Beautifully Broken: Josh and Paige Wetzel
Paige received the phone call that every military wife prays will never come. Her husband, Army Sergeant Josh Wetzel, stepped on an improvised explosive device while patrolling in Afghanistan. The blast resulted in the immediate loss of his legs. His survival was uncertain, and in the days to come, this traumatic incident began an unbelievable journey of faith for them as a couple. Risen caught up with the Wetzels to hear more about their story, how it affected their faith, and a special prayer with the President.
Interviewed for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: Josh, let’s start off with you sharing a little bit about serving in Afghanistan and how your lost both your legs.
Josh Wetzel: I deployed to Afghanistan in March of 2012. I was there with second infantry division out of Fort Lewis in Washington state, and we deployed to a little area outside of Kandahar. Which historically Kandahar, to people in Afghanistan is a very sacred area. It was the birthplace of the Taliban. So it’s pretty highly contested area all around it. We went to little area a helicopter flight away called Mushan. Which is on one of the main supply routes from Pakistan to Kandahar. So it’s a pretty wild area, everywhere. Every time we left the base, we took pretty heavy contact. Whether it was small arms fire, or some kind of improvised explosive device, which is essentially most of the time, it’s a pressure plate bomb. There were a lot of those and it’s a very small, very rural place. They live in mud houses with no electricity. The only modern place with electricity is where the Mosque is in the area.
We went there in March and right off the bat, we started taking pretty heavy contact every time we left the base. Our first time outside of the base, we got into about a four-hour firefight consistent of mostly small arms fire and indirect fire, which is like mortars and stuff like that. So that set the tone pretty early. When we first got there, we kind of had to change up our tactics a little bit. In the army, you’re taught to spread out half space, and not walk in where in a single file line. But when you get to have Afghanistan you realize pretty quickly you can no longer do that because the main threat there is improvised explosive devices, and most of the time if they’re shooting at you, they’re trying to get you to move to a location that has an IED.
So everywhere we went, we had to go like ducks in a row behind a metal detector. So, we were doing pretty good early on. We got a few of our Strykers blown up early on, and a couple of guys were injured. I was a team leader and all the team leaders in our platoon got together, and we were like, these IEDs are real threat. We’ve got to figure out how to slow down what’s going on, because we had just gotten our second truck blown up. So we knew we really had to do something. So team leaders got together and decided we’re going to take over the metal detectors and contrary to popular belief, I tell this joke all the time, but I was actually really good at finding them. Just the last one found me. I didn’t find it. So on May 31st, we were on day three of a three-day clearing mission from where we were clearing from the East side of our area of operations all the way to the West side and essentially going through all the local villages and talking to the elders and pushing out all the bad guys. On day three, I was walking across a field into a road, and noticed two lines of rocks in the road. I radio back to my leadership, “Hey, I’m going to be a little more careful going across this road. I’m going to mark it really good. So everybody knows where to go and what is safe.” I took a little longer marked everything and kept going across the road and across the field to a wall where there was a low space in the wall, went to there, started clearing in front of the wall. We were going to go across the wall, and as I reached across to the other side, it was when I stepped on the IED instantly losing both of my legs. What I didn’t know at the time is that the two lines of rocks in the road were pointing at the IED, letting the locals know there was danger in the area.
So when I stepped on it, I knew what had happened. I’d watched a guy do it the day before. I knew my legs were probably gone. I wasn’t going to look at that to make sure. I can remember stepping on it, flying through the air, landing. Then as soon as I hit the ground, my main focus I knew I wanted to make sure everybody around me was okay, and then how am I going to call my medic? Now when my medic got to me, he was my best friend and we were usually right next to each other in the patrol, but that day we weren’t. In real life, normally he’s like a shaky dude, and when you watch your best friend step on an IED, naturally you’re going to be a little more shaky than normal. I didn’t really want that dude working on me like that. So my main thought was figuring out how I’m going to calm him down. So when he got to me I was just joking around the entire time. We talked about me getting new running legs, like they got in the Olympics, and having barbecues when we got back and talked about just about everything except for my legs.
RM: Paige, as a military wife, there are clear risks and rewards that come with the lifestyle… how did you feel when your husband first got deployed and how did you feel when you got the phone call about what happened to Josh?
Paige Wetzel: I think Josh’s deployment forced me to grow up. It would force anyone to grow up no matter what age you are I think. But before that, I really had spoken from a place of discontent. I wanted Josh to get promoted and whenever he had to be at work longer or had to do things on weekends, I always kind of complained about it – like this inconveniences me in some way. Then when he deployed, I quickly figured out we weren’t going to get to communicate very much. Every week we got like a 15 minute phone call, and at that point, I just committed to be encouraging. I was going to make sure there was nothing he had to worry about back at home and just tell him I was proud of him. It truly was just like an example of dying to yourself.
Because in actuality I wasn’t doing that great. I did everything I could to stay busy, but I’d never been paranoid like that before. I just knew someone was breaking into my house every single night. I was crying randomly, and all this other stuff. It was tough to be alone and that far away from any of my friends and family. I did have a really great group of friends that kept me busy and kept me doing stuff. So, I just tried to do as much honest reporting of that as I could. I didn’t want to have to sit there and tell Josh, I’m crying every night. I wanted to be able to say I’m spending my days doing X, Y, and Z, and being honest about it.
And then when he got injured, I did not initially get the report of everything Josh just told you. It took me three or four phone calls with the department of the army, getting updates on him to realize that I was talking to someone in like Quantico, Virginia. I was not talking to someone that was even in Afghanistan. So this was like fifth hand information, and my mother-in-law, Josh’s mom, is a nurse. So we figured out these people actually don’t know a whole lot about his status. So Cathi, his mom, was just kind of like, “Okay, listen. Here’s a list of things that you are going to ask, and I want you to call me back in two hours and I want an answer to every single one of these questions.” It was like, how intubated is he? Is he responding to commands? Is he awake? How long can he stay awake? All those things. And so that gave us a much better idea of his actual health status. We knew that he was going to go from Kandahar to Launstuhl in Germany, and then they were going to bring him to the United States as soon as he was stable from that point. I had kind of let Cathi ask certain questions and she was kind of explaining to me what each thing meant, but we still had not spoken to anyone that had actually laid eyes on him. So I was living in Washington when Josh was deployed. And then my plan was to fly back to Alabama and just spend that time with my family until he got the go ahead from going from Germany to the United States. So, we finally get word that he’s going to come back to the United States and I book a flight to go to Washington DC.
I don’t know what made me do this, but I got on Facebook for the first time, and there were people trying to contact me like news outlets, and I was like, “I’m not talking to anybody right now.” So I knew that everyone on the internet knew what had happened to Josh, and I got on Facebook Messenger and one of his guys had messaged me and said, “Hey, Josh had a journal while he was over here, and he said, if he were to get injured that I need to send this to you. So where can I send it?” And my mind was just reeling because we’re still trying to get all these questions answered about his level of intubation, how many surgeries he’s had, and we were told that he was knocked out from the blast. So I’m sitting here thinking he’s paralyzed or he’s going to wake up and not realize what’s happened, he’s not going to have memory of it… so I just wrote back, I said, “What do you mean? We were told he was knocked out from the blast.” And he was like, “Oh God, no, he was joking and saying all this inappropriate stuff and getting on everybody’s nerves. And we were just trying to get him to shut up and tell us how he was feeling. And he wouldn’t, he wouldn’t do that. And he was just telling a bunch of jokes and stuff.” And at that point, I’m sitting on my flight and I just started bawling because I just knew that I was getting my husband back, you know?
I truly mean, even to this day, I never worried about his legs again, like I think Josh, he might’ve been injured maybe nine months, and that was the first time that I looked at his lower half and truly mourned the fact that he didn’t have legs. Because I just never really had time to process that. When I thought my husband was about to be brain dead and I found out that not only was he not brain dead, but he was still the goofy guy that I married, I mean, I truly just didn’t worry about whatever else he had going on.
RM: It’s beyond stressful when you have to relay on others for information. Paige, let’s talk about this allusion of control that many of us have – what did that shift in your life look like where you had the realization that I can’t control this and God needs to?
PW: I think for me it was almost instantly, I started praying. But I couldn’t even get my thoughts together enough to form prayers. So I asked other people that were of a more sober mind to pray for us and that kind of thing. But I really think the turning point for me was when I first saw Josh, I finally got to DC and I had talked to him once. Just heard his voice one time, and Josh was just on all these drugs. Josh is one of those people that takes like the pediatric dose of medicine. He’s like those YouTube videos of kids that get their tonsils out. He was just kind of real crazy, and real irritated and all this other stuff.
When I finally got to his room at Walter Reed, we had this like really sweet moment of hugging, and I’m so glad you’re okay. We kind of just shared some words, and Josh said something to the effect of, I owe all of this to God, because I know He has let me live for a purpose. And that just made me feel so much better because this sounds so bad, but I mean, I sent my husband to Afghanistan, not really knowing where he stood with God. I knew he prayed because we’d prayed together and he’d gone to church and that kind of thing. But not whether he had a personal relationship with God. I wasn’t real, hugely participating in my own relationship with God. I was saying, I spoke a lot out of discontent and complained a lot. It’s tough to pray when you know that you’ve spent all your day complaining. It really just ignited something in us. This kind of sounds bad, but you rationalize this injury is like, you know what, at least he’s out of there and he’s alive and he’s in the United States, and he’s going to be safe. Then you kind of get to a moment like actually this is just day one like this, this is about to be the deep dive into whether we believe what we say we do. We were very immature in our faith, but we were ready to figure it out. I think in that it was really the beginning of a transformation, and transformations are painful and they’re much bigger than a single moment. That was just something that I’d never heard Josh really expressed before. So when he said that, I was like, okay. You know, I’m here for that too.
RM: Josh, you went through kind of the ultimate really tough time and not as extreme as that, but there are a lot of people right now in the world that are going through a really tough time. You know COVID, quarantine, homeschool, fires, hurricanes – what advice or encouragement would you give? What was it for you that helped you persevere through that tough time?
JW: Well, honestly for me, my spiritual life didn’t necessarily click until after we got out of Walter Reed. In that time during my recovery, it was easy to be a Christian and it was easy to be in prayer and in the word and everything like that, because I was going through something real. I was suffering through something and everybody around me was doing the same thing. Then once I got out of Walter Reed and got away from community and my soldiers and army culture and all of that, then I really started to struggle, I went into a pretty bad spot for a while and our marriage really struggled for awhile. It wasn’t until Paige tricked me into going to a small group.
I realized that, I needed a community. I needed other men to stand beside me in my faith. I heard somebody recently talking about how there have been changes in the military like to basic training. Where it’s not as hard as it used to be, and they’re trying to make it easier every year. It just makes you think you’re trying to train warriors to go out onto the field of battle and protect a country, you don’t want basic training to be easy, because if basic training is easy, then when they get into the tough situation, they’re not going to know how to react. Honestly, it’s the same thing in our faith.
In James, it talks about, choosing or finding joy and, your trials and, looking back on that, it’s hard. The the book of James comes at you quick, and you’re like, well how am I going to do that? Find Joy in trials and tribulations and honestly, it’s the same thing. God is preparing you and using your trials. He’s not putting you through things, but He’s using those things to build you up for something bigger. Especially like during this time where everybody is kind of going through this rough time where people are losing their jobs, there’s racial injustice, and just everything you were talking about. It’s hard to see the good, and it’s hard to find that joy in the trial, right?But, during this COVID time. We, me and Paige, really took the opportunity to just kind of step back and slow down and figure out like what God has for us next. What God’s purpose for us is, you know? Through that, we realized, we needed to be more connected to the military community. We live 40 minutes down the road from Fort Benning, which is one of the biggest bases in the United States and that’s where I did my basic training and airborne school. We never were really involved in the community there. God’s really revealed to us that we needed to be involved there and serve veterans and serve basic trainees. In any way we can. So I guess my advice would be when you are going through those troubles, and those hard times, really take a step back and try to see what God is showing you through those times of suffering. Because sometimes times of suffering aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe it’s just preparing you and getting you mentally and spiritually stronger for what’s ahead.
PW: I always think too about how many times I’ve wished that God would not strap me with something or whatever. Even like if Christ wasn’t exempt from suffering, then why are we asking to be exempt? It’s just one of those things where like Christ literally came to suffer. He knew that. I believe He knew that as a little kid, honestly. Maybe he didn’t have the full picture until God revealed that to Him at a certain age or something. But why are we asking to be exempt from something that Christ went through? And so if we can suffer, there is a good chance we’re going to learn a lot more about Christ in that. And for me, it’s just creating gratitude because I am thankful to serve a God that has suffered.
Suffering is part of the human experience anyway. No matter what religion, nobody’s exempt from a hard time. So to have a God that has gone through extreme suffering, and not just on the cross, I mean, Jesus was ridiculed in public and all those things, he wandered in the desert and was tortured – to know that we serve a God that knows exactly how it feels, and worse, should give us all hope and should really feel like we call on the Holy Spirit to be our help, or we’re asking for someone to help us that knows what it’s like.
That should create gratitude and it should equip us and empower us instead of feeling like we just want to hide under the covers until this is over. I really think in times like this you can break through by serving other people. That’s also what Jesus did. He could suffer and then He could turn around and serve people. I really think that when you don’t know how to spend your time, you don’t know what the day’s going to bring, you don’t know if you’re going to survive homeschooling or whatever else, if you can find a way to serve someone, I really think you can break through a lot of that.
RM: Bring us up to the present, there’s been a lot of emotions, and joy that’s been brought out of the past eight years too. You’ve had two daughters, both ended up at Auburn University, and now with your book. Will you share a little bit about the joys of that journey, and then maybe how a president helped you end up at Auburn?
JW: So being from Northeast Alabama, I grew up in Auburn fan, most of my family, they’re Alabama fans. I’m a nonconformist, so I had to go the other direction. So I grew up in Auburn fan, and I’ll be honest with you. When I was in the hospital, President Obama came to visit, that was probably one of the coolest moments. I wish that I could have experienced a little… In a better mindset, right. Like Paige said I was on a lot of drugs, but all I cared about was wearing an Auburn shirt. So he knew who I was for, and being cool. In my room, people had sent like Auburn posters and stuff like that when I got injured. So my whole room was essentially wallpapered from floor to ceiling in Auburn stuff.
So when he came to visit he was awesome. He came in, hugged everybody, super nice guy, took pictures, ask questions. Then right before he left, Paige, it’s one thing that I love about her, but she asked him, she stopped him right before he left and was like, Hey, can we pray for you? because I feel like in our country no matter what side of the aisle you’re on it’s still important to pray for your leaders.
So whether we voted for him or not. It’ll always be important to pray for the president. She was bold enough to step up in that moment and pray for the president, which was awesome. Well, his photographer took a photo of that, and that became one of his photographers, top 100 photos of 2012. Which as you can imagine… it literally went viral in the Auburn community and across the country. At that point, I had people calling me, and asking me like, “how do we get you down to Auburn?” I was like one, I don’t know if I can get into Auburn to finish my degree. I went to school for four years and I think I’ve got like a 1.0 GPA. A lot of people came together and worked hard to help me get into Auburn.
We decided, this is where we’re going to go. This is the next step for now, at least. And then we got down and down to Auburn and fell in love with the community. Paige started working in volleyball right off the bat at Point University right down the road from Auburn. I started school, I finished my degree in 2016. I got brought on in the communication staff right after I graduated and started working in social media. And then Paige got a job at Auburn. Honestly, it was kind of surreal. It was kind of wild to think we’re both working at Auburn. I grew up in Auburn fan, Paige did not, but I grew up in an Auburn fan. I never, in my wildest dreams thought that I would get paid money to go to a sporting event and tweet about it. I probably would have done it for free, but don’t tell my boss that. God just bless our lives so much. We got a house built for us, by an organization called Homes For Our Troops. It was just amazing. Here we are, four years later and we’re trying to figure out how we can serve more veterans in the Auburn community and in the Columbus community, right down the road in Fort Benning. Really just let God use us, and use our story.
Beautifully Broken available October 13: https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/paige-wetzel/beautifully-broken/9781546034506/
For more on Josh and Paige Wetzel, visit their website: https://www.paigeandjoshwetzel.com
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