By MaryTherese Griffin, Army Warrior Care and Transition
“I feel great, I love life,” says U.S. Army retired Sgt. 1st Class Michael Schlitz. The energy and passion from Schlitz kept Army Wounded Warrior Program Advocates on the edge of their seats as he spoke at the annual AW2 Advocate Training Conference in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The retired former 10th Mountain Division infantryman is now the Associate Director of Outreach for the Gary Sinise Foundation, and the reason for that energy and passion he exudes while speaking at the conference is simple, veterans.
The AW2 Advocates and their mission hold a particularly special place with Schlitz because of his own journey and experience. During his last deployment, on February 27, 2007, Schlitz and his team were hit by an improvised explosive device in southern Baghdad. Schlitz lost both hands, sight in his left eye and was burned over 85% of his body from the blast. He also lost his team. “It killed my three member crew; my medic, my gunner, and my driver and it threw me from the vehicle,” Schlitz recalled. “I never realized I was on fire until I was running back for my guys. I could feel the flames hitting me in the face.”
He was medically evacuated from Baghdad and ended up spending three years recovering from his injuries at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. To date he has endured 96 surgeries. “The first six months was pure survival, they kept losing me, I kept flat lining (heart stopping). I was getting different illnesses and different infections through [intensive care unit]. Finally, it levelled off enough for them to be able to put me down in the burn ward,” he added.
While recovering, Schlitz had his own Advocates working for him, making sure he was aware of resources and opportunities that were available to him. Sharing his story with more than 100 Soldier Advocates also came with a note of thanks for what they did for him.
“They were constantly checking on me. They wanted to make sure all my ducks were in a row and make sure I wasn’t struggling, and I appreciate that,” Schlitz said.
Schlitz says the most important role of any organization that works with veterans is follow up; keeping consistent contact with the veteran so they know someone is there to help and support them. “For my current job, one of the first things I look at when that veteran leaves that program is what the follow-up is? If there is no follow up, I’m probably not going to send a veteran there period. If that veteran feels like he is forgotten, he is probably not in a good mental state.”
Schlitz spent a few years advocating for veterans on Capitol Hill and during that time he met and became friends with actor and military advocate, Gary Sinise. Schlitz began volunteering at the Gary Sinise foundation when it was in its infancy. Years later, after he sold his own company, Sinise offered the full-time position he’s in today.
Schlitz advocates for all military and veterans because they all serve in some capacity and that service has a clear purpose. “Not everyone in the military is going to go to combat, but it takes everyone in the military to play the role in order to make things happen and keep us all safe back here,” Schlitz said.