WHEELING, W.Va. (WTRF) – Michael Novotney spends his days at the Vet Center in Wheeling as the outreach coordinator – being involved in getting local veterans together in so many special ways. 

He knows the bond veterans have firsthand as he served in the United States Army at Fort Campbell Kentucky, and like most veterans he can tell you exactly for how long in tonight’s Veterans Voices. 

”It was five years, six months, and three days of total active duty on that period.”

At just 19 years old, Michael joined the army in July of 2001 – just months before the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11th

”When 9/11 happened, everything was just kind of like a switch,” said Michael. “You could just tell the mood changed in everybody.”

From September 12th, 2001, on, the army as everyone, including Michael, had known it would never be the same. 

”I remember our one drill sergeant, first thing he said was men, half of you will be going to Afghanistan upon your completion here. And I just thought to myself, ‘Well, no, no, that’s not going to happen. I just got here,” he recalled.

To his surprise, his next move was making the phone call that no parent ever wanted to hear – to tell them he was going to Afghanistan.

Before he knew it, Michael was flying to Germany where he saw President Bush’s speech at the time of the invasion in person. 

No one had any idea what was to come next. 

”Getting on that final plane and we did what they called a combat landing where we were spiraling down into the airport in Kandahar. We flew in at nighttime. So, we got there, and we didn’t know what to expect. They’re telling us to, you know, load up our magazines, lock and load. So, we landed in Kandahar. The door drops and we just walk out right into the airport terminal. Here’s our ID cards. They scan us. Welcome to Afghanistan.”

Michael says that it was Operation Anaconda during his first deployment in Afghanistan that turned him into a man in March of 2002. 

They were at the highest level any U.S. troops had ever entered a combat area nearly 9000 feet up in the mountains. 

”Our job was basically to take part in blocking positions to try to flush out the Taliban, the Taliban and al Qaeda fleeing the area. It was supposed to be only like a two- or three-day mission turn out. We were up there for almost 12, 13 days.”

He would go on to become a decorated soldier in Afghanistan and Iraq in a time of such turmoil around the world. 

Michael says the bonds he has made during this time are what really got him through.

”Whether it’s Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam. You know, we get bonded through war. It is, you know, the guy to the to the left and the right having each other’s back. And in that trust and faith that, hey, we’re all going to get out of here, you know, because at the end of the day, it’s us or them. Our mentality was ‘We’re going home.’”

It’s these connections that led him to the Vet Center in Wheeling to continue his service in a different way for the community. 

”I know how hard it can be to navigate the VA system itself,” he said. “Just in general, with life working on thing and the readjustment process, leaving the military, coming back, you know, trying to figure things out. So, it’s great that I get to be lending a helping hand and doing that. And it’s just kind of a relief for folks.”

Michael encourages any veteran in need of assistance to reach out to the Vet Center and get the support they need.