At 24, Islander Michael Mundy has spent time in some of the more remote areas of the globe, such as Okinawa and Mongolia.
He also spent eight months in one of the most dangerous places in the world, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
As a 20-year-old member of the Third Battalion, Third Marines, Michael helped train members of the Afghan National Police, teaching skills such as weapons maintenance and counter insurgency strategies to battle against Taliban firefights, sniper attacks and improvised explosive devices. The Marines patrolled with the Afghans, but also went out on their own patrols.
“Why join the Marines, if you’re not going to fight,” Michael said recently, sitting at the kitchen table of his parents’ home, a comfortable place in the woods off South Ferry Road. A bright, open, athletic young man, appearing even younger than his 24 years, he has an apartment on the Island and works as a deckhand for North Ferry.
As a student at Shelter Island High School, Michael set two options for himself after he received his diploma as a member of the class of 2010. An accomplished, three-sport athlete, “it was either get a basketball scholarship to Duke or join the Marines. So …” Michael let his smile tell the rest.
His parents, Michael (a Marine veteran) and Rebecca, signed an early enlistment form with the Marine Corps, so their son could enlist at age 17.
After boot camp — “I’d done research on it but it was more intense than I expected” — he was assigned to infantry school and then, in October 2011, he was in Helmand Province, a place he described as partially desert, but also dotted with lush watermelon and poppy farms. There was a good relationship between the Marines and the local population, Michael said. “They wanted us there. We were respectful and they were respectful people.”
A gesture that he remembered with warmth was the Afghan greeting of shaking hands and then taking that hand and placing it over your heart. “We’d do the same thing,” he said, placing his hand over his heart as he sat in his parents’ kitchen.
The food was something else, Michael said, shaking his head. “It took awhile to get used to it,” he added, mentioning drinking “chai” (tea) with village elders, sitting on the floor with boots off. “We ate a lot of goat,” he remembered, “and a guy would come every couple of weeks and cook us a feast.”
After being in the war zone for seven months, Michael deployed to the United States in May 2012 to a homecoming that took him by surprise. Coming out of the plane into the terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport, Michael knew his parents would be there to greet him, but then, in the crowd ahead, he saw a high school buddy, Nick Kestler, the brother of 1st Lt. Joseph Theinert, who had been killed in action in Afghanistan.
“I saw Nick’s face, and then he disappeared,” Michael said. “I thought, ‘Here we go.’”
Welcoming him home at the airport were his parents, his two older sisters, Melissa and Sarah, and younger sister and brother, Megan and Nathan. But also in the terminal were many friends, including Chrystyna Kestler, the mother of Lt. Theinert, who had contacted Boots on the Ground NY, a veterans’ support group who were present, and a motorcycle escort of veteran riders accompanied Michael and the party from the airport to Shelter Island.
“They stopped traffic for us in the city and everything,” Michael remembered.
At 19, he had gone through experiences — emotional and physical — very few people, of any age, ever encounter. A strong and loving family and a community that supported him, helped his transition to civilian life, he said. “But it was difficult.”
When a large group of the extended Mundy family came to the Island for Megan’s high school graduation just a few weeks after he was home, their questions about his service were not finding answers. It was hard to speak about “being worried all the time about getting shot or blown up,” he said. “I told my dad, ‘I really don’t want to talk about it,’ and he told me it was no problem not to talk about it now. Then he said, ‘But you will have to talk about it.’”
He had a Marine buddy who lived in Worcester, Massachusetts who he visited and they spoke about their experiences, and other comrades-in-arms in Arizona that he visited. Most importantly, he could share his experiences with his girlfriend — “we’ve been together four years” — Shelby Willumsen. “She wanted to know,” Michael said, “and I shared my feelings. It helped.”
Michael’s transition has been relatively smooth because of his family’s and community’s support, he said. But many young veterans, statistics show, have not had it easy. Two years ago, a survey commissioned by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than half of veterans polled said they often felt disconnected to civilian life; more that 40 percent had health problems; and a third said they suffered from emotional or mental stress.
In 2014, the last year data was available; the Department of Veteran Affairs reported that more than 7,400 veterans died by their own hand, a figure that accounted for 18 percent of all American suicides. The VA noted that vets make up less than 9 percent of the population.
No one he served with had taken their own lives, Michael said. But working with the Joseph J. Theinert Memorial Fund, a nonprofit organization that sponsors welcome home events for military personnel and developed a retreat center in Magdelena, New Mexico for service members, veterans and their families, he got close to a fellow vet.
“A couple of months later I found out he committed suicide,” Michael said. “There are 22 a day,” he added, quoting a figure on veteran suicides.
A solution to problems veterans face is to get involved with organizations that offer real help, he said, mentioning the Theinert Foundation and Boots on the Ground NY.
After being home just a few weeks in June 2010, Michael’s unit was assigned to Okinawa and then he served in Mongolia, working with United Nations peacekeepers and the Mongolian Armed Forces. After completing his four-year commitment, he was home for good.
He took courses for a year at Suffolk Community College and then found his place at North Ferry.
Commander Dave Clark said there are abut 120 veterans on the Island.
Friday, November 11, is Veterans Day. Festivities will begin at the American Legion Hall with breakfast at 7:30 a.m., followed by a flagpole celebration, a speech by World War II veteran Howard Jackson, and songs by members of the school choir.
Michael Mundy will be in attendance.