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Severely Wounded Army Ranger Michael Schlitz Now Inspires Other Men

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 16, 2024 3:00 am

Severely Wounded Army Ranger Michael Schlitz Now Inspires Other Men

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 16, 2024 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, retired U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Michael Schlitz enlisted in March 1996 and served in several positions including Rifleman and Platoon Sergeant. While in Baghdad, Iraq on February 27, 2007, Mike and his crew were on a road-clearing mission when their vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device (IED).

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Connecting changes everything. AT&T. See AT& slash iPhone for details about the guarantee trade-in promo for new and existing customers. Available for a limited time. Terms and restrictions apply. This is Lee Habib, and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. And if you want to listen to our show, go to the iHeartRadio app or listen to the podcast, well, wherever you pick them up. Up next, a story kindly submitted to us by the Veterans History Project at the Atlanta History Center. We will be hearing from Army Ranger Michael Schlitz, who served in Iraq.

Let's take a listen. And at the time, I didn't know it, but he was about to go to Haiti for Operation Uphold Democracy. So my goal was to come in the military, do a few years, maybe come back out, go to college, and then figure out what I want to do. Came in the Army in March of 1996.

Did my training here at Fort Benning, Georgia, basic and AIT. Pretty much right off the get-go of it, I just fell in love with it. I like the discipline. I like the routine. I like the everyday challenges. I mean, you pretty much woke up every day knowing what you're going to do. But at the same time, there's new levels of responsibility and challenges constantly thrown at you to kind of keep you on your toes and make you react.

And to me, there's nothing else like it. We do talk a lot about the teamwork and coming together as a team to accomplish a mission. But, you know, honestly, the military has a lot of eye in there, too. Like, you have to outperform your peers in order to be promoted, able to go to those schools.

And I always challenge myself to be better than those around me. My first assignment after completing my training was 1-5 Infantry out of Fort Lewis, which was part of the 25th Infantry Division. About a year and a half being at Fort Lewis, I got picked to go to Korea. And then after Korea, I went to 1st of the 502nd at 101st. And right away when I got to 101st, you know, I just started plugging away.

I was a specialist at the time. And I asked them, you know, can I go to a pre-ranger? I want to go to ranger school. What do I need to go? And they're like, well, we've got to send you to the Air Assault School first. The very last thing you do is a 12-mile foot march. And, you know, it's self-release.

You've got 35 pounds on your back. You have three hours. And it's an individual task. You know, it's your own pace.

Yeah, there's other people out there, but it's really on you. And I ended up coming in first place for that. And so I outdid my other classmates. And so the next day was graduation. And my first armed platoon sergeant had come to the graduation. And I guess it was pretty normal that when you graduate the course, they'd give you a four-day pass and say, hey, you know, good job.

Then come back to work. And my company, my infantry company, was doing a 10-mile company race the next day. And my platoon sergeant said, you know, first armed would like to give you the four-day pass, but we're having this race. We need to introduce you to the rest of the guys in the company. We understand you did 12 miles, but would you come out and do this run tomorrow? And, you know, being a young guy and, you know, wanting to prove myself, I said, of course.

So I showed up the next day and I ended up taking third place. I can remember my platoon sergeant in first armed, again, pretty much the only guys who know who I am, pulling me off to the side and said, oh, by the way, on Monday you start pre-Ranger. So I've always been a pretty lean guy. So going into Ranger school, you know, at five, six, I only weighed 155 pounds. I can remember before going to school them saying, hey, you need to put as much fat on your body as you can because, you know, once you're done burning through the fat, you're going to start burning through your muscle. And it sure enough happened to pretty much all of us.

And it has a very distinct ammonia smell. And at the time we had the old BDUs with the brown shirts, and everybody's shirts would turn orange. And it was because when you burn the muscle and it puts off the secretion and everything, it would almost bleach out your shirts. And so two months later when I came out of the swamps of Florida and they briefed you, and it's the first time I actually had stepped on the scale the entire time, and I weighed 115 pounds. I started at 155 pounds. So in just over two months, you know, I lost 40 pounds. And for being somebody who was lean, that was actually quite a bit. And, you know, leading up to graduation, those four days, you're actually allowed to start putting food in your system. And I can remember eating pints of Hasen-Dazs ice cream and, you know, full pizzas.

And, I mean, you would just eat and eat and eat, and then when you could, you'd try to get some rest too. So at graduation, I had actually put on, in those four days, had got myself back up to 135 pounds, but it was like all gut. Your eyes are still black. They're sunken in. Your cheeks are sunken in. You're just frail looking. You're very weak looking, but you have this little potbelly thing going on, you know, under the uniform.

But the majority of the people who do go to school within that point will probably lose anywhere from 25 to about 50 pounds, depending on how big you are. I went back to the 101st. I made sergeant shortly after getting back. I was a team leader, and then the big army decided, well, it's time to go back to Korea. And so I packed my bags, went back to Korea for another year.

You're always, within your one year, you're always allowed to take a little vacation time at some point, call it mid-tour leave. And so I was married at the time, and so my wife had come over, and we decided just south of the peninsula there's a little island. So we had gone down to the island for a few days, flown back into Seoul.

We're having dinner, and the next day we're due to fly to Bali, Indonesia for a few days. And we're sitting there having dinner, watching the football game on the TV, and we saw the first plane hit the tower. And we actually thought they had changed the channel on us, thinking they took the football game off and then put on a movie.

And so we're all kind of yelling, you know, because it was kind of an American bar in Seoul. We're like, put the game back on, and then we saw the second plane hit. And we realized, okay, something's not right. So, you know, we didn't even finish our dinner. We paid our check, jumped in a cab, went back to our hotel, where I had my work cell phone. And it was like, yeah, vacation's over, time to come home. The vacation was over indeed and over for so many of us, especially those who serve in uniform. And we're listening to Michael Schlitz tell his story, his service story.

By the way, so much of his family, so many members of his family had served, and that is the case throughout this country that military service runs through the family. When we come back, more of Michael Schlitz's story here on Our American Stories. And click the donate button. Give a little. Give a lot. Help us keep the great American stories coming.

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Sign up today at Terms and conditions apply. And we continue with Our American Stories. And with Michael Schlitz's story, we just heard about the day that changed America, 9-11, and that's September 11th, 2001.

And let's take it back to Michael. Eventually moved up to a staff position running the resources for all ranger school. Sometimes it was air assets, but all the ranges land.

Pretty much everything except for ammo. We had an ammo guy who did that. When it was time for me to leave, I called up my branch manager and said, hey, you know, what's the next deploying unit? He goes, well, the next guys to leave is 10th Mountain Division. I said, well, that's where I want to go. And so, I mean, to me, there was no other options.

It was this is what I want to go do. And since I hadn't had the chance to really deploy, I knew I wanted to be on the next chalk going out. So I reported to 10th Mountain Division in March of 06, and we deployed in August of 06. So our sector was the southwest side of Baghdad.

The media at the time called it the Sunni Triangle or the Triangle of Death. When we first invaded, the insurgents really didn't know how to fight us. And as they studied us and found out our operating procedures, then they could figure out how to attack us and our weaknesses, just like we do for them. And then our wounded and our killed inactions had doubled. And so in 06, we have what we call the surge. And basically the U.S. answer to that was to just triple the number of U.S. forces we had in Iraq at the time and do a big sweep across the country. And obviously, in an area like that, it's littered with roadside bombs, IEDs, improvised explosive devices.

The more people you put in an area, the more they can actually get injured. So we actually did see our killed in action and our wounded in action triple in numbers. But we were making a big push. We were finding those IEDs. We were finding the insurgent cells. We were making a huge difference.

It just came at a cost. We had huge up-armored vehicles. We had one that was called the Husky. It was like a mine-detecting vehicle. And these vehicles were actually made for Africa, so they could drive over minefields and have the mines explode. And the bottom of the vehicles, instead of being flat like a lot of the U.S. vehicles, they had a V-haul, so they came down into a point, like a boat.

And what would happen is when the rounds would come up, it would shatter away versus coming straight up through the armor. So we had mine-detecting vehicles. We had troop-carrying vehicles that were just a little bit heavy-armored so we could have some firepower on top. And then we had one that had the huge claw.

So if we found wire, we found something that looked kind of suspicious, that claw would go way forward of the vehicle, had a camera on it, and we could interrogate it without ever leaving the security of our vehicle. And there were signs where we would take three hits in a single day, three IEDs. We weren't able to spot them.

They'd detonate on us. And as long as our vehicles would keep rolling, we just kept rolling on with the mission. We didn't stop, you know.

Then February 27, 2007 came about, started like any other day. Woke up, got the guys ready, got the vehicles prepped, got them prepped, brought them in. We did our briefings. They knew exactly it was going to take us about a 15-hour patrol that day to get through all the routes that we had planned. And then we loaded up and we had been on the road about three hours and we came across one of the routes, I believe it was Route Primus. It was actually a dead-end road. And typically when you plan your route, you never cover the same spot more than once because if you do, you get blown up because they can predict you. Unfortunately, the dead-end road, there's one way down, one way back.

And we had taken our time. And any time we're looking for the IEDs, you're only going about two miles per hour. So it's a creep crawl. And obviously why you need that heavy armored vehicle is because you're moving so slow.

It's an easy target. And we got down to the end of the road. It's a very rural area. There was a lot of canals and farmland.

Not the open desert that people think of when they think of Iraq. Once we started coming back up, we picked up the pace a little bit. I want to say we were probably going about between 5 and 10 miles an hour.

So it's not like we were speeding up the road, but we weren't creep crawling along either. And then I heard the blast. I can remember hearing the boom. And before I could even get a choice four-letter word out of my mouth, I was hitting the ground. When you go through these trainings and you go through all this stuff, as a leader, you always want to just pause for a second and just get a quick battle damage assessment so you can make a quick decision.

It can't be long. It's just a quick pause. As I did that, I looked at my vehicle, and I really at the time didn't see anything out of the unusual about it.

What I didn't see was my guys. So I just immediately got up to run back for my vehicle. And as I got closer to the vehicle, that's when I could feel the flames hit me in the face. And I realized I was on fire.

And because I felt like it was in the torso area because it was just hitting me in the face so bad, I decided to drop my IBA or my protective vest. And so I kind of just tossed it real quick, got down, and started to roll. And I only got about a roll and a half in.

And the heat was so intense that it basically locked up my muscles. But I definitely was like, okay, this is it for me. This is where my life ends. I'm going to die here, face down on the ground in Iraq.

What am I going to do? I can't move, and I'm on fire. About the time those emotions and those thoughts were coming over my body, I could hear my guys yelling for me. Before I knew it, they were hitting me with that fire extinguisher. And it went from that extreme heat to that extreme cooling.

And I don't think I'll ever probably find the words to describe that feeling of that cooling sensation and the relief it provided me almost instantly. But then it also gave me that emotional kind of aspect where, okay, maybe I'm not going to die here on the ground. If they got to me and I feel like this right now, then maybe I still have a fighting chance to go on. From there, one of my young sergeants, Sergeant Redman, wasn't one of my best sergeants. I actually had plans on kicking him out of the Army for some other bad decisions he made. But two of the young guys were going to grab me and start dragging me off the road. And he stopped him. He's like, no, you can't do that. You have to get the spine bored.

If you drag him, you'll kill him. And the only analogy I can really use or the way to explain it is, if you think about baked chicken, you just pull that baked chicken out of the oven, and how the meat and the skin and everything just kind of scuffs off the bone. Well, I basically had just been burned alive. So had they drug me, everything would have just scuffed off and they probably would have killed me. The guys were talking to me, reassuring me. I was getting a little annoyed with it. I can remember telling them, just shut up.

I got this. Don't worry about it. And before I knew it, I could start to hear the chopper coming in, the helicopter, the medevac was coming in. All the guys would kind of lightly lay over me, not enough to irritate the burns or anything, but just to protect me from the water rush or the bird landing. And they loaded me up. I remember there was a female flight medic. She asked for my name and social. I know I got my name out.

No idea about the social. And the meds just kind of kicked in. Later on, I found out they pretty much had to start working on me right away in Volat. About two years after it happened, I actually got to meet my surgeon who was an Air Force colonel.

And he said that of his two years that he almost spent over there, they had never been attacked except for the one time I was on the table and they got rocket attacks. So things were shaking and stuff. And he said what he could remember was my legs. Everything above my boot was in really, really bad condition. And I don't remember what the procedure was called, but basically there was a procedure they weren't supposed to do on burns. Brooke Army Medical Center is like the burn hospital, one of the best hospitals for burns. And there was a procedure that they weren't supposed to do on any burn patients.

And he ended up doing it on me, and it was the only way to save my legs because had that happened, they would have had to take my legs too. So here's a guy who not only saved my life because I was constantly flatlining and having all kinds of issues, and the prognosis of even going back to the unit was I wasn't going to make it, that I was just too far gone at that point. And you're listening to Army Ranger Michael Schlitz tell one heck of a story when he deploys to Iraq. He doesn't get the easy space.

And there isn't really much of an easy space or place there, but he gets the SUNY triangle. Then you overlay the surge, and particularly the insurgents' use of mines that actually developed their own name called improvised explosive devices, because that's what they were. And his job was to find them, which meant he and his unit would go out at a crawl and be open targets for not only these devices but all kinds of attacks, and all to protect fellow soldiers from these IEDs and ultimately to secure the area. When we come back, more of this remarkable story, the story of how Michael Schlitz comes back from a near-death experience here on Our American Stories. Abusers in Hollywood are as old as the Hollywood sign itself. Underneath it lies a shroud of mystery. From Variety, Hollywood's number one entertainment news source and iHeart podcast, comes Variety Confidential. I'm your host, Tracy Patton, and in season one we'll focus on the secret history of the casting couch. So join us as we navigate the tangled web of Hollywood's secret history of sex, money, and murder. Subscribe now to Variety Confidential wherever you get your podcasts.

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See slash football for eligibility and deposit, restrictions, terms, and responsible gaming resources. And we continue here with our American stories and the story of Army Ranger Michael Schlitz. Let's pick up where Michael last left off. Mentally, I knew I knew how to walk and stuff, but I had so much muscle damage and so much weakness that when I would go to get up to walk, like initially I would just kind of crumble. I couldn't walk.

So they had to build that up. So, you know, sometimes it was just today all we're going to do is stand up out of bed. The next day, you know, we're going to do two steps and now we're going to walk to the door.

Like one of the ways they motivated me is my brother and my niece were down visiting and they allowed me to walk to the ICU doors and my niece was sitting on the ground. It's really the first time she got to see me, too, and she didn't recognize me. And her name's Brina.

And I always had a way I'd always say, Brina, Brina, Brina, Brina. So I did that and she realized it was me. And of course, I had to go back to the room. So they shut the doors and then she was upset that she didn't get to hang out with me. And it wasn't until I went to my welcome home ceremony that I found out the three guys I had in my vehicle all passed away.

You know, they didn't want to tell me when I was in the hospital or going through recovery because they didn't want me to mentally or just have it stress me out to the point where I'd take a change. After about four months of the burn ward and still going through it, the only way they let me out of the hospital is if I got a small house, an outpost house close to the hospital. And when that happened, I was still nearby.

So Mom and I moved into a small, small, probably maybe 700 square foot home, two bedrooms right on top of each other. And that's where it's that time frame, you know, I was still probably sleeping 16 hours a day. I'd be up, they'd change my bandages and I'd eat. And that's pretty much all.

I'd go to sleep, wake up, eat, go to sleep, wake up, eat and go sleep. But for Mom, that was probably some of the most horrific time besides learning about the stuff. But she had to take it. She had to do a lot of the wound care. She had to do all the cooking, the cleaning.

I wasn't allowed to sleep on my sheets more than once because of infection. So I just put all that on her. And obviously she didn't have anybody to help her.

So she was doing all that on her own. And eventually, you know, I got my first prosthetic. And that night I can remember going home and Mom cooked and cut all my food up for me. But that very first night I was able to feed myself. And that was huge for me because leading up to that first prosthetic, I couldn't trust myself, couldn't feed myself, couldn't take myself to the bathroom. There was really very little I could do on an average day by myself.

And that affects you mentally, obviously. I contemplated suicide. You know, I didn't want to let Mom down. And then, you know, I had my brothers in the Army and a lot of people who visited me.

And you never want to let anybody down. So ultimately, because of that support system is why I didn't commit suicide. But when I had that first prosthetic, it gave me that little bit of hope, that little bit of independence. And then shortly after that, I got the second prosthetic. And, you know, I've just kind of been on the go since.

And not that I don't have bad days or, you know, take turns here and there. But still, I can say, man, I never saw my life going in the direction it has. One of the things I battled with is sense of purpose. You know, my entire adult life I was a soldier. I lived for my career. Pretty much everything in my life took second string to my career. Like, I wanted to be a soldier.

This is what I do. And, you know, if it meant missing a wedding or missing somebody's birthday or missing a big event, if it was for the military and something I thought I had to do, I would always pick it over everything. And, you know, even my marriage, like, I got divorced well before the injury. But I always picked my career. It's just, it's who I was. And now I didn't feel like I could be a soldier anymore.

I felt like, you know, my identity had been struck for me. I didn't know what I was going to do. And, you know, mom and I would have conversations. I'm like, I don't know what I could do. And mom's like, well, maybe you could do some public speaking.

I'm like, ah, I can't do that, you know. And she, you know, she would try to guide me. And, you know, I couldn't foresee where life would take me at the time. Or even at, you know, falling back on my career as an instructor and giving classes to a few hundred kids, you know, or soldiers or doing any of those things. But as I started doing more events, they would ask me to come speak. And I told my story more. And I had the opportunity to go over back to Iraq on three different occasions through a thing called Operation Proper Exit. And so when I came back, I just kind of went full in and motivational speaking and leadership speaking.

Companies, units, nonprofit events, charity events. And so that's what I do now. And, you know, it's my purpose. It's what I like to do. It keeps me around both the veteran community guys who served, whether it was World War II up through the current conflicts or it's the active duty guys.

Every branch you can think of. It just allows me to get around everybody. And I've had a great support network.

Obviously, I didn't do it on my own. You know, the brotherhood's been very, very good to me. I mean, whether it was my guys out at 10th Mount, the Rangers I served with, you know, guys that, you know, I was a private with that still keep in touch with me.

It's a very, very tight knit community. And, you know, I'm just a proud Army veteran. You know, I'm glad I got the chance to serve.

I can't picture my life without it. But obviously, veterans, it takes a certain mentality to serve your country. And obviously, after 14 years of war, you know, everybody who goes over there comes home a little different. You know, what really kind of bothers me is when I go in public, I could have three veterans with me. Two might be suffering from post-traumatic stress.

One could have a TBI, a traumatic brain injury. And then there's me. And the only one they'll think is me.

And they just forget about these guys. But those guys' service is no different than mine. You know, and I have, you know, guys that have multiple deployments always coming up to me and saying, you know, like, you know, my service isn't quite the same, isn't like yours. No, your service is the same, same as mine. I had one bad day which changed, you know, this part of me.

But the actual service, serving your country, is no different. You know, anybody on any given day can have a bad day. And I'm what a bad day looks like. But we don't know enough about the brain and the way things function to fix the brain right now. And you can throw meds at it and you can do different things. But ultimately, the brain is going to do what the brain is going to do. But for somebody like me who has a physical injury, the guys that have leg injuries, there's always a way to adapt something.

I can figure out, you know, even before I had prosthetics, I used to take the Gatorade bottles, drill a hole in the cap, put the cap back on and feel, you know, I have my drink and I have a straw in there so I can carry it myself. So for me, life is always about adapting and changing and doing stuff. But when you have a TBI or you have PTS to the higher functioning levels, you don't have that option.

You know, you can't control it. So they may look what you considered normal, but they're struggling more so than a lot of the people that you consider disabled. So I think it's important to stay in touch with everybody and not fall off the grid. It's going to be harder for those guys who maybe move to those rural communities away from military posts, away from some of the larger organizations. But in today's society, and especially with social media, you know, and Facebook, I mean, there's so many veteran groups on Facebook that you can reach out to.

And maybe you don't get to go up and have dinner with them once a week or once a month. At least you can communicate or if you're having some issues, somebody to vent to and nobody understands a veteran like a veteran. And a terrific job on the production by Greg Hengler and a special thanks to Michael Schlitz for sharing his story about his service and all that happened while he was on duty in Iraq, losing three of his pals.

He survived, but he lost three of his pals, lost his hands and lost so much, but gained as much too back. Learning about the brotherhood, learning about the 10th Mountain Division and so many others who helped. Michael Schlitz's story, the story of so many of our soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, here on Our American Stories. Abusers in Hollywood are as old as the Hollywood sign itself. Underneath it lies a shroud of mystery. From Variety, Hollywood's number one entertainment news source and iHeart podcast, comes Variety Confidential. I'm your host, Tracy Patton, and in season one we'll focus on the secret history of the casting couch. So join us as we navigate the tangled web of Hollywood's secret history of sex, money and murder. Subscribe now to Variety Confidential wherever you get your podcasts.

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