right, we have these bandages, they’re called Kerlix, they’re tight packaged.” Usually you unfurl it, unroll it and wrap it around somebody. I was like, “Dude, just pop it open, shove the whole thing in there. And just keep packing it as much as you can.”
So he starts doing that. And the whole time, luckily the other guys are doing what they have to do. They’re repelling the enemy. And we had air support on standby. So Apache helicopters coming in and doing gun runs. It was crazy. And at one point, someone screamed, “Grenade!” And he immediately stopped what he was doing and he just threw his body over me, and covered me. And there was an explosion nearby. And just yeah, it was an intense little bit. I remember he, I think he was a private at the time, a low rank guy, and he started screaming at our platoon sergeant. And he’s like, “You got to call those effing birds back in here. We got to get him out of here.” And I hear the platoon sergeant screaming back like, “Nope, it’s too hot. We can’t risk it. Birds come in, they shoot it down or something, then we’re really screwed.”
And so this guy, he starts, very low rank guy screaming at a very high rank guy like, “You get those [inaudible 00:23:04] effing birds back in here now, or he’s going to die. It’s going to be on you.” And I immediately flashback to Combat Lifesaver training, stage one, reassure the victim, let them know it’s going to be all right, he’s going to be okay. And this guy is screaming, “He’s going to die!”
Alyssa Scolari [23:21]:
He’s literally going to die, like he’s about to die. Gee, oh, my God-
Michael Carrasquillo [23:26]:
I’m like, oh, man, your bedside manner’s not great, bruh.
Alyssa Scolari [23:28]:
Right, we got to work on that.
Michael Carrasquillo [23:29]:
Yeah. But to his credit, he put the fear of God in this man, and they called in the birds. And what they did was, we were on a mountainside, so they just kind of landed like a mile away down this mountainside. Because I remember seeing it land and they’re like, “All right, the birds are here, we’re going to get you there.” And it looked like an ant. It was so tiny, this big Black Hawk helicopter was so tiny. And I’m just like, oh, God, I’m going to die before I get there. And their idea was, they were going to, because, again there’s still gunfire and stuff, they wanted to drag me down the mountainside to keep me low. And I was like, “Dude, if you drag me down this mountainside, I will die before we ever get to this thing.” I told him, I said, “Hey, man, pick me up, we just run.” I have just the same amount of chance, if you pick me up and we run.
And at this point, they had to strip my body armor off, I wasn’t wearing my helmet. And I was just like, “We got to go, we got to go.” And so they called over another guy, they pick me up. At this point, I was starting to get feeling back in my feet, and I couldn’t move anything upper body. I had been shot through the bicep of my left arm, which severed all the muscles. And then I had been shot through my shoulder, I didn’t have a shoulder anymore. So at this point, they just picked me up and we hauled ass. We ran down this mountain as fast as we could, and got me to the helicopter. And yeah, they got me out of there. And somehow, I stayed conscious the whole time.
Alyssa Scolari [24:58]:
Oh, my God.
Michael Carrasquillo [25:00]:
Got back to our base. They immediately rushed us into surgery, or me into surgery. And they knocked me out. I woke up three days later at the main base in Afghanistan, which was Bagram. And then from there, got sent to Germany. I was in Germany, at the main hospital in Germany for about a week, which they basically said, “There’s nothing we can do for you.” They’re like, “You’re too messed up.” From Germany, I was there for a few days. And then they packaged me up and shipped me out. I ended up in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. And I spent the next two years recovering at the hospital. I spent six weeks in ICU. I actually died twice during this process, that they had to bring me back. But six weeks in ICU, and then about six months, I was an inpatient in the hospital, in the orthopedic ward, where they were rebuilding my body piece-by-piece.
And I should have been in the hospital longer, but at about six months, they were like, “Look, you’re good enough that you can kind of get up and walk around.” And at this point, there were thousands of guys coming in every day. There were busloads of dudes coming into the hospital. And so they were like, “Look, we need the bed.” So if you were able to walk, they put you in a building next door to the hospital. And basically, you would just kind of come in, spend the whole day in the hospital and then go back. It was like a hotel for the overflow. So I was good enough… if not for the so many people, I’d have been in the hospital proper for the whole two years. But about six months inpatient, and then about a year and a half of recovery, where I was just kind of coming in and out for surgeries. Coming in and out for physical therapy, occupational therapy, things like that.
So yeah, and at the end of the two years, I medically retired. I was 22 years old and a disabled veteran, with two combat tours, and a Purple Heart and all these medals, and yada, yada, yada. So it was an intense couple of years.
Alyssa Scolari [27:05]:
And then you’re kind of just on your own. And at this point, because I know you mentioned you have a wife, so at this point, you’re not married, haven’t met your wife yet?
Michael Carrasquillo [27:14]:
No, no. I actually, funny enough, I met my wife while I was at the hospital. She just happened to be someone who lived nearby. Well, actually, she didn’t even live nearby. She was visiting family nearby. And it was on one of my kind of excursions out, because you get crazy in the hospital. So once in a while, once I was healthy enough, I would go out and just go to the mall or go, just to get out and do something. And I met her, yeah, I met her at the mall at a CD store. That tells you how long ago this was. Met her at a CD store at the mall. And yeah, that was a whole ‘nother thing. But yeah, that’s where we met. That’s how we met. And then we just-
Alyssa Scolari [27:58]:
So you met her while on the process of recovery?
Michael Carrasquillo [28:02]:
Alyssa Scolari [28:03]:
Fresh off of some of the most intense trauma anybody could ever possibly experience. You’re still essentially a kid at 22 years old. At what point, for you, would you say, did the PTSD symptoms start? Because I read that there was like a point in your life where you shifted, like your mood shifted completely. When did that start to happen for you?
Michael Carrasquillo [28:32]:
Yeah, no, that’s a fair question. I think the big change came, because for two years, the focus was on my physical health. And as it should be, I was literally dying. And I was literally being stitched back together.
Alyssa Scolari [28:51]:
I mean, right, we can’t worry about your mental health, if you’re not physically around to be able to get better.
Michael Carrasquillo [28:56]:
Right. And that was the case. And now, let me also specify, it’s much different now. This is 2000, let’s see, I got wounded in 2005. And it was kind of wild west back then, so many people, they were not prepared for this. And now, mental health is such a much more bigger part of the holistic healing process. So this isn’t the case now, but at that time, the sole focus was on my physical health. And once, after two years, once I got the green thumb that like, hey, you’re as good as you’re going to get. It was like, sign here, you’re not in the military anymore. Good luck! And I walked out the door. I never took classes on transitioning back into civilian life, or what to do next. Now-
Alyssa Scolari [28:56]:
No, none of that was even a thing-
Michael Carrasquillo [29:44]:
… you’re a disabled veteran-
Alyssa Scolari [29:46]:
Michael Carrasquillo [29:47]:
Yeah. So I kind of got tossed out. And I did the only thing I could think of, I bought a house in the mountains of Pennsylvania, the Pocono Mountains to just hide away. And I just wanted to be left alone, I’m getting this retirement pay, which is not enough, you’re not rich by any means, but it’s enough to pay the bills, and I can just live a nice, quiet life. And it’s all I needed. And for a couple years, I did that. What I didn’t realize was the slow kind of descent into this, this darkness. I mean, physically, even today, I’m not all there. I have severe nerve damage, and I have limitations in my mobility and things like that. But for the most part, I had my health. But there’s so much that goes on with survivor’s guilt of the guys that didn’t make it. The why me? I didn’t have a word for it, back then. PTSD wasn’t as widely known.
Alyssa Scolari [30:46]:
Michael Carrasquillo [30:47]:
And so I was going through these depressions spouts, I was suffering from severe anxiety. I wouldn’t go out. There could be a whole week, I didn’t step foot outside my house. And yet, I’m up all night. I’m patrolling my own… which, again, we lived out in the woods. We’re a mile from our nearest neighbor. But I’m like doing patrols in my house, triple checking doors and windows and just all these things that I just, I took them as, oh, this is normal. And my wife, God bless her, she didn’t know what I was dealing with.
And how could she? And she would ask me, “Hey, are you all right? Is everything…” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m fine. Fine, sure, yeah, cool.” But yeah, I was going through a lot, I was going through a lot. And I’m just very fortunate that I had some people kind of get involved in my life, and organizations and people and met the right… Yeah, I got very lucky. because the path I was headed down was not good. And it took me a long, long time to kind of really get to a good place. Because it’s a process, but it was good, it was good.
Alyssa Scolari [32:03]:
Yeah, it’s a long and arduous process I can only fathom. It’s PTSD and survivor’s guilt, and also just not even understanding it. And you go from being okay, one minute, to then feeling intensely suicidal. And you feel like you’re going out of your mind at some points, I would imagine.
Michael Carrasquillo [32:26]:
Yeah, yeah. No, it was a lot. Over the course of a couple years, so many changes in my life. I mean, I went from being this poor kid who didn’t know any better, and then being in the infantry and airborne. We’re trained and bred to be the cockiest, SOBs out there. We’re invincible, we’re untouchable, you have to be, you have to be. We have to believe that. I really, not really, but I really believed that I was unbreakable, I was untouchable.
Alyssa Scolari [32:58]:
You have to, if not, I think the fear of even doing it would be too much.
Michael Carrasquillo [33:03]:
Yeah, yeah. I’ve explained to people, I’m like, I have to go out on a mission, watch one of my friends die, go back, and then be like, all right, tomorrow, we’re going back out. You have to have this mentality of, that can’t be me. You have to have this kind of dark sense of humor too, to just kind of mask the pain and the hurt that you’re going through. And so then to get injured and survive, it messes with your mental state, it messes with your psyche. I went from the pinnacle of physical health. I was solid muscle, I was fast, I was lethal. Now, I can’t wipe my own butt. I couldn’t, like if somebody rolled me into a closet, well, that’s just where I live now. Because I couldn’t use my hands. Both arms were completely encased. If I had an itch on my nose, I had to ask for help.
And so to be 22 years old, and feel that this is the rest of your life, you’re going to be this potato that’s just sitting here and having the world happen around you, it was devastating to my mental state. And fortunate enough for me, I was able to regain the majority use of my arms and hands. Again, still not perfect, but to what it could be, they were considering cutting off my arms. They really were considering saying, look, the damage is so extensive that you’re going to be better if you just cut them off now and learn to use the prosthetics. The sooner you get that started, the better. And I was like, let’s give it a little bit.
Alyssa Scolari [34:38]:
Right, let’s hold off on that.
Michael Carrasquillo [34:39]:
Yeah, I was stubborn that way.
Alyssa Scolari [34:42]:
Well, for good reason.
Michael Carrasquillo [34:45]:
Yeah, it really played into my mental state, because I felt like I was on the top of the mountain, and now just fell off and rolled all the way to the bottom. And I felt broken and defeated. And again, not having people to talk about, understand and feeling like you’re the only one in the world going through this. Obviously, that’s ridiculous. But…
Alyssa Scolari [35:09]:
Not when you’re in it, it’s very real. That’s your reality, when you’re in it.
Michael Carrasquillo [35:14]:
Yeah, absolutely. And really feeling as if I’m the only person going through this, no one’s going to understand me. Because we’re trained, suck it up, drive on, rub some dirt in it, get up and keep going, like, you try. And you can fake it for so long, but it wears you down. If you’re not able to talk about it and get the help that you need, whether it’s counseling or medication or whatever, it will take you down, man. I’ve seen some really strong guys really, really tumble down. And not even need to be physically injured to go through this kind of stuff. I had the excuse of, oh, yeah, I was physically injured. But I know guys who came out perfectly fine and just spiraled out of control. And I can understand, in talking to some of them, I can understand, you’re like, oh, what do I have to complain about? I survived. I came out without a scratch. And it’s like, well, that’s not the point. It’s not that I have an excuse to have PTSD, the fact that it’s… Yeah, it’s a whole thing.
Alyssa Scolari [36:20]:
It is, it is. And that’s, I think to me, is an element of survivor’s guilt, which is like, well, what do I have to be upset about? I survived, there are people who are mourning the loss of their loved ones. But I think you make a fantastic point, which is that PTSD truly doesn’t discriminate. Not even just being in the army, but even right down to, before I was in private practice and was a trauma therapist, I worked with the police department. And did a lot of work with police. And just the sheer number of police suicides, and people who were not injured, who were never injured in the line of duty, nothing of that nature. The suicide attempts, because of the untreated trauma, the noise in your brain that you simply can’t shut off, it doesn’t discriminate.
Michael Carrasquillo [37:18]:
Yeah, I mean, sexual trauma survivors, I had a good friend of mine who got into a pretty bad car accident, and came out of in fine, little shaken up, but fine. And she couldn’t drive for a while. And I’m like, well, that’s PTSD. That’s a snapshot, you went through a traumatic event, and it is now affecting your life moving forward. It’s affecting you to act, I don’t want to say normal, because what is normal?
Alyssa Scolari [37:46]:
Right, what does that mean?-
Michael Carrasquillo [37:48]:
But acting in a way that you weren’t before. I once gave a talk at an elementary school, which I thought it was going to be older kids, and it turned out to be much younger kids, which I’m like, I don’t think they’re prepared to hear this kind of stuff. But I had this little kid ask me, “What is PTSD?” And I had to stop, and really, how can I explain this in a way that such a small child could understand? And so basically what I came up with on the spot, is I said, “When you learn things, when you do things, your brain is changing. You’re learning how to do things. When you go through a trauma event, something scary, something happens, your brain is trying to protect itself. It’s trying to teach itself, to learn from it.” And I said that, “Sometimes you go through this event, and your brain decides, I don’t want to do that again. And so we develop certain ways to handle that. It’s a normal reaction, it’s the way the brain is trying to protect itself. And sometimes that doesn’t help us. As much as the brain is intending to help us, it actually makes things more difficult.”
I’ve talked about how, why do I get so anxious when I’m at a market or outside and I feel like I’m being watched, and I feel… It’s like, oh, well, because years ago, when I’d be out in the market, I’m worrying about someone blowing me up or shooting me, or a sniper. And even though I know I’m not in that place right now, my brain is correlating the idea of feeling exposed. And so it is triggering a response to say, be on alert. Be on the lookout. Something can happen right now. I was driving one day and a piece of trash kind of blew across the road. And I swerved wildly, and my wife was like, “What the hell?” And I was like, “It surprised me.” And she goes, “It was just like a paper bag or whatever.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but I don’t know, it just…”
I used to drive in Iraq. I used to drive in Afghanistan, I was the driver. And something like that could be, it could be an explosive, bag of garbage or something, it could be an explosive. It could be a guy popping out with an RPG that was hiding behind something. The brain, it’s something we can’t consciously control. And it’s correlating these things that I went through. I remember somebody telling me something about how the way the brain, certain repetitive actions, or certain being at a high level of adrenaline or on edge for a certain amount, changes your brain chemistry. And the idea is, when you’re in combat, that is you, you are at 100% all the time. You are on high alert all the time.
Alyssa Scolari [40:39]:
You never shut it off.
Michael Carrasquillo [40:40]:
It’s never shut off. I wake up, and it might be different for combat specialty guys who are like… we’re sleeping out in the wilderness, we’re out where the enemy is. We’re not maybe in a big safe base or whatever. But you’re on high alert all the time. You’re listening for sounds, listening for the slightest change in anything. So you’re on this constant level of the highest level of alert. It’s equated to a guy who’s a defensive lineman in football, where he’s watching the movements. He’s watching the eyes of the quarterback, he’s watching all these things. But he’s doing that for 30 seconds of a play. And then he takes a break, then he comes back. But it’s like doing that all day, every day, for a year without getting a break. And that fundamentally changes the way your brain operates.
Alyssa Scolari [41:28]:
Michael Carrasquillo [41:29]:
It’s not something you walk away from and go, well, I’m not in combat anymore.
Alyssa Scolari [41:33]:
Right, your brain is still wired for protection. And your brain doesn’t stop doing that even when you’re home. The hyper vigilance just doesn’t go away. For you, what would you say, because you went from being traumatized, having survivor’s guilt, which I think PTSD, I think recovery is a lifelong journey. What was the most helpful for you? Because now you’re a comedian, you find the joy in life. How did you get to that spot? What was the most helpful for you?
Michael Carrasquillo [42:14]:
Yeah, I mean, you hit the nail on the head in that it’s a journey. It’s a long road. I still struggle, I still have lots of struggles. I have a service dog, which helps me when I’m out and about in the world, it gives me just a sense of comfort. But for years before I had the dog, I don’t like being in crowds. I don’t like being outside. I surround myself in my little bubble. I’m happy in my bubble. But no, it’s a long process. It’s understanding that, for me, and this is for me, because not everybody is the same. For me, it was opening up about it. And being okay to talk about it. And this is something that took years, years, this is not an easy solution.
But I had a really great guy come into my life, became my mentor. And I would watch him talk to people, and just open up about all these things. And I’m like, oh, my God, they’re going to think you’re crazy. They’re going to think you’re a psycho, you can’t admit to having those thoughts. You can admit to having those feelings. And he always did it so easily. It fascinated me. And I started studying him like, how can you do that? How do you do that? I remember one day he told me, “We all carry this baggage with us, different types, different sizes, all that. And if you can equate it to, when I tell my story, when I share what I’m going through, I’m extending out some of that baggage. And I’m saying, hey, can you help me carry this? And the load gets lighter.” And I called BS. And I was like, “That’s ridiculous, that’s not how it goes.”
Alyssa Scolari [43:45]:
That’s a bunch of shit, yeah.
Michael Carrasquillo [43:48]:
But I started, little by little. “How are you doing?” Instead of just the, “I’m good, I’m good.” “It’s good days and bad days.” Little by little.
Alyssa Scolari [43:58]:
Even that little shift, that little, subtle shift makes such a difference.
Michael Carrasquillo [44:03]:
It does. And over time, I was able to kind of open up more and more with my wife, with my family, with my friends. And once that started to lift some of the burden, I realized, oh, I like this feeling, I want more. And so opening up more and sharing more, and started seeing therapy. And because therapy is such a bad, dirty word…
Alyssa Scolari [44:24]:
So stigmatized, yeah.
Michael Carrasquillo [44:25]:
Yeah, but it helped so much. For a little while, I was on medication just to help with some of the anxiety, help with sleeping and things like that. But pretty soon, over the course of a long time and creating relationships and understanding I’m not alone, and accepting that this isn’t unique, this isn’t something only I’ve gone through. And I can talk about and I can share with it and connect with people, opening up my circle more and more. Yeah, it helped over time. I got to a pretty good place when people started coming to me and letting things off their plate, and I could be there. It’s being there for someone else. And starting to get out of my own head of, my own problems are the worst thing in the world. And being able to share that. And then hear what someone else is going through and empathize with them and sympathize with them. And go through it with them and give them advice and listen to them.
So once I was starting to give of myself, that was a big game changer. It was all in steps. First, it was admitting that I’m not okay, then it was opening up, then it was being there for others. I started doing volunteer work and just getting out of my own head. And being a positive influence. And then that changed things. And then eventually, I got into a place where I was okay, as physically as good as I’m going to get, mentally, pretty darn good. And then, okay, what can I start to do to challenge myself? I’ve grown to the edges of these boundaries, now how can I break those boundaries? How can I extend past them? And so for one thing, comedy came into my life.
And basically, I heard about this program for veterans, like, oh, they teach the arts, they teach writing and music, all these different things. But one of the things that caught my eye was this comedy stand up class. And for someone who doesn’t like being the attention, I don’t like being the center of attention. I don’t like everyone looking at me, I don’t like everybody waiting for me to say something. I don’t like that feeling. I figured, wow, this is the way to literally, it’s the sensory training where you put yourself in that situation and learn to be okay with it. And really, when I started it, [inaudible 00:46:43] it’s a six-week class, once a week, do a little performance at the end, and you’re done. And I was like, cool, this will be my, I’m just going to go through it, I’m going to check it off the list, I did it. I’ve learned something and I’m going to move on.
But in the process of going through it, I fell in love. It was so, for me, therapeutic to put my thoughts on paper, and to make the decision to take traumatic things in my life and massage them a little bit, to make them funny, and to find the joy and laughter. I talk about being shot in my standup. I talk about that day. I talk about my recovery and some of the things that I went through. But always in the vein of like, hey, let’s laugh together about this. How ridiculous is this?
Alyssa Scolari [47:33]:
Right, like, this is so surreal, and so unbelievable.
Michael Carrasquillo [47:36]:
Right, exactly. And so that was a big step forward for me, in being able to make light of it and control the narrative in a way. It was weird, because with comedy, you want it to be based in reality, but the fact is, you’ve got to punch it up a little bit to make it funny. And so having, in essence, having this paintbrush to paint the story the way I wanted to, and to make it my own, it was kind of therapeutic. And nothing like getting a laugh, I was addicted to making the audience laugh, and it was such a good time.
I did it for a while, I did it for a couple years. And then my son came around and I took a step back, because I wanted to be good dad, and I’m not going to be some traveling comedian that’s on the road 50 weeks out of the year. And so I took a step back with that. And then like a year later, pandemic hits. So just as I was about, all right, I’m ready to start getting back out there and doing comedy, and then the pandemic hit.
Alyssa Scolari [48:34]:
Michael Carrasquillo [48:35]:
But that’s how I ended up falling into doing a weekly live show online. And it’s been awesome, because I can do it from home and I can get all that fun stuff out, and do what I’m passionate about, but still be around part of my family.
Alyssa Scolari [48:51]:
Here’s what’s also really, really beautiful to me, as I hear you talk. It’s like, I think back, as you’re telling me, to the bio that I read, where it’s like since everything that you’ve gone through, you have also done other things like skydiving, scuba diving. And then I think back to what you were telling me about how you were truly an adrenaline lover, addicted to adrenaline. And for people who develop PTSD, it’s very, very tough to get that love for adrenaline, because typically, our brains compute that as like, oh, this is danger. So to me, you stepped back into yourself truly. And that is, I think, the most beautiful thing. You are that person again. You have been able to get back in touch with yourself when PTSD pulls you so far away from yourself.
Michael Carrasquillo [49:50]:
No, it’s true. It’s absolutely true. I rarely pat myself on the back, but something I do feel is true, is that I’m a better version of myself now than before I got shot. As awesome as I was, I’m a better version of myself now. I’m much more humble and have humility and appreciative and want to give back of myself. And all those adventures came from a time when, like I said, as I was trying to expand this bubble and grow past myself, I realized I had opportunities in front of me, if I would just be open to them. And so it became anything that gets put in front of me, I’m going to say yes to. And so being a disabled veteran, especially at that time, there was all these organizations like, hey, we’ll take you fishing. Hey, we’ll do this. And hey, we’ll do that.
And I wasn’t broke, but I wasn’t made of money. So I was like, I can’t do those things. But oh, no, no, we’ll pay for you. Travel included and equipment included. And so I said yes to scuba diving, I said yes to skydiving. I did a veteran exchange program where I went to Israel for a week. And they sent Israelis to the States. And so I did that. And I traveled, I went to Germany, went to Venezuela. And my wife’s from El Salvador, so I traveled to El Salvador. I just started trying to challenge myself and just say yes, be open to opportunities. Not everything’s going to click, I did a golf program where you learn to play golf. And they even get you these really nice clubs and everything. I absolutely hated it, hated it, hated it with a passion. The clubs are still sitting in a closet somewhere.
But there are things that, I really enjoyed the scuba diving, I really enjoyed the skydiving. I played racquetball for a little while. There is professional racquetball out there, I helped the professional Racquetball Association create its first division for disabled people. Because I was like, look, I can’t be the only one that’s enjoying it. There’s no way I’m going to compete with these guys that are full abled, full bodied, whatever you want to call it.
Alyssa Scolari [52:06]:
Right, with people who haven’t been shot.
Michael Carrasquillo [52:08]:
Alyssa Scolari [52:09]:
It’s not right.
Michael Carrasquillo [52:10]:
But we created a division and got guys with, amputees that are playing, we got a wheelchair division, things that… It’s been an awesome ride. And then it eventually, after a couple years, it went full circle where I hadn’t been working, I hadn’t been doing anything other than charity work and all these adventures and things like that. And I got to a point where I was like, you know what, I think I’m ready to get back to work and do something. Not just do stuff, but have a vision, have a goal. And I wanted us to have, we had a small little house, and I felt at a place where like, I want more, I can do more. And I got a job and started working and doing stuff. And obviously the service dog helped with that a lot. To be able to tolerate certain things. But then yeah, my son came around. And it’s been an adventure. It’s been something.
Alyssa Scolari [53:08]:
And with every word that you speak, all I can think to myself is, you are rewriting the narrative and actively changing those patterns in your brain that tell you that every single thing is a danger. You’re getting out there and you’re proving yourself and your brain otherwise.
Michael Carrasquillo [53:27]:
Yeah, it’s not easy. It’s not easy.
Alyssa Scolari [53:30]:
No, no, oh, God, no.
Michael Carrasquillo [53:32]:
I still deal with a lot of self doubt, I question myself constantly, anxiety. If I send out an email, I’m like, did that make sense? Are they going to think I’m weird? All these things, but I have to constantly just not let those voices take over and just like, no, do it. Trust in yourself, you’ve done it, you’ve been okay, just keep going. And I slip up, I make mistakes. Something me and my wife have developed a long time ago is, being comfortable not being comfortable. And so I have days where nothing necessarily needed to happen, I just wake up and I’m in a mood. And so we’ve coined the term, I’m blue. That’s just our thing. And so if she spots it, or if I spot it myself, I’ll be the first to tell her, “Listen, it’s one of those days, I’m blue. I just need…” And she knows, okay, he needs some space, he needs some time. I’m here, he knows I’m here.
Or if I’m struggling with something and I’m having a lot of anxiety, my wife will be like, “Do you need some time? How are you doing?” And we just check in with each other. Check in with myself and check in with her and it’s been helpful to have that support, it’s an effort. It takes a village. But good days and bad days, but more good than bad. So that’s a good a thing.
Alyssa Scolari [54:52]:
Yeah, yes. Wow. So this show, can you just remind, I know I said it in the intro, but can you just remind the listeners, where can they find you if they want to hear more?
Michael Carrasquillo [55:08]:
Alyssa Scolari [55:09]:
And by listeners, I mean me, because I want to hear more.
Michael Carrasquillo [55:12]:
No, yeah. So POP Culture Warrior, which is my show. It’s a weekly live show, so we do in front of a live audience, live virtual audience. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. The places that we go live are Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, Twitter actually has, Periscope as its live thing and then our website. But yeah, it’s a fun show. I have a passion, obviously, for comic books and movies and video games and things. So each episode, I’ll just talk about what you know what’s happening this week in those categories. And then we started doing celebrity interviews, believe it or not, it. I had a couple people I knew from my travels, who hopped on. And we did a call and we talked. I’ve had Clark Gregg, who was Agent Coulson in The Avengers. Louie Anderson, who’s a legendary comedian, Matt Iseman, the host of American Ninja Warrior. So I had a couple friends of friends who came onto the show, and it was obviously well received.
And so we just kind of made it a thing. And now, I mean, we’ve had amazing people; actors. We just had, literally when was it, today’s Wednesday, so yesterday, I was talking with Efren Ramirez, who was Pedro in Napoleon Dynamite.
Alyssa Scolari [56:24]:
Oh, that’s so cool.
Michael Carrasquillo [56:27]:
Yeah, we had a great conversation yesterday. And it’s awesome, because it’s very interactive. The audience can participate, ask questions. It’s all super interactive. Actually, right now. I mean, if you can get to the page, I don’t know when this is getting released. But we’re doing a giveaway. We hit one of our goals. And so like, I’ll send out care packages full of pop culture swag, and things. I’ve been given autographs from different events and different things. And so I give away celebrity autographs and it’s just a fun thing to thank the audience for hanging out and being part of it. So yeah, it’s POP Culture Warrior, like I said, Twitter, Instagram, or wherever. One of my nephew’s made me start a TikTok, I’m not going to be putting up TikTok videos, but-
Alyssa Scolari [57:10]:
Ha, you have a TikTok, me too.
Michael Carrasquillo [57:12]:
I mean, for the show, I might post some stuff. But anywhere you can find social media, look up POP Culture Warrior.
Alyssa Scolari [57:20]:
POP Culture Warrior.
Michael Carrasquillo [57:21]:
Yeah, we’re around. And it’s a fun show. It’s Tuesdays 8:00 PM until usually question mark, but the first hour we do the headlines, and in the second hour, we’ll have a celebrity guest or some type of guest. And yeah, it’s been really fun. We’re at 57 episodes and going strong.
Alyssa Scolari [57:41]:
Michael Carrasquillo [57:41]:
This fall is going to be intense, I’ve already had some conversation with some pretty big stars, talking like the leads of movies that are coming out this fall-
Alyssa Scolari [57:51]:
Michael Carrasquillo [57:51]:
… will be [crosstalk 00:57:52]. So yeah, it’s going to be pretty cool. We’re building to something awesome, so I’m excited.
Alyssa Scolari [57:57]:
Oh, that’s so cool. I will link that, I’m also going to link the articles that you had shared with me in the show notes for the listeners. So you all can check out those articles. That is POP Culture Warrior, POP Culture Warrior, we’ll be putting that in the show notes as well. Thank you isn’t honestly even fitting. I don’t want to thank you, because it doesn’t feel like it would do it justice. But I just am expressing sincere, genuine and overwhelming gratitude for your vulnerability, your strength and just the way that you are humanizing this process. Because I think a lot of people can see wounded veterans as just… I feel like we don’t humanize them enough. And you’re doing that, you’re doing that. And you are fighting the good fight. And I am so thankful you’re here.
Michael Carrasquillo [58:59]:
I appreciate it. Thank you. And thank you for carrying some of my baggage for me. I appreciate you and what you’re doing. So yeah, this has been fun.
Alyssa Scolari [59:09]:
Thanks for listening, everyone. For more information, please head over to lightaftertrauma.com, or you can also follow us on social media. On Instagram, we are @lightaftertrauma, and on Twitter, it is @lightafterpod. Lastly, please head over to patreon.com/lightaftertrauma to support our show. We are asking for $5 a month, which is the equivalent to a cup of coffee at Starbucks. So please head on over. Again, that’s patreon.com/lightaftertrauma. Thank you and we appreciate your support.