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Josh & Paige Wetzel: Beautifully Broken

The Day Life Changed

The call came at 6:30am, May 31, 2012. An Army staff sergeant told Paige that her beloved husband, Josh, an Army infantryman, had stepped on an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Afghanistan. Then came the list of catastrophic injuries: the loss of both his legs, two broken arms, a break in his C-4 vertebrae, and a traumatic brain injury. “I didn’t cry,” she remembers, “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.” After several arduous days of travel for each of them, Paige and Josh were reunited at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD. When he saw her, Josh burst into tears, saying, “Babe, I’m so sorry...I got hurt, and I said I wouldn’t. I lost my legs, and I’m sorry.” Paige did her best to make sure Josh knew that she wasn’t disappointed in him and that he had failed neither her nor the men he left behind.

For nearly two years, Josh and Paige basically lived at Walter Reed, as he endured exquisite pain, wound vac treatments, countless skin graft surgeries, nightmares, and drug-induced hallucinations. Paige rarely left his side. What got them through it all was a simple faith, family support, and the community they found right there in the hospital. They were surrounded by other veterans and spouses who were facing similar challenges on multiple levels, and visited by many others who had completed their physical recovery and gave them hope. By March of 2014, Josh had sufficiently healed and learned to use his two, new prosthetic legs. Finally, the time came for them to leave the hospital and start living life again.            

The Hardest Part 

A photograph of the Wetzels praying with President Obama at Walter Reed caught the attention of some leaders at Auburn University, who invited Josh to speak about his experiences. He soon decided to finish his college degree at Auburn, so that became their new home. Paige became a volleyball coach for a small, nearby school, and later, Director of Volleyball Operations at Auburn. They were excited to be away from the hospital and all the surgeries, treatments, and pain, and figured life would only get better from here...but it didn’t. What they lacked on their own they had in abundance at the hospital: others who could relate to and encourage them. “We realized how important community is,” Josh says. “In the Army, you always have a battle buddy, someone who’s got your back. We had that at Walter Reed, and when we got out we lost that.” Paige says that after such a long recovery, they were eager to prove themselves independent, and both jumped into their new roles with vigor.   

Over the next two years their full schedules, Josh’s remaining post-traumatic stress, a toddler, and eventually another baby on the way all became too much for their marriage to withstand. As to his faith, Josh says, “I was running away from God, isolating myself, avoiding church.”  “Josh and I were at a crossroads,” Paige admits. “We were driving each other crazy...we screamed at each other, cursed at each other, and we tried to emotionally hurt the other.” By May of 2016, feeling completely drained of the emotional wherewithal to fight for their marriage, Paige contacted a divorce lawyer, and prayed that God would show them to handle all the details.      

Putting the Pieces Together Again 

Two days after talking with the lawyer, Paige received a message from Franklin Graham’s ministry, Samaritan’s Purse, inviting the Wetzels to a week-long retreat called Operation Heal Our Patriots in Alaska. It’s a program for wounded veterans and their spouses to help them adjust to life after service, led by former military couples. She had applied for the trip in 2012, 2013, and 2014, but the slots had always been filled by those on waitlists. Believing that nothing was by chance, Paige saw the invitation as God’s providence. “I had repeatedly asked God in tearful prayers to stop me or get my attention in any way He saw fit if I wasn’t doing the right thing.” She told Josh she wanted them to go on the trip with an open mind to learn how to fix their problems. Josh, who never wanted the divorce, was ecstatic.   

As the first group session with all the couples began, the leader started probing the group about marriage challenges, starting with light, even humorous topics, but quickly moving to serious ones. “We all looked around at each other realizing that first, these chaplains knew what they were doing, and second, we were a lot more normal than we thought,” Josh remembers. With daily sessions, including private ones to work on “ugly parts” of their relationship, as well as down time to enjoy the beauty of Alaska, both Josh and Paige found the hope to recommit themselves to their marriage. The key was looking to the Lord to provide what they simply didn’t have in themselves. “It didn’t solve every problem,” Paige says, “but it opened our minds and hearts.” The sessions also taught practical tools to help them understand how they communicate, show love, and how childhood affected each of them.  

Another encouragement was writing down the unhealthy habits they were holding on to, like sleeping in separate rooms, letting issues build up, withholding love when hurt, and even using the word divorce – then burning it. “Seeing ‘the trash’ from our relationship go up in flames was more than a symbol; it was both of us recognizing how Satan had both divided us and conned us into blaming each other,” Josh clearly recalls.         

As Josh and Paige continue to deal with life’s many challenges, they look to God through His Word, prayer, the skills they’ve learned, the support of family, and a good local church. They now feel much better equipped to handle the trials of marriage and life.   

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