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An Unlikely Journey of Faith
By Paige Wetzel
By Josh Wetzel
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Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.
Joshua 1:9 says, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” To be strong is to push through even when you feel like you have no strength. To be courageous is to face danger even in doubt. To not have fear is to remember everything you’ve already survived. To not be discouraged is a daily choice made with no excuses because God goes with you wherever you go. I chose this verse to start off my own story when I wrote Tough As They Come, and I am proud to have a friendship with two people who have become champions of the same.
As a fellow wounded veteran, my motto has always been “never give up, never quit.” Before that motto ever became a slogan, I did my best to surround myself with people that would not quit, even on their worst day. Josh and Paige Wetzel are those people. Sgt. Josh Wetzel and I are proud members of the “Walter Reed Class of 2012.” You might be wondering what that means. Well, you would have to know that we were both deployed with different Army units to Afghanistan in 2012 and that Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is a hospital for veterans that become amputees. Josh and I were injured within fifty days of each other in the spring of 2012 and, unbeknownst to us, a lifelong friendship would begin in the halls, clinics, therapy sessions, and surgery bays of Walter Reed.
Within the first few hours of a life-threatening injury, a soldier can pretty much only think about his family, his guys, and his future. You wonder if you’ll ever walk again, how you’re going to live with this amount of pain, and whether you’ll be able to provide for your family. What no one realizes is that good friends are just as critical to the mission as good healthcare. Walter Reed would surprisingly become the birthplace of some of the best friendships I’ve ever had. My wife, Kelsey, and I met the Wetzels in the midst of our two-year recovery process, and eight years later, they are still part of our crew. Josh and Paige immediately meshed with Kelsey and me, though at the time we weren’t really sure why. Our first conversations were back-and-forth rants over Big 10 versus SEC football, or me explaining to Josh the million reasons why the 82nd Airborne Division is better than 2nd Infantry Division. Talking trash and running our mouths became the norm, and before long we were checking on each other and pushing each other in recovery. Finding friends in an environment like this is unusual and unexpected. Your own problems seem to be all you can handle, yet we ended up watching out for each other. No two veterans suffer the exact same injuries, yet it seemed like we could all relate to each other in different ways. In getting to know each other, we unintentionally begin a brotherhood with people who share a desire to keep living. Beautifully Broken is not only a great story about two of my toughest friends, but it’s also an amazing depiction of the village it takes to make a person successful.
Like the Wetzels, my family and I would be nothing without the ones that guided our healing, cheered us on, and helped us up when we fell (literally). Josh and Paige do a great job of emphasizing the importance of the community that would not let us quit. There is truly nothing like the feeling of being around people that understand what you’re going through. We grew as people, husbands, and fathers by watching each other try new things. As Josh and Paige share their growth in this book, you’ll see their community grow as well, and this community far exceeds the military and amputees. This is another point of agreement in our friendship: Human struggles should not be compared; they should be used to encourage others. This is not a story about a guy who thinks he fought harder than anyone else or a wife who knew exactly what to do. Instead, you’ll find a story of great humility and willingness to follow God, no matter how difficult the path seems.
If you get nothing else from this story, I hope you learn that every testimony starts with a test. We live in a world that tells us if something is hard, confusing, or just not what we thought it would be, we should just give up. The men and women that fight for this country live in a different culture. We expect leadership and victory to be hard; therefore, we embrace anything that can prepare us for it. That’s what you’ll find here—two people embracing the preparation that only a difficult time can provide. Because Josh and Paige adopted this mindset, their story will continue. This book isn’t just a recount of war stories; it is a guide to how we can turn our struggles into good. When we choose to turn struggle into good, our hardships can still serve the world, even years later. Josh and Paige don’t tell their story to glorify how tough they are but to help readers realize their own toughness. Their faith is practical, and so is their love for other people. Because of that, their story continues to teach, encourage, and inspire.
Josh and Paige are more than people that were with me during a hard time. They love my children, they pray for my family, and they have cheered me on every step of the way. I am proud to call them my friends, and I am excited for you, as the reader, to have your faith lifted by the story of two people who believed that there was purpose behind the worst day of their lives.
—SSG Travis Mills, US Army (Ret.)
82nd Airborne Division
THE BEGINNING AND THE END
THE VOICE MAIL OR THE DOORBELL
The LORD knows all human plans; he knows that they are futile.
On May 31, 2012, I was in my Tacoma, Washington, apartment getting ready for work around 6:30 a.m. Suddenly, I got a phone call from a number I did not recognize. Immediately my heart sank. Since we had moved to a new place, I got calls from random numbers all the time, but not at 6:30 a.m. If it’s something important, they will leave a voice mail. [Voice mail chimes.] Sh*t.
Mrs. Wetzel this is Sgt. 1st Class with the Department of the Army. Please return my call. It’s regarding your husband.
I was sitting on the floor before the message was done playing. Sliding down the wall, I thought only two things:
Well, this is it.
At least there isn’t an officer ringing the doorbell.
I called the number back and identified myself. My voice was slow and uncertain. I was hoping that stating my name would make them say, “Oh, Mrs. Wetzel, we are so sorry, we have made a mistake.” It did not. I think the officer sensed my wishful thinking because his voice sharpened and he said, “Mrs. Wetzel, I need you to listen very carefully. This concerns your husband.” But I couldn’t listen carefully enough, I could only picture his body as his injuries were being listed: “… resulting in the loss of both the left and right legs… both right and left arms are broken… a traumatic brain injury… a break in his C-4 vertebrae…” He began reading the logistics of what would happen next. I didn’t cry, but I felt the mouthwatering, neck-tingling sensation of vomiting. I stared at the wall of my bathroom and told myself to inhale before I passed out. Just as his voice resurfaced in my cognition, he asked, “Do you have any questions?”
“Are you going to tell his parents, or do I have to?”
My mind was reeling, but somehow, I found myself thinking about our wedding, when I thought my life was full of cruel irony. Two weeks before our wedding, my fiancé was proudly showing off his battle scars on his face. All I could think about were the pictures. What good was an expensive tuxedo and hiring a photographer when the groom had a two-inch gash on the bridge of his nose next to an accompanying black eye?
We were breaking the bank for the wedding. I nearly lost my mind trying to get it all planned, and there was my fiancé, Josh, not only showing me his battle scar, but showing it off. He couldn’t help but grin when he shared how he made it to the final rounds of hand-to-hand combat and got his nose busted by a guy twenty pounds above his weight class. Why would an Army guy need to know hand-to-hand combat techniques anyway? Seems a little outdated for twenty-first-century warfare, in my civilian opinion. And I knew Josh wouldn’t have stood a chance anyway. He still hadn’t gained all of his weight back from passing the Army Special Forces Selection a few weeks earlier. Prior to joining an infantry unit, Josh was an 18X-ray, which is a prospective Green Beret. However, he would have to pass the eighteen-month Special Forces Qualification Course to actually get the green beret. In order to begin the qualification course, Josh had to survive Special Forces Selection, also known as “nineteen days in hell,” meant to weed people out. There was another reason I questioned the whole nice tuxedo schtick for our wedding: the nineteen days made him almost unrecognizable. His eyes and cheekbones protruded; his skin was pale from nineteen days of MREs, which stands for “meals ready to eat”—prepackaged meals that only needed water added to be ready for consumption—and getting little to no sleep. But the same stupid grin slid across his face whenever he talked about going through Special Forces Selection. As if the coolness of passing and then getting beat up trumped any and all consequences I could give him. All I could do was shrug my shoulders and pray about it, because God knows a soon-to-be spouse of a lowly Army specialist has zero control over her future.
I found a little comfort in controlling what I could with our wedding ceremony, even though the Army dictated most of that, too. The date was set for December 29, 2010—a Wednesday. Yes, the Army chose a Wednesday for our ceremony. We were having a Christmas leave wedding, and it was taking place in my hometown of Fort Payne, Alabama. This seemed par for the course in the military world. Anything an active-duty service member wanted to do outside of job requirements must be done during a planned military holiday while the soldier is stateside. If a soldier needs to travel outside of a 250-mile radius of the base, he must obtain permission for “leave.” Hence, the all-too-common “Christmas leave wedding” used to safeguard the preparation, ceremony, and honeymoon of thousands of military couples each year. If a military holiday is not readily available, such personal events will have to fit into a weekend, after work, or even during a lunch break. In fact, even before our own wedding, I had served as witness and photographer for three different lunch break marriages at the county courthouse while visiting Josh in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he was stationed. Josh would call me from the base and ask if I could meet one of his buddies and his girlfriend at the courthouse around noon. I signed my name on the witness line, threw rose petals, and took pictures after meeting the couple in the lobby only five minutes before the ceremony. That’s military life for you—you do what you can with the amount of time allowed. God, country, then family.
My Wednesday night wedding at least took place in a church with a bridal party and reception to follow. The event was beautiful, and we had over two hundred people show up to a ceremony between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. So much of it was not ideal: I chose my dress because it was the only one I could afford that semi-fit without any alterations, we didn’t have hair or makeup done for the bridal party, and I was blessed to get two reception cakes and a venue for free. We left our reception at 8:00 p.m. to start our four-hour drive to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where we would honeymoon for two whole days. We stayed in a one-bedroom chalet with wood paneling, deer heads on every wall, and a hot tub in the middle of the living room. However, I remembered the alternative and was so thankful to not be getting married at the Cumberland County Courthouse.
Not exactly what I had dreamed of when he popped the question six months prior to saying “I do.” Nonetheless, my legal union with Josh would finally complete the trio: the United States Army, Army Specialist Josh Wetzel, and hayseed civilian Paige (Beasley) Wetzel.
Eighteen months later, I was sitting against a wall in a buzzing silence 2,500 miles away from home. I needed to call my mother-in-law. We had to make a plan of how we were going to get to Josh. We were the only people in the whole family that lived on the West Coast, and some part of my subconscious told me to connect with her first, then travel east together. The lump in my throat grew larger. How I wished I was calling to tell her that her son, once again, had placed a bet too big and the Christmas photos would include a broken nose. What I wouldn’t give for an injury from a petty fight.
Thank God my mother-in-law is a nurse. As the officer began to read the same lines to her, she had interrupted and said, “I’m going to need you to slow down so I can get something to write with.”
Her own son had been disfigured by a bomb in a foreign country, but Cathi needed answers on amputations, levels of intubation and responsiveness, and what the next evaluations would be. Her questions revealed that the people giving us this information were not anywhere near Josh or even in Afghanistan. With that knowledge, Cathi gave them very clear questions to ask the doctors working on her son.
Cathi called me. There was no time for sobbing or sulking. She simply asked, “Well, am I coming to you or are you coming to me?”
I simply replied, “I will come to you.”
A deep fog had fallen in my mind, and I functioned only as told, my only mission was moving forward toward Josh. I called several people, including my parents and sister, our dearest friends Matt and Brittney, and my boss, and I had to repeat the same story to them all. I was eerily monotone as I repeated the script: Josh has been injured, he has no legs, two broken arms, a broken neck, and a brain injury. But the responses on the other end were conversely charged with emotion, which I did not have time for. These precious people had every right to be upset and feel all their emotions, but I couldn’t process their emotions with them. Did they not realize that Josh’s survival was still not guaranteed? Maybe I hadn’t conveyed that in the rehearsed script.
Everyone was freaking out about his legs being gone, but he had a long way to go before any medical professional would say, “I think he’s going to live.” It had only been a few hours since Josh had been transported. We didn’t know if the information Cathi and I had been given came from someone who had laid eyes on Josh during surgery at Kandahar Airfield or from someone who threw his mangled body on a helicopter at the scene of the accident. A lot can happen between the two events.
My father-in-law, Patrick, did not take the news so well. The other fearless adrenaline junkie of the Wetzel family lost every glimmer of hope when he learned his oldest son might not make it out of Afghanistan. Josh’s stepmother, Kristie, was called to be the fearless one. She had to tell Josh’s twin sisters and younger brother the debilitating news. We all have defining moments in life—that was a big one for Kristie, at least since I’ve been around. There is a superpower all mamas have. It’s the ability to see the world around you crumbling and stand up in the middle of the noise and refuse defeat. I saw both mothers-in-law stand up and refuse defeat that day.
Two new friends I’d made since moving to town, Shane and Mandy, came over and packed my things for me. I think they also dropped me off at the airport. I have no memory of how I got there. Yet I found myself looking at the date, time, and destination on my boarding pass and thinking, I hope that’s right. I trudged through the airport and made it onto my first flight to San Jose. At some point I must have communicated to Shane and Mandy that I needed to fly to Josh’s mother in California first. It was my first real moment of gratitude; I was so thankful that I didn’t have to travel by myself. Cathi would be with me. I didn’t even know where Josh was going once he got to the United States. All I knew was he would not be coming back to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, so I needed to get out of Washington and be near my family. Cathi worked and lived in California, so we might as well travel together. I sat down in my seat in the back of the plane and prayed that no one would talk to me, realizing how hard it is to be nice to people when you’ve just heard horrible news. I could not control my thoughts. As soon as I would convince myself, He’s going to make it, things will be fine, my mind would flash to year-long comas, severe brain injuries, and even a funeral. I squeezed my eyes shut and called my thoughts to the present with an audible “Stop!” I opened my eyes and received the puzzled stares of other passengers. I glared back at them, and they each slowly turned back to face the front of the plane. Finally, I was on my way to Cathi. One flight closer to my husband.
I couldn’t help but wonder, Is God here? Is He aware of what’s going on right now? I have prayed for Josh’s protection every single night, and he could die while I am on this flight. I have been a Christian my whole life, but until May 31, 2012, my faith had been superficial, predictable, and uneventful. Sure, in my twenty-three years I had encountered some bumps in the road, but I just prayed the usual “Thy will be done, Lord” and left it at that. I had never been this desperate or this afraid. I had never needed anything this specific or this urgent. My default prayer didn’t seem to be enough: Thy will be done? What is Your will? Was this really the reason for Josh’s service? Or our marriage? We’ve built this life together for this? This was not the plan! As the emotions and thoughts ran together in a maundering roar, Jeremiah 29:11 chimed like a bell tower: “For I know the plans I have for you… plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” I felt no hope, and thus no future, but in my pixilated confusion I could somehow digest that God knows the plan. It was the only comforting thought that got through the silent screaming in my head during the two-hour flight from Seattle to San Jose.
Midflight I started thinking about living a military life. How many people on this plane knew what it was like? We’re all together here now, but what separate lives we lived on the ground. I started to think about my induction to military life. Before Josh, I knew nothing about it. I lived on thirty-three acres just outside of Fort Payne, Alabama, with my mom, dad, sister, and countless animals. I lived in the same house from the day I was born until the day I left for college to play volleyball at a school just an hour away from home. I never changed school districts, moved houses, or even had to change bus drivers. My family sat in the same pew in the same order at the same church for my entire childhood. The same people who would ask me how many teeth I had lost in first grade would be the same people who congratulated me on winning an all-county award in high school because everyone’s family had a pew as well.
Josh, however, has a completely different story. Josh was born on a military base in Frankfurt, Germany, on April 13, 1986. His father worked on tanks, while his mother did what every other military mom and wife does: tried to figure out what to do with herself without the support of any friends or family. Military housing for an Army sergeant is less than desirable, especially on foreign soil. Josh’s home in Germany came furnished with items that some might say were not choices you’d make if ordering from a catalog. Their apartment was emblematic of post–World War II life in Germany. It had bare walls, bars on the windows, and no carpets. Josh and his mom did their best to live as normal a life as possible in Germany.
Before long, Josh’s father, Patrick, was ordered to come back to the United States. He was stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, outside El Paso at the United States–Mexico border. This is the part of Army brat life that Josh remembers best. The house in Fort Bliss was affectionately named “the square house.” There were hardly any walls separating the rooms in the house, hence its nickname. The lack of walls inside mattered less once Josh discovered the backyard, his new oasis. It was a yard filled with lava rocks surrounded by a cinder block wall. Beyond that wall was the desert—a haven of mysterious creatures, extreme temperatures, and lots of dirt. They first moved when Josh was five years old, and he needed a lot of supervision in the backyard at first. Any adventures beyond the cinder block wall usually led to a whipping for one reason or another. In the backyard, Josh had a toy box. I suppose the toy box was once filled with normal things, but a Josh Wetzel toy box is useless unless it’s harboring wild animals. Rattlesnakes, horned frogs, tarantulas, lizards, and rodents would take turns living in the box. Whenever he could sneak away, Josh would hop the wall into the sand and come back with pockets full of desert-dwelling critters. He does not have a single scar from a scratch or bite to show from any of them, but what he lacked in animal bites I’m sure was made up in gray hairs for his mom. Josh wouldn’t lay down roots until after his parents split up when he was almost six years old. He and his mom settled down in her hometown of Glencoe, Alabama. When Josh landed in his family’s North Alabama homestead, he began attending church with his nana on a regular basis. Church was an event Josh enjoyed well into his teenage years, even if it was just to hang out with his friends. As is the nature of a small town, these same friends would also be Josh’s classmates and teammates. The daring kid born in Europe who had once entertained himself with catching hazardous animals finally had a homestead.
Somewhere between his father’s genetics and his early years of adventurous boyhood lies the reason that Josh isn’t afraid to do anything. Being afraid of something and afraid to do something are different things. I think my husband is actually afraid of a lot of things, but there’s something inside him drives him toward danger instead of away from it. He would be the first to admit that he is afraid of heights, but he could not wait to jump out of a plane during Airborne School. I guess that’s what makes him perfect for the Army.
Josh was made for the Army, but he joined after he flunked out of college. It’s actually pretty ironic how much he embraced the structured military life, because a year before he enlisted, he couldn’t wake up in time for a 9:00 a.m. class. I guess the learning environment makes the difference sometimes. Josh would prefer someone yelling and cursing in his ear while he’s doing some kind of grueling physical activity over a PowerPoint in a lecture hall any day.
I, on the other hand, am nothing like Josh. If it looks scary, I won’t go near it. I need predictable, safe outcomes with little risk. Deep down, I have always known I needed someone like Josh in my life. Someone who would help me live and try to put myself out there, but fear and doubt were rooted deeper inside me than I think I understood.
He couldn’t survive without his optimism, but I don’t know if he ever thinks twice about his decisions. There’s a lot that can go wrong even if most of it goes according to plan. Regrettably, I am often double-minded when it comes to Josh. I don’t always respect his laid-back attitude, thinking, Oh, he thinks this is just a big joke. The other part of me is so jealous of his perspective. How amazing would it be to live in such freedom? To not care what people think, even though you know that they know you messed up? The whole world knows how Josh ended up joining the Army, despite how much I tried to control the narrative with sugarcoated versions of the story. Yet, he still walks around with a smile on his face, never stopping to think someone might think less of him. Even if they did, he would say that’s their problem to sort out.
We were ignorant to what this would ultimately bring to our marriage because we positioned ourselves in our faith the same way. Ironically, we agreed on a similar theology—there is a God, and He knows what He’s doing—but we had completely different approaches for what that meant for us as individuals. I approached faith and religion believing there were blanket rules that I needed to follow so God didn’t have to work overtime to correct my mistakes. Kind of like obeying the speed limit for the sake of the police having an easier day. The adults in my life guided me on what to stay away from, and as long as I could give them the impression that I wasn’t doing those things, I would be good. Josh, on the other hand, felt that God is God, and He’s going to do whatever He wants no matter what I do. Might as well live life! What’s the worst that could happen? What’s the worst that could happen? I would think. God won’t help us when we actually need it because we keep Him busy with your stupidity! These rules are here to protect you! I couldn’t help but believe Josh didn’t think he needed protecting because he truly didn’t worry about what could go wrong.
Regardless of our differences, both ideologies left us feeling like God could not be approached. I didn’t think I could approach God because prayer felt like I was telling Him what to do. Josh didn’t feel like he could approach God because his prayer wouldn’t change anything. By default, our faith was nothing more than a subtle wave of the hand to God. We were grateful to exist another day, and tipped our hats to whatever God thought was best. We would just tend to our business and let Him know if something big came up.
- "Beautifully Broken is a must read not only for every American, but for every married couple! I came away with a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices of our military families, a deeper understanding of marriage relationships, and a deeper love for God and his goodness in the hardest of circumstances. Josh and Paige are real and raw and while we may never go through the things that they have experienced, the themes of every marriage are the same: sacrificial love, grace, forgiveness, perseverance and the work of choosing each other again and again. This is the hard work that pays off ultimately to a marriage that, while beautifully broken, is one that lasts."—Korie Robertson
- Beautifully Broken is a unique and stunningly honest look into the lives of our wounded warriors and their loved ones. It is a story of the extreme challenges they face from the moment of impact on the battlefield, the journey home, and eventually to rebuilding their lives. What shines through this story is courage, love, and the indomitable human spirit. It is a beautifully written book.—Vicki Cody, an Army wife for 33 years and author of Army Wife: A Story of Love and Family in the Heart of the Army
- Our world needs stories of hope and healing now more than ever, and Beautifully Broken reminds us that God's power is always at work in our lives. Authors Paige and Josh Wetzel are part of our church family so I know firsthand what they've endured and how God has healed them and restored their marriage. Now everyone can discover the inspiring, uplifting story of their faith journey, guided by God's love through some of life's darkest moments.—Chris Hodges, Senior Pastor, Church of the Highlands and Author of The Daniel Dilemma and What?s Next?
- Most books are just words on pages. Beautifully Broken is much more than that. It's a story of love, faith, and heroic conduct unmatched in my view.
- On Sale
- Oct 12, 2021
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Worthy Books