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'It gives me a platform to help people' - Wounded Warrior Josh Wetzel, Auburn Class of 2016
April 28, 2016

Wetzel Suprise
Paige Wetzel surprised her husband Josh on his 30th birthday.

By Jeff Shearer

AUBURN, Ala - Three snapshots illustrate the character of Josh Wetzel.

When an Improvised Explosive Device claimed the legs of a soldier in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Sergeant Wetzel served as a calming influence to a fellow soldier in shock. That, despite the fact that it was Wetzel's legs that were gone.

At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Wetzel was so zealous to expedite his recovery, his doctors frequently restricted Josh's access to his prosthetic limbs to keep him from overdoing it.

And, if you want to see the tender side of this tough person, surprise him with the news that his second child is on the way.

A video of that touching scene, played out on the last day of March at Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium, is closing in on one million combined views on YouTube and Facebook, making Josh a celebrity on Auburn's campus, where he is in his final semester.

"Everybody in my classes is like, `That's amazing. What a cool way to find out about baby No. 2,'" he says. "Everybody's just been super. My teachers know about it. Everybody knows about it. It's been absolutely crazy."

Josh learned that Paige was expecting in a unique way.

Josh's wife, Paige, Auburn's Director of Operations for volleyball, pulled off the surprise, with an assist from Athletics Communications, where Josh is a student assistant.

Paige, as they say in journalism, buried the lead.

She had been planning to give her husband tickets to the Masters for his 30th birthday.

When Paige learned on Valentine's Day that their daughter, two-year-old Harper, would be a big sister, she decided to wait six weeks, until the Stadium surprise, to share the news with Josh.

Josh's smile at going to Augusta quickly turned to tears, watching video of the ultrasound.

Josh and Paige
Josh is overcome with emotion after Paige shares the good news.

"All of a sudden that comes up," Josh says. "And I was just like in shock. I even asked her out on the field, `Why did you do this?' Because I was crying in front of everybody. But it was amazing. What cooler way to find out that you're having your second child than on the biggest video board in college football."

The Wetzels' road to Auburn began at Walter Reed in Maryland, where Josh spent nearly two years recovering from the 2012 explosion.

"Since we were in the hospital, and Auburn found out about us, this has just been how they've treated us," Paige says. "It lets me know there is life outside the military, and Josh is actually doing very well in it. I'm so thankful to just have a place where we feel like we belong. And Josh is thriving, just like he did in the Army."

Josh graduates on May 8th with a degree in Marketing. He'll continue working at Auburn, where he serves as the communications contact for women's tennis.

"He has brought such a positive energy to our team," Auburn women's tennis coach Lauren Spencer says.

All of that seemed unlikely on May 31, 2012. While moving his group across a field toward a wall, Wetzel stepped on an IED.

"I realized early on that I was going to be okay," Josh says. "As soon as it happened. I was already talking my medic off the ledge. He was working on me. And I was telling him we were going to be okay."

Paige and Josh
With Paige by his side, Josh spent nearly two years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The blast took both legs, broke both arms, and caused a C4 break in Wetzel's neck. It did not, however, take his sense of humor.

"I can wear shorts 365 days a year, and I can go from 5-foot-10 to 4-7 in a matter of seconds," he says in a video for Tiger Giving Day that raised $25,065 in December for the Auburn Alumni Association to endow a scholarship for veterans.

"The sense of humor and the positive outlook," Josh says. "It's really helped me to never really get down on myself. Not worry about the future because I knew that with my wife and my support system, my family, everything was going to be okay. And it has been."

"One time I was having a bad day at work," Spencer says. "I unloaded my frustration out on him. He put his leg up on my desk and said, 'One day I had a really bad day at work, too.' And I died laughing.

"His journey has really taught me and our team how to appreciate all we have in life, don't sweat the small stuff, and try to find a sense of humor even in the toughest of times," she says.

At Walter Reed, Josh and Paige marked each milestone, such as the first time he could sit up in bed on his own.

"Josh has done a really good job of finding the joy in what he's going through. And that was something that made him really good at the military because 99 percent of the military is not fun. You're not ever having fun," Paige says. "Josh could always find a way to have a good time and bond with people. Every little victory at the hospital was good enough for him."

For Josh, those victories could not come quickly enough.

"I never had to motivate him. If anything, I was like, `Please just be careful today. Please don't make the doctors freak out today. Please don't get us in trouble,'" Paige says. "That happened at Walter Reed. Josh got his legs taken from him several times, because he just couldn't be trusted."

President Obama Josh and Paige at Walter Reed
President Obama prayed with Josh and Paige at Walter Reed, in a room decorated with Auburn posters.

After Walter Reed, the Wetzels returned to their native state -- he's from Glencoe, she's from Fort Payne.

"When we first moved here, they just embraced us with open arms and everybody reached out to us," Josh says. "Even when we were in limbo in Walter Reed. People reached out to us and asked us what it would take to get us to Auburn.

"I grew up an Auburn fan. And I knew that I loved Auburn," he says. "But I never understood the Auburn Family thing until I moved here."

The Wetzels will soon move into a new home in Auburn, courtesy of Homes for our Troops, an organization that builds mortgage-free, adapted houses for severely injured veterans.

"Everybody just wants to be a part of helping us to permanently be a part of this community, so we always want to try to take that opportunity to thank the Auburn Family because they've just been amazing in our time here," Josh says.

Josh threw out the first pitch
Josh threw out the first pitch before an Auburn softball game in 2015.

Josh uses his experience, and his newfound social media status, to inspire.

"I'm a spiritual person. I think that God has blessed me with this. It gives me a platform to help people," Josh says. "There have been a ton of people who say, `Just seeing you walk around every day. It makes me want to work harder, or do whatever.' I think that's pretty cool.

"But I don't necessarily think I'm a hero," he says. "I did my job like everybody else does. I just had a bad day on the job. I'm like any other guy. I just have a pretty cool story to go along with it."

Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at Follow him on Twitter:

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