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The Alchemy of Mike Beanan: Transforming trauma into comfort for Vietnam Veterans

Story by MARRIE STONE

Mike Beanan may be one of Laguna’s great alchemists. For all his many talents, this could be his best – a gift for converting darkness into light, and suffering into solace. There are a lot of ugly truths about Vietnam, but one of them is this: you can take the soldier out of the war, but you’ll never take the war out of the soldier. 

What that soldier does in its aftermath is the challenge. 

The Alchemy two men

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Photo by Chip Maury

Navy SEAL Mike Beanan (left) with an M60 in Vietnam

When the opportunity to spend time with Mike arose, I embraced it. In fact, I stole the assignment away from one of my colleagues. My own father was a Vietnam vet who carried the demons of war particularly close his whole life. Since his death last year, I’ve sought out men like Mike who give me the chance to look down all those post-war roads not taken, imagining brighter outcomes. He represents a different and positive path – 

one of hope and strength and resilience.

Mike has spent most of his adult life finding ways to turn the brutal lessons he learned in Vietnam into forces for positive change at home by applying his many passions and talents to important causes. As an activist and environmentalist, Mike makes the ocean his second home. “The ocean,” he says “is my underwater church.” There, his alchemy isn’t just philosophical. Mike is working with the City on a water reclamation and treatment facility, turning dirty water into clean. With a degree in Biology from UCI, he’s also interested in the science behind converting human waste into energy.

The Alchemy Mike closeup

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Mike Beanan standing beside his second home and his spiritual sanctuary

As a skilled carpenter, Mike not only builds beautiful homes from nothing (doing every part of the construction himself), he also teaches his trade to others – giving men a sense of purpose and pride. And, if he finds a man particularly down on his luck, Mike opens his home to him, sharing his experience and wisdom, meals and books, until he can get back on his feet. Mike calls it his “burnout bin.”

What, I wondered, pulls a man out of the psychological trenches? What alchemy allowed Mike to turn his own demons into angels? This is what I learned…

A military-style upbringing

Mike’s childhood might have been one long preparation for the military. His parents raised five kids, close in age, on a butcher’s salary. Survival was a skill taught early. Mike grew up siphoning gas out of cars, dumpster diving, and scavenging for the next meal. “It was all survival,” he says. “It wasn’t like we were wolf children,” he says, “but we were raised to be incredibly self reliant.” 

Brought up on the shores of the northern California coast, Mike was the oldest of four sons (his only sister is a year older). The boys lived in a converted garage behind the house and, though his father was the WWII veteran, his mother insisted on military cleanliness. “My mom was in the Women’s Army Corp (WAC). She came in for inspection every Saturday with a white glove. We learned to work hard and have fun.” 

He grew up surfing the frigid waters of the Pacific and camping in the rugged terrain of the California and Oregon wilderness. Using stars, maps and compasses, Mike quickly became adept at navigation, a skill that would soon serve him well. “I could look at a map and tell you where the hills are – the vegetation, the houses and water. I could tell you where we could slip through quietly. Growing up surfing, we had to trespass through farms to get to the water. The farmers carried shotguns and we were carrying nine-foot white surfboards. So we became very good at sneaking down arroyos. We learned Spanish to speak to the braceros so they wouldn’t turn us over to the farmers.”

At age 17, Mike struggled to survive on his own as an emancipated minor, spending time in jail because of it, and deciding, when the draft board came for him – however much he wanted to avoid the horrors of war – he couldn’t go to prison. When Mike got to the military, it was like his whole life had trained him for that experience.

Vietnam: innocence lost and disillusionment found

With Mike’s skillset, intelligence, and work ethic, he quickly moved through the ranks. He was navigating an aircraft carrier by the age of 18, and soon became a sergeant. Then he was scouted as a frogman, completing training, and loving his time back “home” – in the water. “I was so happy to be in the water again. I aced the training. I outswam everyone, outran everyone. I felt free.” To put this time in perspective, two men died during training. It was that dangerous.

From there, Mike was recruited into a secret organization led by the CIA – Navy SEAL Team I. “It was a clandestine, surreptitious operation to kidnap village chiefs. We’d sneak in and sneak out. No one saw us or heard us. Everything was done at night.” 

Mike soon understood these Vietnamese chiefs weren’t a threat to anyone. “It was wrong,” he says. “What we were doing was wrong.” The SEALS were forced into a terror campaign, gutting and dismembering villagers as an act of psychological warfare. In 1981, Mike contributed a chapter for the book Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Al Santoli. He writes: “Not only had [these villagers] died very violently and horribly, but [they] wouldn’t even be able to enter nirvana intact, and that impact was just incredible.” 

Worse than the realization that the war was wrong came the awareness that the military was taking glorified photos of the SEALS to bolster their campaign. “It was all made up,” he says. 

The Alchemy Seals group

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Photo by Chip Maury

Mike Beanan – bottom row, second from the left – flashes a peace sign as a signal that the SEALS wanted out of this war

“They took a picture of us holding a Vietnam flag we’d captured. We hung the flag upside down, which means we’re in distress, then flashed the peace sign. We were trying to send the message back: This war is screwed up and we want peace. Instead, these pictures became the iconic photos of SEAL team because our nation loves war.”

Climbing out of the trenches

Mike returned from Vietnam in 1969, physically intact but psychologically damaged. He transferred to UC Irvine from community college in 1971 as a Biology and Psychology major and went on to graduate work in Social Ecology. 

He drove a school bus for handicapped kids. He helped lead several veterans’ initiatives and programs, including the Handicapped SCUBA Project at UCI, the countywide Veterans’ Split Job Program, the “Amnesty Psychodrama” program, and the Veterans’ Conspiracy model. He soon discovered universities were designed (with all their research and funding) to support the military – not the men who fought in the war, and certainly not the veterans who came home.

“I took all my training from the military and reversed it. How to you unassassinate somebody? We called it guerilla goodness.” Mike trained veterans to empower themselves. He used military tactics against a government trying to deny veterans their rights – payment, employment, treatment. He’d ambush administrators at their meetings. And, of course, he participated in plenty of protests.

Around this time, Mike found transcendental meditation. It’s a practice he’s kept for years. It allows him to get by on little sleep and still feel refreshed. 

Not only did Mike pull himself out of the trenches, but he stretched his hand back and lifted others up as well. For 30 years, he atoned for his time in the war. Then he decided to devote himself to the ocean.

From Navy SEAL to protecting Laguna’s sea life

Perhaps Mike’s most profound impact, and the one he’s most rightfully proud of, is his work with his first love – the Pacific Ocean. As co-founder of the Laguna Bluebelt Coalition, Mike and his colleagues have made significant strides in protecting Laguna’s most precious resource. Now our coastline is recognized as a marine protected area and no-take zone. Our water quality has improved. Our marine life and estuary wildlife are not only surviving, but thriving.

Fish and marine mammals are rebounding. Whales, particularly gray whales and their calves, are present in Laguna’s shallow coves. Surveys suggest abalone is also making a comeback. In simple terms, Mike’s many efforts are working wonders in our ocean.

Mike is a member of the Laguna Beach Environmental and Sustainability Committee, and co-founder of the KelpFest Laguna Beach regional Earth Day event. In 2012, he won the Orange County Cox Conserves Hero Award, given in partnership with The Trust for Public Land and Cox Enterprises.

The Alchemy on beach

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Mike Beanan sports his “business suit” while working at the office

“We are the only citywide marine protected area and the only city in the U.S. with a contiguous bluebelt and greenbelt,” he told the Orange County Register last May. “What’s important is that we have a rocky bottom. Because of that, you have tide pools and hundreds of caves that function as nurseries for fish and shellfish. Offshore we have kelp forests equivalent to underwater redwood forests. They can grow to 120 feet high and grow at a rate of two feet a day. Rather than a ‘no fish’ zone, we have a ‘grow fish’ zone.”

Mike’s enthusiasm for the environment, and ocean protection, is infectious. It’s hard not to be moved to action while listening to him talk. 

The Alchemy estuary

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The Aliso Creek estuary and sand berm provide a habitat for protected species

 such as the tidewater goby and southern steelhead trout
Mike’s mysterious alchemy

Mike’s journey feels both miraculous and inevitable. A rugged childhood created a natural leader. A broken soldier became an instinctive healer. A former frogman evolved into the ocean’s biggest advocate. But all that could have gone a different way. 

Whether or not Agent Orange caused my father’s eventual brain tumor, I don’t know. But I’m certain the war fueled his lifelong addiction to alcohol. Mike, though, traded alcohol for meditation and medical marijuana. He prefers sea life over life as a Navy SEAL. He didn’t let his demons conquer him. Instead, he used his experiences to help others out of the dark.

Some of his old war stories sound familiar to me (enough to make me tear up while we talked). But Mike’s post-war life feels entirely foreign. What allows one man to thrive while another merely survives? Why did one guy make it home when his buddy didn’t? Impossible to know. Like alchemy, some things remain a mystery.

Mike tells me he didn’t have children in large part because of the war. “I knew I couldn’t protect a kid from the war machine in this country,” he says. “And I knew I’d been exposed to something really bad, and it would permeate everything.” Instead, Mike became a father figure to some and a role model to many. He’s lived his life as an example – an activist, a leader, and a steadfast steward of the environment. 

“You could be my niece,” he tells me as our time wraps up, inviting me out to swim sometime. 

I don’t tell him I’m afraid of the ocean and that, in my 20 years of living in Laguna, I’ve barely swum at all. Instead I say yes. Because Mike is the kind of man that makes people trust him. He makes people feel safe enough to take risks, brave enough to give it their all, and inspired to make a difference.