The Connect and Nourish Series: Dr. (and Colonel) Donald Mondragon

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Meet Dr. Skip:

I am a native of Denver, Colorado, born the third of eight children to Hispanic parents of very meager means. My childhood was chaotic and harrowing at times. My father, a Korean War veteran, suffered from PTSD, mental illness, and alcoholism. As a result, he was in and out of VA hospitals. I rarely saw him before he died when I was thirteen. Although he was a loving man, my dad was violent and abusive when he drank. So, my siblings and I, led by my oldest sister, ran and hid whenever my dad was in one of his alcoholic rages. When I was seven years old, my courageous mother moved us two hundred miles away. She completed her teaching degree, and eventually divorced our father. During my last visit with my dad, two months prior to his death, he asked me to call him. I never did and was wracked by pain and guilt. This taught me a profound, albeit, painful life lesson—to never miss the opportunity to express my love to those most dear to me.

Growing up, I cannot recall a time when I was not responsible for my four younger brothers, Frank, Mark, Duke, and Chris. I have always been a caretaker. Over the years, this has translated to roles as a coach, teacher, preacher, husband, father, son, physician, Army officer, and grandfather. I’ve come to understand the roles of servant and caretaker are hard-wired into my DNA. I must admit, however, that I resented the burden of caring for my brothers when I was young. Over the years I’ve embraced my role and understand it helped forge the close relationship I enjoy with each of them. Today, my brothers and I enjoy reminiscing and laughing about “Mondragon lore,” the stories of our antics when we were growing up.

In school, I was almost always the smallest kid in my class. I was also shy and awkward, an easy target for bullies. To add insult to injury, my family moved frequently, so I did not have any friends when I first arrived at a new school (I attended seven different schools by the time I was in eighth grade). Moreover, I was weak, slow, uncoordinated, and inept at any sport. I could not run or jump well, much less throw, catch, or kick a ball. Since this made me stick out, I was the victim of frequent ridicule and bullying.

Although I was bright, I underachieved academically. Three major events turned my life around. When my mother remarried, my Daddyo, my stepfather, became the steady, strong, and faithful father I’d always longed for. With the stability that Daddyo brought into my life, I began to fulfill my academic promise. Then in 8th grade, I discovered wrestling. I was abysmal at other sports, but after a few wrestling practices, I thought, “I can do this. I can be good at it.” Although it would be two years before I won a match, I finished my high school career as a Colorado State Runner-Up and Honorable Mention All-American. I fondly remember the great coaching I received from my junior high and high school head coaches, John Gregerson and Ken Larson, respectively. They also coached my four brothers. At sixteen, I had a life-changing encounter with Christ that redirected the course of my life. My relationship with Jesus Christ has been the guiding force and bedrock of my life ever since.

I went on to attend the University of Notre Dame on a 4-Year Army ROTC Scholarship in 1973. I was so homesick, that if not for the friendships of some Christians in a Charismatic Catholic Community, I would’ve transferred to a school closer to home. I struggled academically in my first semester and received my first and only D—in Calculus. Ugh! I thought my pre-med days were over before they even started. Before I left for Christmas, I changed my courses, thinking that I would have to consider something other than medicine. Thankfully, I did well in my other courses, and finished with a 3.25 GPA, if I recall correctly. I received my grades during Christmas Break and returned to Notre Dame, re-enrolled in my pre-med courses and in Calculus with a different professor for the second semester. To my great relief I earned a B- in Calculus in the Spring Semester.

Wrestling season, however, was cut short after a very frustrating 4-4 record, when I injured my left knee – a knee that has causes pain to this day, a “painful reminder” of a difficult and frustrating freshman year.

At the end of my sophomore year, a few of the ROTC upper classmen asked if I wanted to go to Airborne School with them. I thought, “Gee, that sounds like fun. Sure, I’d like to go.” I attended Airborne School at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and at the end of the 3 ½ week course, I earned my Airborne wings.

During my sophomore year, I found it very difficult to juggle my pre-med studies and wrestling. Therefore, at the start of my junior year, I decided not to wrestle, finishing a lackluster college career. A series of events led me to question my purpose, asking, “Why am I in school? What am I doing here?” I sensed a powerful call to Christian ministry and wondered, “How do I carry this out? Am I wasting my time here?” Against the advice of my loving, patient, and supportive parents, I left Notre Dame during my fifth semester, terminating my scholarship. I moved back home where I spent the next six months soul-searching, praying, and studying the Bible. This led me to Little Rock, Arkansas to work with Glen and Erma Miller, founders of Lake Hamilton Bible Camp, for a year.

I worked with these dedicated and hard-working servants of God in their ministry, on their campgrounds, and Bible Bookstore. All the while, they patiently mentored and taught me for the year I worked alongside them. I became one of “the boys”, a number of young men, who, over the years, came to work and live with them, some for months, others for a number of years.

After I returned home in 1977, I worked different jobs, at a health club, a nursing home, and a car wash. I resumed wrestling with renewed gusto and won Open (senior level) Freestyle State and Regional Tournaments. In January 1978, at the advice of our family doctor, Dr. Gilbert Maestas, “Dr. Gil”, a longtime friend of our family, to “Get on with it!” I made the decision to return to school and continue my pre-med studies. I’d come to the realization that Christian ministry and the practice of medicine were something that fit hand-in-glove, as embodied by Dr. Gil. I chose to transfer to Oral Roberts University (ORU) in Tulsa, Oklahoma starting the Fall Semester of 1978.

I had a broken heart after a breakup with a young woman I was in love with, three years before I arrived at ORU. Believe you me, I had no intention of developing a serious relationship with any other young lady because my heart had finally mended. I thought, “Girls, who needs them? They take your time, your money, and your heart. Time. I need to study and get into medical school. Money. I don’t have any money. Heart. Forget it. No way. I am NOT going to give my heart away!”   I tell others, “Then I met Sherry (Sharon J. Cooper), and she ruined my plans.”

Sherry and I started our relationship as academic chairmen of our respective brother-sister wings, planned study groups, and prayed together for our wing mates. This blossomed into a friendship, falling in love, and by November 1978, I asked Sherry to marry me. She readily agreed, and this led to two-and-half year courtship. We were married on May 30, 1981, a few weeks after I graduated. I tell others, “I was on the eight-year plan. They never said so, but I think my parents must have thought, ‘Thank You, thank You, thank You, LORD! Our son has finally graduated!’”

Classes began at the ORU School of Medicine on my birthday, August 3rd. I received a 4-Year Army Health Profession Scholarship to attend medical school. When I received my acceptance notice to medical school and then my notice of my scholarship, Sherry ran around telling everybody, “We’re going to medical school!” I told her, “Sherry, before we’re done, that will be the understatement of the year.” We survived four grueling years of medical school. During “our” third year of medical school, we welcomed our son, Adam into our family. He was born 7 ½ weeks prematurely, and medical problems ensued. After graduation, we moved to Canton, OH for an even more demanding internship and residency in Internal Medicine (adult medicine) where our second son, Christopher, and our daughter, Angeli, joined the family.

On January 2, 1989, a cold, bleak, gray day, we arrived at Reynolds Army Community Hospital, Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I had only a few days to get my young family settled before the Chief of the Department of Medicine “asked” me to cut my Permissive Leave (leave time granted by the Army during a move to allow you to get settled) short, to come to work. By May, my two senior colleagues left Reynolds. I was assigned as Chief of the Internal Medicine Clinic and OIC (Officer In Charge) of the Intensive Care Unit. Moreover, the Deputy Commander of Clinical Services (Chief Medical Officer of the hospital) told me I’d be the only Fort Sill Internal Medicine doctor throughout the summer. This was the most miserable summer I’ve spent in the Army, including deployments, while I waited for my two new colleagues to arrive! To make matters worse, both arrived later than expected, after they graduated on June 30th.

August 1990. Desert Storm. I was assigned to serve overseas with the 47th Field Hospital. A few days before I left, Sherry and I learned baby #4 was on the way. While I spent the first of four deployments away from my family, Sherry bravely and diligently cared for our three young children, while pregnant. Desert Shield gave way to Desert Storm, which made the situation even more tenuous for the 47th Field Hospital and even more nerve-wracking for Sherry. Thankfully, the entire hospital staff and I arrived home safely on March 24, 1991, eleven days before we held our third son, Jonathan, in our arms.

The following summer, the Mondragons were assigned to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C. Over the next two years, while serving as a junior staff member of the Department of Internal Medicine at Walter Reed, I completed a General Medicine (academic) Fellowship and a Master’s of Public Health at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Maryland. Joey, the last of our “tribe”, was born at Walter Reed.

Our next assignment was Brooke Army Medical Center, San Antonio, Texas. This was my favorite duty station and an ideal place for my young family during that stage in our lives. At the end of my tenure, and a few weeks after the funeral of my beloved Daddyo in December 1997, I deployed with the U.S. Support Group Haiti. Upon my return in July 1998, I was assigned as Chief of the Department of Medicine, Darnall Army Community Hospital, Fort Hood, Texas.

At the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom 1, In March 2003, I deployed with the 21st Combat Support Hospital (CSH). After stateside preparations, we spent a few weeks in Kuwait. The day after Easter, we had a harrowing and exhausting convoy to Mosul, Iraq. The 21st CSH North supported the northern sector of combat operations, working alongside Major General David H. Petraeus, Commander of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Kentucky. (The remainder of the 21st CSH, the 21st CSH South deployed to Balad, Iraq.)

From November 2003 to February 2004, I was privileged to serve as the Officer in Charge of the 21st CSH North, responsible for the safety and welfare of all its 220 personnel, patients, coordination of care, evacuation of casualties, and closely communicating, interacting, and coordinating with General Petraeus and his command staff. I was also promoted to Colonel by General Petraeus, on January 3, 2004. I realize I had the rare privilege to “command” a CSH during combat operations and work with an incredible warfighter and brilliant man, General Petraeus and his amazing staff. This was the highlight of my Army career! Of note, my initial inclination was to decline the offer of this job. However, after a week of soul-searching, praying, and email correspondence with Sherry and a trusted and respected retired Colonel on my staff at Darnall who had served as a commander of different medical units, I changed my mind and gladly accepted the offer to be the OIC.

I returned to Darnall Army Community Hospital, now re-designated, the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, and resumed my duties as Chief, Department of Medicine until 2006. I was then assigned as Deputy Commander of Clinical Services (DCCS), serving as the Chief Medical Officer, one of four deputies to the Commander of Reynolds Army Community Hospital, Fort Sill, Oklahoma, until 2009.

Sherry, Joey, now the only one of our five still at home, and I, moved east to Eisenhower Army Medical Center, Augusta, Georgia. I served as Chief, Department of Medicine, until I started Transitional Leave in late October 2014, in preparation to retire on December 31, 2014. During my tenure, I deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom/New Dawn, May 2010-May 2011, selected as the Chief Medical Advisor to the Chief Medical Officer of the Iraqi Security Forces (various police forces numbering over 400,000).

While home on Rest and Relaxation during Christmas time, I received word that the Chief Medical Officer of the Iraqi Security Forces had been assassinated. I returned to Iraq with a heavy heart, reminded of the risks Iraqis face to rebuild their war-torn nation, and the danger to American troops and contractors. I continued my work with a newly-named Chief Medical Officer until I returned home.

I resumed my duties as Chief, Department of Medicine, but in 2013, I began to experience progressive insomnia, blue mood, and recurrent negative thoughts. I found it harder and harder to concentrate and to remember things. Then, I started to withdraw. My symptoms worsened and in April 2014, I finally sought help. With the compassionate care of others and lots of TLC from my wife and family, I slowly recovered. I learned many lessons along the way from my illness and my recovery. These formed the genesis of my book.

My commitment to reducing the stigma associated with mental illness is one of the main reasons I openly share my story in Wrestling Depression Is Not for Wimps! Lessons Learned from an Amateur Wrestler’s Fight to Triumph Over Depression. I also look for opportunities to share my story in person, like I did with the staff at Eisenhower Army Medical Center in September 2014. Before retiring from the Army, I made three different Public Service Announcements for the Department of the Defense highlighting the symptoms and dangers of depression to and encourage those suffering to seek help. This allowed me, a Colonel, a physician, and a Soldier who had cared for fellow Soldiers in combat zones, tell fellow Service Members that seeking help is not a sign of weakness. Since then I have disclosed this dark time and its impact on my life with other audiences as well.

As empty nesters, Sherry and I moved to Midlothian (Dallas-Fort Worth area), Texas, in December 2014, to be closer to our children and grandchildren. It was a very difficult transition from the Army to civilian life, but over time, we’ve settled into the community. We purchased our “forever home”, hoping and praying we never to have to move again. Yeah!

I worked part-time at the Hope Clinic in nearby Waxahachie, caring for the medically underserved from 2016-2020. Now, I’m venturing into clinical research at Clinpoint in Waxahachie. I’m also active in our church, St. Paul Episcopal Church, in Waxahachie and in the Waxahachie Toastmasters Club. I cherish time with Sherry and my family, and I remain a self-proclaimed “amateur wrestling aficionado”.  Or, as my kids affectionately call me, a “wrestling groupie.” I look forward to sharing my journey from brokenness to triumph, and lessons learned to help others, through my book and public speaking.

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