Army SFC Michael Schlitz Opens Up About Being Severely Burned and Wounded in War And How He Now Helps Other Veterans

SFC Michael Schlitz

US Army SFC (Ret.) Michael Schlitz medically retired from the United States Army in March of 2010 after suffering severe wounds in war. In this episode, Michael shares his story about being severely burned and wounded in war. Being an adrenaline junkie, Michael also shares his story about how and why he went into the military. By the end of this episode, you will know how Michael endured his injury and how he now helps other veterans. Michael: “I also thought that was it. Like, I’m going to die here in Iraq, face down in the dirt, burning alive. I was thinking those things. My guys were yelling at me from but I knew they were 7,500 meters away and I didn’t know what they could do for me. And then they hit me with the fire extinguisher and you had two kinds of responses from that. You had the complete relief of this like ice blanket being put on you from the fire extinguisher. I mean, just kind of relieved the pain for the most part. And then you had the emotional aspect of saying, okay my guys are here, I still have a fighting chance.

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The Ultimate Lesson for Caregivers

My dad was the caregiver to my mom who had cancer for several years. I watched my dads health decline as he worried about my mom practically day and night. My parents were married for 50 years, they knew each other from grade school and were high school sweethearts. Both of my parents were very aware of my involvement with The Elizabeth Dole Foundation and were very proud. Just before my mom died, my dad was completely heart broken, devastated that my mom was dying. He lost his will to live. I haven’t told many people this but on January 23, 2015; my dad tried to commit suicide. I was at his house during the attempt. He consumed an enormous amount of my moms pain medications, thinking he would die in his sleep after he told me he was going to take a nap in his recliner. I noticed my dad started breathing erratically during his sleep and tried to wake him. He wouldn’t wake up so I called 9-1-1. The ambulance came to pick him up and I followed the ambulance to the hospital. While at the hospital, my dads heart stopped and he stopped breathing. My dad turned lifeless in front of me. His face turned blue and his eyes rolled back in his head. I watched helplessly as doctors worked on him.

My heart hurt so bad. I was scared. My dad was my rock. We were close. He was my husbands best friend. I couldn’t believe I was losing my dad right before my very eyes. What I couldn’t believe more was that I would find out that my dad consumed opiates to try to escape his pain and hurt as he watched my mom decline. I was forced to leave the room to wait in the hall. I fell to my knees; sobbing and praying.

Thankfully, doctors were able to resuscitate my dad. The Doctor attending to my dad figured out because of his symptoms, my dad had overdosed. The Doctor gave him a shot to counteract the opiates. I thought the doctor was crazy. There was NO way my dad would take any kind of pills. Turns out, I was wrong. I was in shock; after my dad came to, three days later I was able to talk with him about what happened. He tried peacefully ending his own life. He felt as if he couldn’t go on watching my mom suffer so badly. I was able to get some help lined up for my dad and a pastor in the area started visiting with him and checking in on him. My mom died about 3 months after my dads suicide attempt. My dad was heartbroken at my moms passing, but he really started turning around. My dad spent a lot of time with us after my mom passed away and he was finally looking forward to doing things like participating in a church motorcycle club and planning a trip to the Florida Keys. On November 18, I sent my dad a text message that said we were going to see him the following Wednesday, we were going to spend Thanksgiving with him. He told me we knew we were welcome anytime and it would be good to see us. I didn’t know that would be the last time I’d have communication with my dad. The following day, my brother went over to see him. My brother rang the doorbell and my dad did not answer. My brother called me to see if I had spoken to my dad and immediately I knew my dad was no longer with us. I don’t know how I knew, my gut just told me. I called my dad’s phone he did not answer. I sent him a text he did not answer. I told my brother to go around to my dads bedroom window to see if it was open because my dad always slept with his window open.

My brother looked inside the window and noticed my dad was still in bed from the night before. My dad always woke up early in the morning. We instantly knew my gut was right and that he was no longer with us. My brother called 9-1-1 and confirm that my dad had passed away on November 19, 2015. The week just before Thanksgiving. I had to wonder if my dad had fallen back into a depression and killed himself. I was sick over it. I wondered if I could have done more for him. We found out my dad actually died of a heart attack in the middle of the night while he was sleeping. I am thankful my dad wasn’t in pain when he passed away. That brings me peace knowing that.

Last year was the hardest year of my entire life. As I watched my dad decline because he did not do anything to take care himself, I knew if I did not start taking better care myself I could follow in dad’s footsteps of heart disease and depression if I was not careful. I know he wouldn’t want that. My dad had the philosophy of, “Do as I say not as I do.” I could respect that as he wanted to do better for himself, he just wasn’t strong enough. I however am determined to learn by his “mistakes.” He knew this. My dad often chuckled and called me hard headed and stubborn because I’ve never given up on anything I put my mind to. He would often call me Half-Pint (because I’m so short) and he called me “Under-Dog” on more than one occasion, comparing me to the cartoon character who would swoop in to help protect others who couldn’t help themselves. I remember those fun nicknames; as they help me to keep on keeping on for our military veterans, their caregivers and their families. I have recently started walking to help reduce stress and to lose weight. I’ve done some studying and found out that being exposed to the outdoors in nature at least 30 minutes a day is very healing. I find that very true. You can actually Google and see there’s scientific proof in that statement.

I miss my parents dearly but they’ve taught me many valuable lessons. They’ve taught me about love, true friendship and unconditional love. After my dad overdosed, I was able to talk to him about his feelings of hopelessness, the sadness he was experiencing as he lost his true love. We talked about how he did not know what he would do when my mom passed because for several years, he stopped living his life. He stopped doing things and going places, he stayed home with her all the time. He stopped going to church, he stopped doing things he enjoyed. He was her caregiver 24/7. He did not want that to happen to me. He knew as a caregiver I had trials, but he emphasized the importance of self-care and independence. His words really hit home to me and now more than ever do I realize how important it is to have my individuality. Its important for me to take care of ME so I can be a better well rounded person. I am still searching for things I like to do, for places I like to go and I’m even searching for new friends and new goals – all while being a successful and productive caregiver.

I want to help my fellow military/veteran caregivers find their individuality. Its important not to loose ourselves in this journey. It’s been a long journey from the time Ken came home from war until today. I have learned so much along this journey called life. Sometimes we learn through example, other times we learn by watching the struggles of others. We learn by going through life. We all have to make our own path. We are all responsible for the outcome of our lives. What path will you choose?

I believe I’ve been put in certain situations to share my journey with others in hopes that my lessons will help others. I write my thoughts not for the attention of others, but in hopes that my thoughts… my journey… my stories will help someone else.

Love Is Louder Than The Pressure To Be Perfect

Suicide rates and depression among military veterans AND their caregivers is a big issue. There are groups online that are supposed to serve as SUPPORT groups but over the past 12 years I have seen many of these groups deteriorating and even becoming a breeding ground for hate and picking on others.

Each of us who wanted to participate in these groups NEEDED support and that is why they joined. Me included. We are each dealing with something different and often times, things very heavy. It is important that we stand together. We may have differences or disagree on something, but I for one do not like to argue. I do not want to be part of a, “mean girls” club. I try extremely hard not to be argumentative or to engage in debates.

The reasoning is this:

I learned, “life happens,” when I was pretty young. I lost a good friend at the age of 15. I had the best grandparents, all of whom are passed. I have had friends die in war, I have had friends come home from war and die from suicide. Ken was deployed to Iraq for 15 months. He was wounded in May of 2007 and given a Purple Heart while still in Iraq. I was afraid he and his guys wouldn’t make it home. Many did not make it home. He made it home, but not unscathed. I held the home front down the best I could.

My husband and many in his unit who were like family were wounded in war. Many were killed in war. I sat in doctors offices and hospitals while Ken was in the Warrior Transition Battalion trying to heal from wounds of war for almost 3 yrs straight. After he was medically retired, that didn’t end. I lost count of how many appointments I’ve been to with him. How much paperwork I’ve filled out for him. Would I do it again? Yes. Was it easy? No.

I raised three amazing children who are now adults. I homeschooled them for several years after Ken was injured in war because of the insane amount of doctor appointments he had to go to, I couldn’t get the kids back and forth to school, so I had to school them myself, while in doctor offices, hospitals – the kids would drag their schoolwork with them where ever we needed to go.

In 2013, I lost my last living grandparent. My grandmother. My very best friend. She was a Rosie the Riveter. She built bombs during WW2 and survived The Great Depression.

I lost both of my parents in 2015, which has been very hard. The pain of losing my parents will never go away totally. I am certain of that. My parents lived next door to us when Ken was stationed at Ft. Bragg. Yes, we were that close.

My mom died of breast cancer after a long and excruciating battle. I stayed many nights with her when she was on her death bed dying. Moaning out in pain. Sometimes screaming as I stood by, holding her hand, having to lie to her – telling her it was going to be ok. My dad tried to kill himself because he was heartbroken his wife of 50 years was dying. I was at the hospital with him and watched him cry of heartbreak. If you had known my dad, he was always a pillar of strength and did not cry. He had known my mom since kindergarten. My dad died almost 6 months after my mom died. Now, my mom was expected to pass as she battled breast cancer for many years. My dad, that is still a shock to me.

I continued to work. I continued my caregiver duties. I have continued helping veterans as much as I have been able to. I have donated thousands and thousands of dollars out of my personal pocket for veteran causes, veterans who needed help when organizations could not help them due to rules and stipulations within their nonprofit guidelines. I have listened to people vent about their problems as I sat silently with tears running down my face on the other side of the phone, putting on a strong front so they person on the other side of the phone would find strength. I have listened to Caregivers as they vented for hours and hours on end as they remembered their problems, but would forget – I too am a caregiver.

I have stayed up late to help veterans. I have woken up in the middle of the night to help those who called and needed a listening ear. I’ve went to the ER with suicidal veterans and I have had hundreds of messages and emails from the military veteran and caregiver community asking for my resources, asking for guidance which I will always continue to give if I am able.

I built a positive and encouraging support group of over 300 members of military caregivers. I have had many contests on my personal page, just for fun – to help make someones, anyones day a little brighter, spending money out of my own pocket to do so.

Why am I telling you this? Because, you see all of the, “amazing things” I have done, but may not have realized, these things are due to great sacrifice.

So many people think I am SO strong, but in fact, I have been weak. I have been broken. I have struggled just to get out of bed somedays. NO ONE is strong 100% of the time.

I am guessing many of you did not know some of my struggles because I do try to put my most positive self forward, to encourage others. My biggest point is, even the people who look the strongest can have big struggles. We ALL have struggles.

I do not put my deepest, hardest struggles online often but as the veteran suicide rate continues to hold steady and as the caregiver community deals with extreme depression and suicide as well. This needs to be addressed.

You do not know what others are struggling with behind closed doors. I challenge you all to be kind. Be caring. Your words can be life or death to someone. Your words could be the last straw that breaks the camels back. Get back to remembering why you needed support. Why you wanted to give support.

I’ve seen some wonderful military veteran and caregiver influencers being torn apart more and more over the years. Please remember, we are human.

Love is louder than the pressure to be perfect.

How To Volunteer For Military Veteran Non-Profits

Recently, I have had many people ask how they can volunteer to help in the military/veteran community. I began volunteering to help military veterans and their families in 2006, while my husband was deployed to Iraq. I started slow. I didn’t see any support for military wives; so I created a support group at our church which eventually partnered with the nationwide Christian nonprofit, Christian Military Fellowship.

After my husband came home from war, he was different. Wounded. I took some time to focus on helping my husband through transition from military to civilian. Along the way, I met many other amazing veterans and their families who also needed help. I started sharing resources with other military families that helped my husband and our family. For four years after my husband was wounded in war, I ran a nonprofit focused on helping veterans/families transitioning after combat. The Saginaw Masonic Lodge #77 in Michigan hosted an annual Military Veteran Appreciation Day. I was honored to volunteer for these amazing events in my hometown for a couple years. I started locally, as my knowledge grew on what was needed for veterans and their families, I began searching for MORE to do for our military.

I began podcasting about important veteran/caregiver issues in 2006 and to this day am heavily involved in podcasting. Fast forward to 2013. I connected with a nonprofit called Hope For The Warriors when I was asked by a friend to attend a turkey hunt for caregivers. I could see the amazing support H4W offered military veterans and their families when on the turkey hunt trip. I wanted to be a part of that support and offer encouragement to other caregivers to let them know that life after combat can be beautiful. Quite honestly, the way I deal with being a caregiver is by helping others. By focusing on using my experiences to help others, it makes all that our family has been through feel like it’s been worth it. I’ve been able to connect with and advocate for literally thousands of military families. If I had kept my experiences bottled up, that wouldn’t have been healthy and I don’t think our family would have done as well. I worked at Hope For The Warriors just over four years and finally stepped out on a limb and decided it was time for me to spread my wings and grow even further in the podcasting world.

I dove head first into being a podcaster at the end of May this year with an amazing company called Heroes Media Group. I’m a co-host on the show called, The Decision Hour. My partner is Adam Bird. CEO/President at Heroes Media Group.

I am also proud to say, I also served as a 2015-2016 Elizabeth Dole Foundation Fellow representing the caregivers in sunny state of Florida and nationwide. I am still proud to be an Elizabeth Dole Foundation Fellow, Alumni Member.

Elizabeth Dole Fellows’ support of the Foundation includes:

  • Serving as ambassadors for the Foundation and the caregiving cause through attending meetings, events, and media appearances with the Dole Foundation and, on occasion, Dole Foundation partners to represent and advocate for resources on behalf of military and veteran family caregivers
  • Serving as advocates for the Foundation and participating in online/social media to encourage and empower other caregivers to share their own stories
  • Advising the Foundation on how to connect with our nation’s caregivers, and share information about the Foundation with their own networks to engage countless more caregivers and strengthen relationships within the military and veteran caregiver community
  • Participating in Foundation events and representing the Foundation at conferences, meetings and observances across the nation
  • Assisting in selecting grantees for the Foundation’s annual Innovation Grants Program
  • Advising the Foundation’s seven Impact Councils
  • Serving as lead participants in the Foundation’s efforts to lay the groundwork for a national response to caregivers’ challenges as identified by the Foundation’s RAND study

If you are wondering how to start volunteering to help military veterans and their families, I urge you to start LOCAL.

Build your local resources, bloom and grow as you learn. It took several years for me to gather enough information and strength to volunteer and work on a national level with our military veterans and their families. Google the area where you live and search military veteran organization to see what pops up in your area. Use Charity Navigator to check the rating of the organization you are interested in helping. I highly recommend contacting nonprofits to see what type of volunteer positions you can get involved with. They are a fantastic organization with a FOUR STAR RATING on Charity Navigator. One other tidbit of advice I now give is to try to find a veteran nonprofit that serves ALL era of veterans. That has been heavy on my heart this summer. More info coming soon!