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Originally published October 1, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Page modified October 2, 2012 at 1:23 PM

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Edmonds CC soccer coach Brandon Mitalas carries the burden of war

Former Marine Brandon Mitalas has the war, and the story of his recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder, tattooed on his arms as he brings his lessons to the soccer field.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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EDMONDS — The bodies from the casualties of the war in Iraq came almost daily to Landing Support Specialist Brandon Mitalas in Kuwait City.

One of his jobs as a Marine stationed at Kuwait City International Airport during Operation Iraqi Freedom was to transfer the bodies from the airplanes to the morgue, then take the bodies back from the morgue and back onto the plane for the flight to Dover Air Force Base.

"We saw the horrors of war pretty much every day," Mitalas, the soccer coach at Edmonds Community College, said after a recent practice. "Not first hand, on the front lines, dodging bullets, but we got to see the worst part of the war, daily."

Mitalas was a 22-year-old Marine, still trying to discover the direction he wanted his life to take, when he came directly in touch with death. And in the six months he was stationed there, death became too familiar and repetitious and overwhelming.

Most of the casualties came to Kuwait City in metallic containers. But he estimates that about 15 percent came to him in body bags on stretchers and he always could tell by the weight and the shape of those bodies how horrible those deaths had been.

Mitalas took these casualties of war to the morgue so that they could be prepared for the trip home. And every time he carried a body he also carried their pain and felt the anguish he knew the family of each Marine and sailor was experiencing. Eight years later, he remembers and honors each one.

"When you do something like that at that age, you condition yourself to just how precious life is," he said. "And I try to impart that to my players, to pull life issues out of it.

"I mean if you can't help others through your experiences, what's the use? I try to relate my experiences to sports. I tell my players, 'You never know when you might be playing your last game. One day the clock's running. One day it runs out. These games are not something to be taken for granted. How do you want to be remembered?' "

Mitalas, a college goalkeeper, was coming out of the fog of a concussion suffered in a youth game when the planes flew into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001. He never had entertained a thought of joining the Marines, never expected to be thrown into a war. He called the Sept. 11 attacks a "catalyst" in his life.

After the attacks, Mitalas, who was earning spending money delivering pizza, delivered one to the home of a Marine Corps recruiter in Mountlake Terrace.

"You're a big, athletic guy," the recruiter told him. "Why don't you stop by our office and join the Marines."

Mitalas accepted his invitation.

"I was just looking for a free T-shirt, really," he said.

After an argument with his parents where they demanded that he find three full-time job applications or start paying rent, he visited the recruiting officer and eventually enlisted.

"I was an immature, arrogant 19-year-old," he said. "That completely reversed once I got into boot camp."

Eventually he came to Kuwait and, at 22, dealt with death practically every day for six months.

It took a toll. He became haunted by the experiences, the weight of the bodies, the weight of their tragedies, the sight in the morgue of the bodies of these fallen Marines, the vision of the American flags that were draped on their makeshift caskets.

When he returned to the States, he brought the nightmares of those experiences with him.

"We Marines are conditioned to help ourselves," he said. "You handle things on your own, so that you can be there for your fellow Marines. You're not conditioned to seek help. It's not a healthy approach."

Back in the Northwest, he accepted a scholarship to play goalie for Warner Pacific in Portland. But the nightmares kept him awake at night. He was so traumatized that for the first six months he was back in the Northwest, he couldn't look at an American flag. It became a symbol of death.

He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He needed help.

"Every day the voice in the back of your head persists," Mitalas, 30, said. "Every day it creeps into your thoughts. 'You're a man. You're tough. You can get through this.' "

Finally, in the middle of a particularly bad night, when the dreams were their most tortuous, Mitalas called his mother, Cindy, who helped him get into a program at a V.A. hospital. Mitalas began addressing the issues causing his nightmares.

"She saved my life," he said.

Almost eight years later, Mitalas is standing in the sun, in the midst of his fourth season as the soccer coach at Edmonds CC. When he wants his players' attention he yells, "Ears," and they respond, "Open." He learned that in boot camp.

He is building something at ECC. After a rough start this season, the Tritons are 5-5-2, undefeated in their past five games and have only allowed one goal in those games.

"He's used soccer as a coping mechanism for coming back from war and I think that's an interesting idea," goalkeeper coach Liviu Bird said. "Because of Brandon's background, he's made this a great steppingstone for these kids, from being high-school kids to being college students. This team is very disciplined. Players really listen to him because of the way he presents things."

Mitalas' nightmares are rare now. But he doesn't want to forget his experiences in the Middle East. He wants to talk about his experiences in Kuwait. He needs to talk about them. He wears the story of those experiences on his sleeves literally.

On his left arm, a series of tattoos describe his time in Kuwait City. There is a picture of the World Trade Center. Marines guard the gates of heaven.

The colors are vibrant.

"I want people to ask about the sleeves," he said. "It's part of my therapy."

The date, Jan. 26, 2005, the worst day of his life, when he and so many of his fallen fellow Marines arrived, is drawn on his arm. The initials of a Marine from Bothell, Nathan Raymond Wood, who was killed in the war, are tattooed on that arm.

"What we did was important," he said. "It deserves to be respected."

On Mitalas' right arm, which still is a work in progress, he tells the story of his recovery from PTSD. The theme is, "Rebuilding Through Patriotism and Body Armor." Among the highlights is a Captain America shield on his elbow.

His Portland-based tattoo artist, who calls himself Jerry Martian, has helped save his life.

"He knows everything about my life. I've talked to him about everything."

Mitalas said the pain he feels while getting the tattoos is part of his therapy.

"I want it to hurt. The pain is the negativity leaving the body," he said.

His shoulders no longer are weary from the weight of war. His outlook is optimistic. Brandon Mitalas is a coach, a very good coach, who is taking the lessons he learned from the horror of Iraq and molding young men, who play a game.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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