Justin Governale has learned a thing or two about persevering through tough situations but it didn’t start on the battlefield as a Marine.
“I didn’t have a bed to sleep on for the first 11 years of my life,” he shared. “I remember waking up to screaming all the time. One time, I found my mother’s boyfriend in the living room covered in blood that wasn’t his.”
His mother had run across the street to call the police after her boyfriend had hit her during an argument. As Governale watched the police arrest the boyfriend amid flashing lights, his mother informed him they’d be moving. Again.
“I think it was then I realized nothing about this kind of life was normal. Until that point, I didn’t think anything of our constant moving and living with different people,” he explained.
His mother grew up in Mexico as one of 11 children and times were hard. Those would follow her after she had her son and into her adult life as she battled addiction.
Governale would often use his traumatic memories as a child to “mentally check out” and not feel things, like pain. He described a challenge during his time in the Marine Corps where he had to hold the “electric chair” position for at least 30 minutes. He outlasted everyone and then held it, just because, for a total time of an hour and four minutes.
“It’s almost like I go into this trance where I don’t think about the pain. I know it’s probably not healthy to do that to yourself but I do it to survive,” he added. “Basically, you have to ask yourself in a challenging situation if you’re going to be a victim or a warrior.”
Though he finally got a bed and his own room when he was 11 years old, it would be short-lived when his cousin had to move in with them. Mainly because he had to give up the top bunk, but Governale smiled when he added that at least he had a bed.
“I use all of these experiences to fuel everything I do. When I was in the Marine Corps and they were going around asking if anyone wanted to go to training to become a scout sniper, I signed up. Friends would say, ‘Do you really think you’ll make it?’ My response was to tell them if they ever asked questions like that again, I’d cut them out of my life,” he explained.
Governale said the Scout Sniper platoon didn’t care if you were the absolute best or the smartest, even though they were undeniable assets. The most important attribute? To never give up.
“It’s something I held onto. When I was on Naked and Afraid the second time, they forced me out because I had a fever of 104 degrees for four days in a row. Even with that, I was refusing to leave,” he laughed. “It took a producer yelling at me and explaining I was a liability at this point for the show to make me leave. I don’t give up. I can’t.”
Even when he was competing as an MMA fighter, there were times he didn’t win a fight. But Governale is adamant that there’s a difference between losing and failing.
“It’s that mentality that got me into the Marine Corps, too. When I told my mom, her response was to ask how, because I couldn't even wipe my own ass right," he laughed. "After the attacks on 9/11, I knew there was no way I was going to do anything else but the military. Even if it was hard."
And it was. As Governale puts it, receiving a Purple Heart in 2005 after being “blown up a few times” in Iraq is just a small part of his story and who he is. By 2006 he graduated from sniper school and spent the next two years doing work Governale doesn’t publicly elaborate on other than to say he “saw some dark shit.”
Transitioning out of uniform and eventually out of contract work in Afghanistan was worse than being shot at, he added.
“I remember driving down the road in my truck, drunk, crying and I was speeding. There was a loaded 45 next to me that was my grandfather’s,” Governale shared. “The thoughts were there but then I pulled up to my friends and they shook me out of it by asking what I was doing.”
Editor's note: If you or someone you love is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call 988 or text 838255. You are loved - there is no shame in asking for help!
It was like he just couldn’t connect with humans any longer, he admitted, and it took him a long time to get back to feeling like himself. On the advice of a friend to go see the world, he quit his job and bought a one-way ticket to Thailand.
“When I was a Marine I think I’d visited five countries. At this point, I’ve been to 38 different countries and it changed my life. When I got to Thailand, I started fighting,” he said.
Fighting in MMA helped and slowly he was connecting to others again. He earned his first-degree black belt in jiu-jitsu and began to feel like himself as time went on. When he did, Governale was on Naked and Afraid and eventually, speaking about his experiences growing up and time in the service.
Governale also started rescuing and rehabilitating dogs, finding that he wasn’t just healing them – but himself. His first rescue and rehabilitation would bring him to tears for the first time in years.
“When I processed it I realized I wasn’t just crying over giving the dog to someone but for so much that had happened to me,” he explained.
A few years ago, Governale started showing up at open mic nights three days a week. He’d developed somewhat of a reputation for being funny during his time as a Marine, and humor had always been something he used to push through hard things.
“I do open mics on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights. Shows on Saturday and I use Sundays to regroup,” he shared. “The hope is to use laughter as medicine. I want to motivate and encourage people and challenge them to decide if they’re going to be a victim in whatever situation they’re facing or a warrior. I hope they pick a warrior. It’s worth it.”
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