Memorial Day. For some, it means an extra day off of work. For many, it marks a time to celebrate with family and friends over food and drinks. For most, it serves as a day to recognize the lives of the heroes who sacrificed their well-being to ensure that America and its beloved inhabitants remain free.
Josh Wetzel didn't set out to be a hero. Rather, like many young men before him and many young men who will follow him, he sought out to find direction in his life.
Growing up in Alabama, Wetzel's life passion was always clear: Baseball. In first grade, Wetzel was asked to write a report about someone he admired. For the young baseball player, the subject of his report was clear. Throughout a 22-year career, Ted Williams hit 521 home runs and led Major League Baseball in batting six times. "That's what I wanted to be--that was my dream as a kid--to be the best hitter in baseball," Wetzel said. So, Wetzel wrote his report on Williams and with that report, became a life-long Boston Red Sox fan.
Wetzel's love for baseball exceeded that of fandom. Rather, he excelled enough at the sport that he was able to do what most cannot and play it at the collegiate level. After high school, Wetzel found himself playing baseball for Young Harris College in Georgia. Although baseball was his passion, Wetzel still didn't know where his life was going after his first year of college. So, he transferred to the University of North Alabama. Still unclear about what he wanted to do with his life, Wetzel eventually left the University of North Alabama to enroll at Gadsden State Community College.
With four years of college under his belt and no sure plan for his life, the direction of Wetzel's life finally became clear. in January 2010, when the then 24-year-old enlisted in the Army. "My whole family had been in the Army. My father served in the Gulf War. All of my uncles were also in the military. I had gone to school for a little while and had always wanted to join the military, but never had a reason to. Four years into college and still not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, I knew that I wanted something more for my life. So, that's when I joined the Army," Wetzel explained.
While Wetzel will tell you that he found direction upon enlisting in the Army, he'd also say that his real work there didn't begin until two years later, on March 22, 2012. It was on that date that Wetzel was deployed for his first tour of duty. Wetzel's first tour of duty would take him to a place that man has fought over for thousands of year. Kandahar, Afghanistan was developed by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. In the last century, it is perhaps most well-known as being the birthplace of terrorist groups, including al-Qaida. "I was pretty nervous at first. I was leaving my wife behind. We had just moved across the country to Fort Lewis, WA and she was staying behind there to work. I was excited, though, because this was the first time I was going to do my job since joining the military," Wetzel said.
For two-and-a-half months, Wetzel woke up early every morning in the Afghanistan heat and set out to serve his country. It was safe to say, that Wetzel's life had changed. He found the direction he sought earlier in his life as a college student and was proudly following along the path set by his family members. Yet, for two-and-a-half months in Afghanistan, Wetzel remained unaware of the next direction his life would turn.
It was May 31, 2012. Wetzel and his troop were on the second day of a three-day patrol of an area in Kandahar. The men were told that the threat of IEDs--the bombing devices relied upon heavily enough by Afghan insurgent groups that they are the greatest cause of NATO deaths in the Afghan war--was high. As a precautionary measure, the troop was to walk behind a minesweeper to ensure that none of its members encountered an active IED.
As Wetzel followed along his comrades, he says that "got complacent." He stepped on what he says was the first carbon rod IED found in the area they were patrolling. Because the troop didn't know there were carbon rod IEDs in the area, Wetzel's "metal detector didn't pick it up."
After the blast, Wetzel found himself lying on the ground. The detonation immediately stole both legs from Wetzel's body. His neck and several fingers were fractured. With his fellow soldiers standing above him and medical rescue responding to his injuries, Wetzel laid on the ground legless and awake. "I was lucky," he recounts, because you see, Wetzel was still alive.
In the hours after Wetzel's path crossed the IED, he would find the direction of his life changed forever. He was quickly flown to a district of Afghanistan called the Horn of Panjwayi, which is best known for serving as the birthplace of the Taliban. For Wetzel, though, it served as the first station in a long line of medical providers in his newly minted fight for recovery. After he was stabilized, Wetzel was flown to Germany for more medical care before finally arriving in the United States some five days later, on June 5, 2012.
The Memorial Day celebration of the occupants of the 345 beds at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center looks different than those who celebrate their heroism outside of the hospital's walls. Since returning back to the United States on June 5, 2012, Wetzel has called the walls of Walter Reed home. It was at Walter Reed where he first moved from a hospital bed to a wheelchair, where he was fit with prosthetic legs, and where on August 24, 2012, while his wife, Paige, stood looking on and crying, he took his first unassisted steps without the legs he lost on the battlefield.
The next milestone Wetzel will celebrate will take place outside of the confines of Walter Reed. May 31, 2013 marks his "alive day"--the one year anniversary of the day insurgents' actions were not great enough to take the life of this hero. True to his roots, Wetzel realized that there was only one way to celebrate this the first anniversary of his alive day: With baseball.
For the first time in a year, Wetzel will spend an entire week outside of the hospital. With his doctors' blessings and the help of Operation Warrior Wishes and America's Fund, Wetzel, along with his wife, the best friend he has made while being in Walter Reed, Andrew Smith, and his wife, will set out to attend six professional baseball games in seven days. "We are starting in Baltimore, then going to New York, then to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, then to Toledo for a minor league game, then to Detroit and finally to Cincinnati for our last game." Wetzel summed up the awesomeness of the trip by stating, "It's a dream come true."
When asked why the organization he co-founded sought to help Wetzel by working with MLB teams to ensure that the group received tickets and other special surprises during their ballpark visits, Operation Warrior Wishes' Matt Steichen said, "They are just inspirational people. They are the ones who could easily sit at home and feel sorry for themselves for what happened to them with their injuries. When you get to see them smiling and not worrying about anything, that's a good day."
The meaning of this voyage is not lost on the 27-year-old hero who once wrote a report naming a baseball player as his hero. When asked about the importance of the trip to his recovery, Wetzel said, "This trip is huge. For one, it's very humbling that people would do this much for us. Also, though, everyday is therapy. Being able to go to a stadium and experience new cities and crowds is therapy and it helps us; it's therapy for the mind. It gives us a break from everything in Walter Reed and lets us do something we enjoy."
For Wetzel, May 31 may mark his "alive day." For Americans, though, it marks the day that he forever became a hero.