A preteen dressed as a rat tried to save Christmas from a nefarious elf named Knuckles and the Abominable Snowman. Standing beside her was a talking can of yellow Play-Doh. Sitting in the seats, waiting for their cue, were the 12 reindeer.
And five rows from the stage sat Armando Mejia, beaming a wide smile like a proud parent.
He nodded when the dialogue went smoothly and giggled at the jokes. And after it ended and all the characters took a bow, dozens of the kids mobbed Mejia and covered him with hugs.
The 31-year-old father of three clearly relished watching the Christmas play last week at an auditorium at Fort Lewis’ Madigan Army Medical Center. The Spanaway resident is the military outreach director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound.
Mejia’s job has become a bit of salvation for the former Fort Lewis soldier who nearly died four years ago when a roadside bomb exploded under his Humvee in Iraq. He struggled with a grueling physical recovery and a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Today, he helps coordinate programs for the hundreds of children in the area – from as far west as Belfair and Bremerton and eastward to Spanaway and Graham – whose parents serve in the armed forces.
"Working with these kids," he said, "has helped turn everything around for me."
Mejia grew up poor in Los Angeles, the oldest of five children. He was in high school when his father died; his mother eked out a living making food and selling it to neighbors.
He started working two janitorial-type jobs – at an upholstery shop and a Mexican restaurant – to help his family. He enlisted in the Army less than a month after graduating from high school in 1996.
"We were low-income – food stamps, welfare, one-bedroom apartment," he said. "I would sleep in the living room. And you never forget where you come from."
I thought I was dead
Mejia always kept a chaplain close while briefing his squad before a mission. A convoy security assignment on Oct. 29, 2004, was no different.
Mejia, then a Fort Lewis staff sergeant, was 45 days into his Stryker brigade deployment in Iraq. He was a member of the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division but was attached to a transportation company, providing security for long lines of trucks that kept American troops across the country supplied.
The mission that day was to guard a convoy of more than 20 vehicles as it drove from a base outside Mosul to one near Tal Afar and back.
The trucks made the trip of about 30 miles to the base near Tal Afar with no problems.
"’If we get hit by an IED,’" he told his squad as it prepared to return, "just hold on and pray.’
"I kind of ate those words."
Mejia climbed into the passenger seat of a Humvee. The vehicles snaked into Tal Afar. It was empty: no kids playing, no adults walking on the streets. He told the drivers to speed up.
About 200 yards away, Mejia noticed a bystander talking on a cell phone – a common detonator for roadside bombs.
He turned around to get a better view from the rear window when the bomb exploded.
"I thought I was already in heaven," he said. "I thought I was dead. I felt heat – it was hot, hot, hot. I smelled things burning. I heard crashes."
The explosion threw the Humvee in the air. The driver and a passenger in the back seat jumped. As it began to flip, Mejia braced himself against the frame.
His vehicle came to rest on its roof. His right arm and right leg were pinned. His left leg was pushed unnaturally against his chest. His eyes swelled almost completely shut, and his helmet had fallen forward and covered his face. All he could see were the photos of his family he had taped to its interior.
"I could see my son and my wife, my mom," Mejia said. "I closed my eyes and started praying. I heard gunshots. I smelled gas. I thought that was going to be it for me."
Injured and angry
Mejia spent the next week traveling to a series of hospitals in Iraq, Kuwait, Germany and the United States. He stayed for three weeks at Madigan, his final stop.
His right arm was crushed. His right foot needed a total reconstruction. His left eardrum was blown. Ligaments in his left knee were shredded.
He suffered internal bleeding and burns on his back. X-rays showed hairline fractures on his spine. He took shrapnel in his legs and face.
More than 20 surgeries were needed to repair the damage, and the recovery period was long. He was in a wheelchair for eight months.
He didn’t sleep the first three days after leaving Madigan. At nights, he would watch CNN and e-mail friends in Iraq.
Nightmares haunted him when he did finally sleep. He snapped at his wife, Melinda, who also was raising their 9-month-old son, Alexavier. Mejia threw stuff out of anger.
"We never, ever fought the year before he went over there," Melinda Mejia recalled. "And then when he came back, he was depressed."
She asked him to get help. He told her he didn’t need any.
After six weeks, her patience had run out.
"She told me, ‘I’m going to get help for you, or this isn’t going to work out between us. You have a little baby, and you’re scaring him,’" he said.
He scheduled an appointment with a therapist at Madigan, and his initial skepticism broke down.
"After he talked to the counselor, everything started going smoothly," Melinda said. "I think he just needed to get everything out."
A desire to help people
Mejia was transferred into a medical-hold unit, the precursor to today’s Warrior Transition Battalion. It’s a unit of soldiers with complex medical issues that helps them prepare for a return to their military careers or civilian life.
He enrolled in courses at Pierce College. His unit worked with his schedule to allow him to go. His first sergeant would check his grades and also make sure he attended his appointments at Madigan.
A psychology professor encouraged him to write about PTSD.
"I was hooked," Mejia said. "I just wanted to know more and more – and eventually help people."
He earned his associate degree in 2006 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Washington Tacoma in June. He has already begun working toward a master’s degree.
A practicum was a requirement of earning his bachelor’s degree. A professor advised him to embrace something outside his element. He chose working with children, and the school helped set him up with the Boys & Girls Club.
He taught children how to eat properly and exercise. Other days, he would play basketball, dodgeball or video games with them.
"It was like therapy for me," he said.
Today Mejia coordinates programs for military kids throughout the South Puget Sound region.
More than 550 children who regularly use the clubs have at least one military parent, he said. His activities include arranging basketball tournaments and a color guard, and sending boxes of candy and letters to troops deployed to Iraq.
Even when he’s not in his office at the Gary and Carol Milgard Family HOPE Center in Lakewood, his mind is on his work.
"Does he talk about the Boys & Girls Club?" Melinda said with a laugh. "That’s all he talks about."
‘He really cares about us’
Anyah Mitchell, a 12-year-old student at Hudtloff Middle School in Lakewood, first met Mejia when she joined the Boys & Girls Club in September 2007. And even though she doesn’t see him as much as she used to – he often works from his office – Mejia’s attitude has left an impression.
"He’s always smiling," she said. "No matter what’s going on, he always has a big smile."
Her friend Tatiana Sparks of Lakewood agreed.
"You can tell he really cares about us," said the third-grader at Lakeview Hope Academy, who has a father in the Army.
Melinda Mejia called her husband’s work at the Boys & Girls Club one of the best things that’s happened to him.
"He’s become a different person," Melinda said. "Totally different. I wanted him back to the person I knew when I met him. He’s back, and much more now."