I met Mike Schlitz several years ago and from the time I met him, he has only continued to inspire me personally and so many others. I remember hearing his story for the first time and it deeply impacted me, bringing me to tears. He lives his purpose of service to others on a daily basis and that is something we can all learn from, from the boardroom to our homes, these are the stories that change us, that shape us and that makes us better. He always had a positive attitude and every time I run into him (literally) lol, he is joyful, hopeful and living out his purpose.
He is the epitome of the saying “Rangers Lead the Way,” and I’m honored and inspired to call him a friend and fellow warrior. Please read and share his story I know it will deeply impact you to live better today!
What is your experience in the military?
I graduated High School in 1995 and wasn’t ready for college. I can admit I was a snot-nosed kid with a rebellious streak who only thought of myself. Somehow, I knew that I needed something greater in life than just floating by. So, I decided to follow in the footsteps of my Navy Grandfather and my older Army Brother and joined the US Army as an Infantryman.
I was young and didn’t fully understand what selfless service, patriotism, and honor meant. I was narrow-minded and only focused on what was in front of me at the moment. What I found out quickly was that I fell in love with the discipline, daily routine, and constant challenges. The challenges as a soldier, challenges as a leader, and challenges to adapt to any situation. I knew early on that I found my calling and was going to make it a career.
Throughout my 14-year career, I had many experiences and each one helped shaped me whether I knew it or not. I think you could ask any veteran about what his/her worst or hardest experience in the Military is, but what’s remarkable is that I bet him/her has a great memory to share from that same experience. I’m no different. I remember just sucking in Ranger School, but can just as vividly remember joking with the men to my left and right. It was the same in Combat. The Military teaches us to persevere and with hardship and struggle comes strength and growth.
So, my experience in the Military was the best decision I ever made, and I wouldn’t change any of it.
Can you tell us how you were injured?
On February of 2007, My Platoon and I were in Southern Baghdad performing a basic road-clearing mission to identify Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s) when two artillery shells attached to a propane tank exploded. I was thrown from the vehicle and didn’t realize I was on fire until I had gotten up to run to my guys in the vehicle. I only survived because of the quick thinking and reaction of my men on the ground that day. I sustained burns on 85% of my body, limited vision, limited range of motion in most of my joints, and loss of both of my hands. The hardest part was losing my driver CPL Lorne Henry Jr, my gunner SGT Richard Soukenka, and my medic Jonathan Cadavero.
After you realized the extent of your injuries, what was your initial response?
My initial response when coming out of my 4 month medically induced coma would have to be an utter and complete shock. I had to wade through denial, depression, and anger. When I went to war I was mentally prepared to lose a leg or even give my life for my Nation. I never thought I would come home with the severity of the injuries I sustained. Very few Veterans from any other generation would have survived but due to military training and technology, more and more Veterans are surviving devastating injuries. It’s an awkward thing to accept that one day you’re on the battlefield and the next you’re in a hospital bed.
What was the biggest hurdle you had to face in those first few months?
The biggest hurdle that I faced early on would be depression and anger. I wasn’t ready for the intense recovery ahead of me. I couldn’t feed myself, go to the bathroom by myself, or pretty much do anything without help. It was humbling to continuously need to ask for help. I had trouble seeing when life would be good again. It would just make me mad. I was depressed and thoughts of suicide haunted me. I didn’t want to imagine a life of what I was going through. Day in and day out I would imagine killing myself. From the time I woke up, to the time I went to sleep I dreamt about diverse ways I could do it if given the opportunity to be left alone long enough to do it. I was just buying my time until someone slipped up and left me alone. That never happened. I had an incredible support network of family, friends, and veterans who refused to let me quit or feel alone.
Then 13 months after being injured I took home my very first prosthetic arm. They were not able to fit both arms due to some open wounds, but they gave me a right hook. That night after months and months of dreaming to kill myself, I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Why? Because that night I was able to feed myself. It was my first real act of independence. Soon after that, I was fitted with both prosthesis and every day I learned how to adapt to accomplishing everyday tasks. From that point on it was about learning new ways to adapt to a world that wasn’t going to change for me. I didn’t have time to think about suicide. 10 years later, I’m still striving to find new and creative ways to tackle life. There’s no looking back because there’s too much to look forward to.
Was there a moment or experience that gave you hope to endure?
In the Army, I hated anything that made me feel weak. I always wanted to be the tough leader who led from the front. Back in November 2006, my unit was coming home and thankfully I was able to go because Veterans Airlift donated a private jet to fly me to Fort Drum, NY from Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio, TX. It was quite the challenge because I was still in head-to-toe bandages and in a wheelchair. Not to mention a doctor and a nurse had to travel with me for around the clock care, along with my Mother. I still needed daily bandage changes and physical therapy.
Seeing my guys return was one of the proudest moments, knowing what they went through during our deployment. After the Welcome Ceremony, we had planned a small get together, so I could visit with my men and close friends. They learned I had started to walk again and wanted to see me take a few steps. Throughout the day I had attended the ceremony, did wound care, and physical therapy and was getting exhausted. I didn’t have the energy to do it. I felt like I let them all down and was no longer that tough leader that led from the front. It crushed me to feel that way. I remember analyzing it in my head and coming to the realization that I needed to view it as a weakness. That’s exactly what I did.
Returning home from that trip, I decided to get back to my military thinking and training. I started pushing harder than I ever had before. Determined to get out of the wheelchair and not to ever let my men see me like that again. Within a couple months of returning, I was able to get rid of the wheelchair and started focusing on being able to jog again. Two years after that trip I returned to Fort Drum to see my men deploy again. This time there were no bandages, no wheelchair, and I had plenty of energy to visit. Sometimes you need a low moment to give you the motivation to make changes.
That time came again in 2010 after nearly 80 surgeries and weighing in at almost 210 pounds. At my heaviest in my career, I was 165 pounds. It was time to stop eating whatever I wanted and to stop using surgeries as a reason not to workout more often. I didn’t lose the weight right away, but over the course of 3 years, I was able to lose 50 pounds and still have a dozen more surgeries. It’s been 10 years since my injury, 96 surgeries, and I weigh in at 145 pounds. I watch what I eat and maintain a workout routine no matter what life has going on.
Where do you turn for strength in the midst of hardship now?
For me, I can find strength from just looking around. Everybody is going through something. Whether they or a family member is battling an illness, financial hardship, or relationship problems. I feel people need to understand that we all struggle throughout our lives and that your problems might not be the worst thing in the world. If you can lend a shoulder to lean on, a listening ear, or help in another way, you feel better about yourself. In the military it was nothing to share your last MRE cracker with your buddy next to you and yet somehow, we forget to do it in other aspects of our lives.
One elite group that motivates me more than any other group would be our Vietnam Veterans. If we want to talk about struggle and hardship, then we must talk about the generation of Veterans that had to hide who they were, fight for their benefits, and did it without the support our of Nation. They deserve our utmost respect and admiration for what they did for us and had to endure. Let’s be very honest for a moment. The benefits I get today from being wounded came from the fight these Veterans took to Capitol Hill, the Thank You’s we get today come from a Nation that feels shame from how they treated these Veterans, and in my opinion, there’s no other group that’s done more for our Veteran Community than the Vietnam Veterans. If that doesn’t give you strength, I’m not sure what will. I can only hope the work I do for Veterans lives up to their Legacy.
You do so much good work for veterans, what are some of the biggest struggles you see them facing?
I think most people are starting to understand that Veterans are facing high rates of unemployment, homelessness, and suicide, but I think there are underlying reasons why. The transition can be tough on all service members whether they served 4 years or retired after 20 years. When you serve in the same role for a long time it becomes part of your identity. It is hard to identify with being anything else. This causes a battle for you to find your place in the world. Veterans need to remember they are so much more than just the uniform. They are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, salesmen, doctors, plumbers, and so many more identities. Many need help finding where they go next.
Having a sense of purpose and a mission is also key. Both are very important and different in meaning. “Sense of purpose” is what gets you out of bed. For some, it’s family, career, or traveling. These are just a few, but what’s important is that you have something in life that excites you to get out of bed. Then you insert your mission. Your mission is to work towards accomplishing your sense of purpose. Let’s use family as the example. If your family is your sense of purpose, then your mission might be to work hard to provide for their basic living needs. But it can’t stop there. You also must make time for them emotionally. To show them the love and care they need. Like any mission in the military, you must have a plan and contingency plans for those unexpected turns in life.
When a Veteran doesn’t have a sense of purpose, a mission, and can’t find their identity then they are going to face more struggles until they do.
What are some practical ways we help the veterans in our communities?
There are so many ways to help our Veterans Nationwide. A quick internet search and you can find so many people and organizations giving back. Here are just a few things that I tell people when they ask me this question.
- Find something that interests you or motivates you and sees if anyone is already doing it for veterans. Just a few examples would be outdoor activities, arts and crafts, and there’s always a need helping Veterans transition back into Civilian jobs.
- Before you give to any organization whether its time, resources, or money please do your research. Vet these organizations to make sure they are doing exactly what they say do without taking advantage of veterans or exploiting them. Not all organizations are in it for the right reasons. Check their financials, ask around to see if there’s anyone you know that’s been helped by them, and look at their social media to see if it’s their work or just copy/paste imagines from the internet. Don’t be fooled.
- When you get around major military installations you can find plenty of organizations leading resources, but it’s my opinion and based on my experience that the further you get from those areas the fewer resources you find. Look in your local community for grassroots organizations helping your local Veterans. If you have trouble finding one, visit a nearby Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), American Legion, or National Guard/Army Reserve unit to see if anyone is supporting them.
- Lastly, make an impact. Remember the 3 biggest things plaguing veterans is unemployment, homelessness, and suicide. If you can help in any of these areas, it could change or save that veterans life. One that Service Member signed up to risk for us.
Michael is the Military and Veteran Resource Manager at the Gary Sinise Foundation, an organization we love supporting. To honor Michael’s story, we have decided to donate a percentage of proceeds from Hope Unseen books and merchandise for the rest of the month to this amazing charity doing so much good for our Veterans!
Find Michael on the web: