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In the line of duty

Human Performance and Sport senior Michael West has served the battlefield and post-tour rehabilitation.

By Rachel Bruner

December 13, 2016

While Michael West’s opportunity to serve in the military was cut short due to a combat injury, his passion for service launched him into a second career as a personal trainer and rehabilitation specialist.

West’s call to serve is in his blood. His father is a U.S. Navy veteran and his grandfather, a U.S. Army veteran. So it made sense when, after getting a sense of what each branch was like in the Naval Sea Cadet Corps and the Army ROTC, West began training as a 19 Delta reconnaissance scout for the Army his junior year of high school.

“The Army was more of who I was,” West said. “I love the outdoors, I love being in the woods.”

His more than 20 years in the Army included serving as a vehicle mechanic, a cavalry scout and a drill sergeant. He had multiple overseas tours, including to Iraq, for which he received a Bronze Star and Purple Heart medal after breaking his back in a firefight.

Though West was told he was not deployable because of the injury, breaking his back didn’t break his dedication to his career. He received some treatment and continued on to train National Guard and Reserve forces on Humvee gunnery, small armed ranges and sniper training.

His back injury also didn’t break his love for fitness.

“I was still running, I was still lifting weights,” West said. “I couldn’t do squats; I couldn’t put pressure on my shoulders so that I didn’t put pressure on my back. I could only run for about two miles and then my feet and legs would go totally numb. But I tried to stay in shape and do what I could do.”

After retiring from the Army as a platoon sergeant first class, West decided to pursue a second career in fitness. He received his personal training certificate and then chose Metropolitan State University of Denver for his bachelor’s degree in Human Performance and Sport.

The transition back to college was hard for West, who has suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He’s a nontraditional student, and he was still learning to cope with normal civilian life.

“My first day here I sat in the back of the classroom in the far corner and I didn’t want anybody around me cause I felt really uncomfortable,” West said. “One, because of my age, and two, because I don’t like to be crammed in tight spaces anymore. So, to be in large groups is very, very stressful for me.”

But after some time, West says he stopped hiding out on the second floor of the library to study. He slowly began to mingle and interact with the people he met in his classes, and the amount of medication he was on to treat his PTSD began to wane.

He also began to flourish in his next career path.

After his Comparative Fitness course took a field trip to West Metro Fire Rescue, he secured an internship opportunity with the group in August to help eight to 10 clients per week with rehabilitation, personal training, stress management and nutrition counseling.

“This is one of the best internships I have ever seen because you’re so engaged,” West said. “A lot of people go to internships and they only let you sit and watch because of liabilities. Here, we’re free to do what we want to do. We can train. We can do everything with our clients.”

Last month, he was offered to continue on in a permanent position as the head fitness director for the fire academy and assistant director of the wellness department. He will be training his own set of interns from instate and out-of-state colleges after he graduates this month.

As an upcoming first-generation graduate who has found so much success following his career path at MSU Denver, West’s advice to new interns is: “Your internship is what you make it. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it.”

And as for veterans who might be sitting painfully in the far back corner of the room, West says, “I just tell all the vets, ‘Yeah, you’re going to feel uncomfortable at first but you have to come outside that comfort zone and you have to open up and you have to meet people. Just try to open up the best you can.’”

HPS major Mike West will be the first in his family to graduate from college. His commencement takes place on Dec. 16. Photo: Sara Hertwig
HPS major Mike West will be the first in his family to graduate from college. His commencement takes place on Dec. 16. Photo: Sara Hertwig
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