Military veteran turned marketing major finds second family at Auburn

Published: July 17, 2015
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Many might wonder why Josh Wetzel, a Gadsden, Alabama, native and U.S. Army veteran who lost both his legs in Operation Enduring Freedom, would choose to make his home in Auburn. An outpouring of support from the Auburn Family made his decision an easy one.

Wetzel, a senior in marketing in the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business, joined the Army in January 2010 and deployed to Afghanistan in March 2012. On May 31, 2012, Wetzel stepped on an improvised explosive device, or IED, and instantly lost both of his legs. He was transported back to Kandahar and then to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

While Wetzel recovered at Walter Reed, Auburn University faculty, staff, students and alumni learned about his injury through a Facebook page and began sending him Auburn memorabilia. Wetzel, an avid Auburn fan, hung the posters on his hospital room walls and wore an Auburn shirt almost every day. In fact, during one of President Obama's regular visits to Walter Reed, his photographer snapped a photo of Obama praying with Wetzel and his wife, Paige. Now hanging in the West Wing of the White House, the photo also captured an array of Auburn football posters and Wetzel proudly sporting an Auburn T-shirt. As the photo gained popularity, and Wetzel's story became more widely known, Auburn University began knocking on Wetzel's hospital door.

"Auburn asked me, 'What do we have to do to get you to come to school here?'" Wetzel remembered. He wanted to go back to school and finish his undergraduate degree and after a campus tour, he decided Auburn would be the perfect place to do that.

Once at Auburn, Wetzel chose to major in business because of the solid foundation it offers for almost any career. It also provided him a valuable way to transfer his well-honed Army skills – like teamwork and communication – into civilian life. After graduation, Wetzel hopes to find a job locally in communications and marketing.

"After we moved here, the community reached out even more. Everyone was so supportive," he said. "We realized we wanted to stay here."

Wetzel constantly speaks of the impact the Auburn community, the Auburn family, has had on his life and his own family. One of the most instrumental people in Wetzel's life in Auburn is Kate Larkin, Auburn Alumni Association outreach program coordinator.

"We call her my Auburn mom," Wetzel says. "She loves Auburn so much and she wants others to love Auburn as much as she does."

Through Larkin's hard work, Wetzel has been able to meet people and take part in a number of special opportunities. Last November, Wetzel was the honorary captain for the Military Appreciation Day football game against Texas A&M. He walked out on the 50-yard-line with players Reese Dismukes and Gabe Wright for the coin toss and watched the rest of the football game from the sidelines, even capturing a selfie with Auburn great Bo Jackson.

"It was a very humbling experience," Wetzel said. "I got a standing ovation in Jordan-Hare Stadium, which was very emotional for me."

Wetzel met Larkin through her daughter, Anna Asbury Larkin, who visited Walter Reed with a friend while Wetzel was a patient and worked to spread his story throughout the Auburn community. She wrote an Auburn fan website, encouraging the Auburn family to "drop him a line" and let him know "his next Toomer's lemonade is on us." On top of being a student, Wetzel enjoys spending time with his wife, Paige, and his 2-year-old daughter, Harper. They currently live in Opelika and are building a house that is more accessible for Wetzel through the help of the organization "Homes for Troops." To learn more about the construction of their new home, visit the organization's website at https://www.hfotusa.org/wetzel.

"I really do love Auburn," Wetzel said. "The town and the school."