Former Staff Sgt. Mike Hanes transitioned out of the U.S. Marine Corps with an injured psyche. A highly trained reconnaissance Marine, he struggled with the chaos of combat, the poverty he’d seen, and living in the crosshairs.
“I was a .50 caliber machine-gunner. I was the one they wanted to shoot,” he recalled. Vivid memories were imprinted as he watched “history in the making” when the 1st Marine Division took Safwan Hill and pushed into Iraq.
At the time, making hot sauce was not on his mind.
Filomena Spiese wasn’t focused on hot sauce, either, as she stood by her man, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Melvin Spiese. A mother of three, she was busy at home keeping chaos at bay during deployments, serving on multiple boards for PTA, sports, and Officer’s Wives Club.
“With all the commands Mel had, there were social expectations,” she said. She had parties to plan, plus rides to games and Scout meetings to coordinate. Then, when her precious three children joined the war, she had faith to muster.
Hot sauce had yet to claim dominance with either Hanes or Spiese, as life’s curves and bumps continued.
Hanes, a transplant from Georgia, left 8 1/2 years of military service as a “honed warrior,” with troubling mental archives and unanswered questions. Transition assistance for him was limited. Tuned into social sciences and the environment, he got a degree from SDSU in those fields.
While seeking answers, he slept in Balboa Park and used foraging and survival skills he’d learned as a Recon Marine. Thick brush was his bed and comfort zone. Nightmares and anger spewed out in the form of road rage, and he was unable to mesh at work. When he was diagnosed with PTSD, “Why is this happening?” set in.
“Why is this happening?” was sensed by Spiese when huge downsizing cuts thrust her husband’s enlisted Marines into a well of insecurity. “What am I going to do?” “I don’t want to go,” they would say. She knew these Marines were concerned about supporting their families and tried to encourage them as civilians to “stay in the game” and “do something with your life.”
Doing something merged Hanes’ and Spiese’s paths at Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training. A Marine Corps vet who had also experienced the war created the program with his wife and another couple to help vets “stay in the game” through agriculture.
VSAT taught Hanes the science of hydroponics, water-based agriculture. “I found that growing plants, particularly coming from a scenario of pain, death, fire, and destruction …you’re shifting into becoming a creator — a nurturer,” he said. “That constant interaction creates a foundational shift for the better.”
That shift led to acting on an idea.
“I wanted to do a product that was unique (and) super-healthy,” he added. “I’ve got raw organic apple cider vinegar, which increases intrinsic value in your intestinal gut — helps with absorption. Cayenne pepper is considered a top circulatory herb. Combine those two and throw in super-foods (spirulina, maca root and mesquite) and it makes an herbal catalyst for optimal nutrient absorption.”
One all-nighter in the kitchen, concocting like a mad scientist, produced Forager Mike’s Dang!!!, a specialty hot sauce.
Producing and launching a new product swamped Hanes the forager, who had few resources and VA appointments to keep for his PTSD. Dang!!! was teetering on a ledge when hot sauce worked its way into Spiese’s thinking.
“I love the vet and I love their heart,” she recalled. “When Mike asked if I would help …Mel and I invested financially.”
As President of Forager Mike’s, Spiese is learning as she goes, saying, “I’m seeing the difficulties I’m going through … so if you’re suffering from PTSD (and) you have these appointments, I don’t see how you do that.”
“She saved this company,” stated Hanes. “Filomena, working together, we really balance each other out.”
With more time, Hanes can help fight his demons by giving back to other vets with PTSD. He enjoys teaching them how to build hydroponic systems and offers his help as they start their own businesses. “We need to create a network support path that these veterans can follow,” he said.
Connecting and sharing knowledge is never more important for Hanes than when he’s with his daughter, Raina, whom he takes on plant walks. When they’re alone and he’s teaching her about wild plants, “She’ll give me a hard time.” But when they’re with people, “She’ll get all into it and say, ‘See, this plant — you can use it for this and that.’ She’s getting just as good at edible plants as I am.”
For Hanes and Spiese, Dang!!! is more than just mental therapy and health food.
“Mike’s mission speaks to my soul,” said Spiese, daughter of Portuguese immigrant nut famers, who tends her own orchard at her Rancho Santa Fe home. “Here is a guy,” she said, “who has the only organic raw-foods hot sauce on the market. He’s trying to help others better themselves physically, mentally and also spiritually — it’s the whole package deal.”
Spiese helps others, too, as president of the Veterans Valor fund. She admonishes, “Give vets a chance. It’s these people who have stories and compassion. They want their [own] healing and everyone else to heal. They want to bring everybody together.”
For information on Dang!!! Hot Sauce, visit foragermikes.com.
For information on the Veterans Valor Fund, visit veteransvalorfund.com.