Finding your pack can change your life – just as it changed mine after my service injury

Essay By
Josh Michael
Guest Author

Josh Michael is a 2023 Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program Scholar and a member of Team 43.

Having a group of like-minded individuals can have a major impact on success. Some might call it “finding your pack.”  

Like many of the thousands of post-9/11 veterans transitioning from service, I was taught to work as part of a team. That was true in my family and during the tough training months and action-packed deployment in the camaraderie-rich job of infantry. Even though I joined older than most at 29, our team had endured the same struggle and got through it together.  

But my world changed forever a month before deploying back to the States. My left side was destroyed by a mortar round that took me out of the fight. I was devastated I couldn’t complete the mission with my pack. I thought I would run with my guys for years to come, and it was cut short. Being medevacked to Fort Sam Houston to start my road to recovery, my confidence was shattered. But I was blessed to find new packs. 

I arrived wondering if my arm would work the same way again. Who would want to hire a 30-year-old disabled vet? Could this brain trauma change me? Then I realized that I was surrounded by others in a similar situation. Some better and some much worse.  

Watching 19-year-old triple amputees driving around in their motorized wheelchairs with big grins on their faces really changed my perspective. They’d decided that their injuries weren’t going to define who they were. That was a pack I wanted to be a part of. During my two years at Fort Sam Houston, I also encountered many soldiers who let their injuries define them and waited on something to happen to them instead of making it happen. I decided to embrace a positive attitude. Once I did, my recovery was much faster and my confidence was back! 

Until it was time to medically retire. What now? How can anyone understand what I’ve been through? Will I meet their expectations? Many consider the ones who served “heroes.” How does one wear that responsibility? I was just an old slow guy in the wrong place at the right time. 

I knew that I needed to adapt to my new environment, which, at the time, didn’t include any family or friends. Finding a church that adopted me was a game changer. I had instant community that made my transition much easier. I had a real experience with veteran allies that continue to shape me. 

While passing through Dallas, I decided to visit the George W. Bush Presidential Center. It was newly open, and I always thought President Bush was a great guy. I had just started to mountain bike and saw in one of the exhibits that he hit the trails as well! I saw that they had a mountain bike ride that the president hosts called the W100K. I thought, why not apply? I never thought I would have a chance until I got the call, but they accepted me! 

Enter Team 43. I found a pack that I didn’t even know existed. Meeting the president was amazing – but the other riders were just like me. They had all gone through traumatizing events and endured strong.  

This team of veterans was stacked with experience and talent. I had only been retired for a year, and the network I gained accelerated my transition path. The top tier of veteran allies that work with Team 43 cemented my belief that veterans need community and purpose to reach their full potential. It was the message of servant leadership that resonated with me from this program. If we have something great, we should help others achieve greatness. 

It was the help of a mentor who supports the veteran community that led me to an amazing career in a field that supports others in the medical device space. It was out of my comfort zone, and I had to move my family to a different city to work at this company. Same thoughts running through my head: Can I do this, another new pack?   

When I found the Veteran Employee Resource Group at my company, I was relieved. I was able to connect with other veterans who had integrated into the company culture, and it was a great help to my career. After everything I’d experienced, I felt that I could help other veterans transitioning to my company. 

Enter the Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program – yet another pack I didn’t know I needed until the time came. This program facilitated a diverse network of individuals that placed mission above personalities. I used that message and lessons learned during the program as drivers for my personal leadership project. This project deploys veterans and veteran allies to create a well-balanced perspective on success, creating a robust mentorship program that will foster new veteran leaders to come and helping them find a new pack at my organization. 

What I’ve learned in the 10+ years out of the military lead to me to this belief: The best job for any veteran is to pave the way for the ones coming up. That is the pack I will continue to run with.