McCrabb: Retired Army Ranger lost hands, partial eyesight, but retained his 20/20 perspective

Michael Schlitz, injured in Baghdad 15 years ago, plans to return next year to Warrior Weekend.

When you lose both hands, eyesight in your left eye due to a scarred cornea and sustain burns on 85% of your body, it’s easy for people to turn you into a “poster child” for the casualties of war.

Ladies and gentlemen, please look at Exhibit A: Retired U.S. Army Ranger Sgt. 1st Class Michael Schlitz.

While in Baghdad, Iraq on Feb. 27, 2007, Schlitz and his crew were on a road-clearing mission when their vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device (IED). His gunman and medic were killed instantly and his driver died shortly after the blast. He was sitting in the passenger seat and was ejected from the vehicle.

Once Schlitz was cleared to travel, he was transported to Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, the Department of Defense’s largest facility and only Level 1 Trauma Center.

He spent six months in the intensive care unit. But at least he was alive.

Schlitz, 45, of Columbus, Ga., spent last weekend in the Middletown area for the 10th annual Team Fastrax Warrior Weekend To Remember.

It’s a unique celebration because it brings typically segregated groups — wounded combat veterans, veterans and Gold Star families — together for five days with a goal of creating “enriching, life changing experiences that facilitate new friendships and emotional healing,” according to its web site.

John Hart II, co-founder of the event with his brother, David, and owner of Team Fastrax, said this year’s Warrior Weekend drew 150 veterans and six Gold Star families. They participated in numerous activities and shared their stories over camp fires at Camp Chautauqua.

Some of the wounded veterans told Gold Star families they felt guilty because, unlike their loved ones, they didn’t fly home in a flag-draped casket.

Those families embraced the wounded warriors, almost as if they served as surrogate parents, Hart said.

“A lot of hearing occurred,” he said. “Just unconditional, pure love.”

Schlitz left impressed and hopes to return to the 2023 event as an alumni.

“In the last 15 years, I have pulled a lot of attention,” said Schlitz, who enlisted in March 1996 and served in several positions including rifleman and platoon sergeant. “But at this event, everybody had adequate attention. There is a fine line between feeling comfortable and being exploited. It was very laid back. A fantastic weekend.”

Schlitz said he knew Ron Condrey, who committed suicide and was the late husband of Middletown Mayor Nicole Condrey.

“This was my way of paying my respects,” he said. “It was much more of a meaningful event than I realized.”

One of the highlights of the weekend was going on a tandem jump with Ben Johnis, he said. He went on his first solo skydive in 1996 and has been on 25 tandem jumps since his injury.

“Someone asks if I want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane, I always say yes,” he said with a laugh.

He serves as a Gary Sinise Foundation ambassador and in 2017 joined the Gary Sinise Foundation staff as the Military & Veteran Resource Manager.

Despite his leadership role as a wounded veteran, Schlitz tries to avoid the spotlight. He was just doing his duty, serving his country. He just happened to be sitting in the passenger seat and not anywhere else in the vehicle.

His number wasn’t called.

“Giving back is more important than receiving,” he said. “That comes with service to others than service to self.”

Not all of us have his perspective. Our limbs are intact. Our skin isn’t scarred. People don’t stare at us because of the way we look, the price we paid for our patriotism.

His advice: “Just be grateful and live in the moment. We all have illnesses, struggles at work and there’s a lot of unhappiness in the world. Look, there’s still a lot of good in my life.”

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