By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Army medic Ben Michaelson and his family got their Christmas present early – he is home from Afghanistan. However, like the rest of America – and the world – his heart broke to see what happened in Connecticut – he is from nearby Seymour, and stayed in Connecticut for college. He talks about that, and how his life will change once he discharges from the Army, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. How’s it feel to be back on American soil?
Ben: You know, I am just super glad to be home. The biggest things that I missed were all related to “home” – my wife, but also my golf clubs, Xbox and TV – the things you miss whenever you are away from home.
2. When do you formally leave the Army?
Ben: I get out in the beginning of June. We’ll go on leave for a little bit here for about a month, and then once we get back I’ll have just a couple of months, and part of that will kind of be the transitioning out process. After that I’ll be looking for a job.
3. You are from Seymour, so close to Newtown – how are you coping with the tragedy?
Ben: Obviously, I think everything has been said that can be said about what happened. It happened in the next town over from my hometown, so I have friends that teach in that school district. I don’t know what to say; it’s senseless and tragic.
4. Those are close-knit communities, aren’t they?
Ben: They really are. And all we can do is be there for each other – and just love each other. At the end of the day, unfortunately, there is no going back. And things will always be different now. But you just love your family, and you move on.
5. Moving back to the service, after the daily horror of northern Iraq, what was Afghanistan like – and how much did these things change you?
Ben: Well, you know, I guess this past deployment was certainly different than Iraq. I did what was asked of me. I took care of my soldiers. I did what needed to be done. I am just glad to be home. I think sometimes everybody changes during deployment. Sometimes it’s hard to wrap your head around what those are for a little while. At first, you are just glad to be home and that’s it.
6. You had a different role this time, right?
Ben: You know, for me on this deployment, my job was different than last time. My job was to manage the medical facility on our base, so I wasn’t out doing patrols daily. We were not in a nice part of the world, and our unit was engaged in quite a bit of direct contact with the enemy on a daily basis. But I didn’t see that this time, and certainly nothing like last time (in Iraq).
7. You’ve experienced a whole new world in the military, haven’t you?
Ben: Before I went in, I had never been blown up and never been shot at, and now both of those things have happened to me. Last time (he was deployed, in Iraq) I seemed more shaken up because everything was new. When you and I talked, I had recently been in an IED (improvised explosive device) strike in Iraq. This time around, it being my second time, it wasn’t a completely new experience, so I had a better idea of what to expect.
8. How bad was the IED explosion?
Ben: It wasn’t a big IED, really. We were just driving down the road, and boom, we blew up. There’s no other way to explain it other than that. No one was seriously injured in the truck – we all ended up fine. When things go boom, I still kind of clench, or jump and see where it came from – a lot more than a normal person would.
9. You have so many ribbons and medals on your military uniform now – what do those mean, and how have they shaped you?
Ben: Sure, the awards and ribbons are all nice. I will certainly keep those exactly as I kept certain awards I won as an athlete – it’s who I am, and part of what I have achieved in my life, if you want to put it that way. It is something I am proud of, but I wouldn’t consider myself a hero. All I did was go to work, just like the next guy; the only difference was my work was in Afghanistan for nine months.
10. Shannon Wylie, a swimwear professional – also from the great state of Texas, I might add – seems like a great wife and life partner for you, is that right?
Ben: I totally married up, you can (laughs) say that. I’m very lucky, and very blessed to be with her. We’re just really looking forward to being able to be together. We will never have to go away for that long ever again. We’re grateful to have each other and go on our honeymoon, coming up here soon.
11. The Army – it worked for you, but it’s not for everyone, is it?
Ben: It’s definitely not for everyone. It wasn’t easy for me most of the time. Things worked out pretty well for me. Honestly, my reasons for joining the service were my own. I needed what the service had to offer me, in a lot of ways. In the past five years now, I have gotten from the Army what I needed and the Army got what it needed out of me – two deployments.
12. Going from basic training to the field, it’s like night and day – or day and night, more apropos, isn’t it?
Ben: It is. When you first come in, you do your basic training and run around, and stab stuff with your bayonet and throw hand grenades, and actually, that’s kind of fun. Then the reality of it sinks in. The army is a lot of carrying and stacking boxes, packing stuff up, and pulling guard on some desolate combat outfit in the middle of nowhere. It’s not Call of Duty: Black Ops – it’s nothing like those video games. Being in the Army is tedious hard work. It’s a grind in a lot of respects.
13. Watching Michael Phelps, your former Club Wolverine teammate, online from London, what was that like?
Ben: I did have a lot of pride. I was able to pretty much follow along and watch the races. Never doubt that guy; no one should ever doubt him. I never doubted him for a minute. I know what a competitor he is. It didn’t surprise me that he came out on top in so many regards, but it was definitely fun to see him achieve the things he did. Whenever I see him do anything, I’m just proud that I (laughs) was his punching bag there for a few years at Club Wolverine, and that I have trained with and competed against the best that ever lived.
14. And you also got to train with a lot of other people, including Peter Vanderkaay, correct?
Ben: Absolutely. He’s actually someone that I do stay in regular contact with. I was able to hang out with him and Davis Tarwater before I deployed, when the National Team was down here in Georgia for the Dual in the Pool. PVK is one of the best middle distance freestylers to ever live. And he’s nothing but class, and a great ambassador for the sport.
15. You mention Davis, for whatever reason he is one of those truly special people we are thankful to have in our lives – how proud were you of Davis to see he made the team?
Ben: Davis. A couple of years ago after he got done with grad school at Oxford, England, I was perusing swim results on the internet. And I saw “Davis Tarwater” in the finals at some Grand Prix meet. I emailed him. “What the heck are you doing? You are on the swim team still?” And sure enough, he finally made his Olympic team. It’s been said ad nauseam, but I will say it again: No one deserves to be an Olympian more than Davis Tarwater does. When I saw he was on the team – and you can ask my wife this – I was freaking out in Afghanistan. That’s the funny thing; I am following a Twitter feed and grainy jumpy video of a swimming race at a Battalion Aid Station, and people are thinking that I am out of control – and I’m like, “No, I am just watching a swim race!”
16. Are you in the water?
Ben: I went swimming yesterday for the first time since I got back. I only had time to get in 2500. I had husband stuff (laughs) I had to do, but it felt great. I am definitely planning on making it part of my normal routine. I have been on the bike. But I plan to make swimming a priority now that I am back and have the opportunity. Short term I will be competing at the U.S. Masters Nationals in May, and after that we will see.
17. How cool is it watching your beloved G-men – even though they are in a rough stretch right now – from home rather than online in some remote outpost?
Ben: Absolutely the coolest thing. One thing I said to my wife, on the first Sunday I was home, was how amazing it is to be on my couch watching the Giants on my TV. It just really seems like the TV is a little bigger, sharper, and the Internet is faster than before. And there’s zero threat of rocket attack.
18. You’ve worn the flag in several uniforms – that mean a lot to you?
Ben: You know, it sure does. I specifically remember the few times when I’ve been fortunate enough to be selected on a relay for the U.S. team, and I remember standing on the blocks at Pan Ams or World Championships, and thinking, “Out of 300 million Americans, they picked me to swim two laps of butterfly right now.” I took that very seriously. It was a big honor to me. In a lot of ways it was the same, but different, to do my part for our country’s work around the world. It doesn’t matter what your political affiliation is or what you think of what the military is doing, the fact of the matter is the U.S Congress and President told us to do a job, and we went and did it the best we could.
19. All-American swimmer, World team member, Army Veteran – does Senator Michaelson have a ring to it?
Ben: Maybe I’ll run for town council back in Seymour, Connecticut, I don’t (laughs) know. But I don’t know right now if a future in politics is for me. I am looking forward to spending time with my wife, and after that, we’ll focus on what our next move will be.
20. A lot of people tell me each time you are in 20 Question Tuesday how much it means to them, and I know you are aware of how many people prayed for you and our troops – do you want to send out a greeting to them that you are home, and all right at this point to wrap it up?
Ben: You know, I do just really want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart. I know I was in a lot of people’s prayers. I got a lot of emails, care packages, and all those gestures and thoughts do make a lot of difference. It was a tough go over there. The living conditions weren’t that great, and it was a fairly dangerous area. Knowing I had the support and love of so many people really and truly did get me through the longest days and nights out there. I appreciate it. And I am so thankful to be home this Christmas.