For most of his childhood, surgeon Dr. Michael Michel put off the idea of following the military path his father had forged. But despite the unique travel opportunities of the service, it was a responsibility he had no interest in tackling.
“We traveled all around the country and overseas, and I grew up most of my life as a kid saying I was going to have nothing to do with the military,” Michel said.
But in high school his mindset switched—when he learned about a particular special ops team the United States Air Force offered. He was drawn to the branch’s airplane-jumping, ocean-diving, thrill-seeking pararescue unit, which he likened to the Army Rangers and Navy Seals.
“The job...is to save...pilots, air crew or sensitive equipment that are shot down behind enemy lines,” Michel said. “It was tough but it was a lot of fun.”
While the seemingly daredevil lifestyle and risky missions didn’t seem to dissuade the then-teen, he said his parents were somewhat surprised by his decision.
“They had mixed emotions about it, but they were very supportive,” Michel said.
But the future physician didn’t immediately enlist upon graduation. He said he completed a year of college before making the bold move.
“I figured out that school wasn’t for me at the time,” he said.
After entering the service, Michel volunteered for pararescue and endured a rigorous training period—one he said many cadets don’t complete.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said.
Michel was one of 13 cadets to graduate from his class of 111.
For seven years, mostly during the first Gulf War in the early ‘90s, Michel took part in special operations in Iraq, Turkey and Saudi Arabia that others might cower to even consider. But for him, the adrenaline-filled moments were his best memories. He even described skydiving as “the easy part” of the job and estimated he completed at least 600 plane jumps during his enlistment. His other daunting pararescue tasks included rock climbing and scuba diving, particularly nighttime ocean jumps without lights.
“That can be scary for some people, but I always found that exciting,” Michel said. “It was never—some of the stuff we did was unusual—(but) I wouldn’t call it difficult.”
But most of his day-to-day life as a pararescue man included training and preparation for potential life-saving scenarios.
After a seven-year stint with the niche unit, Michel took on a new challenge—medical school. He said the military paid for him to take classes at the University of Miami.
Performing surgeries always seemed engaging to Michel, but he said he never wanted to commit to the years of schooling and residency such a career required.
“I decided...whatever I was going to do I was going to be successful, but I was going to get there quick, and I certainly didn’t have time for medical school,” he said.
But pararescue included medical-related work that reignited his interests, and he took classes for a time while on active duty, before transitioning to reserves. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Central Florida and medical school at University of Miami—giving up pararescue upon acceptance.
He remained in the Sunshine State for about 15 years before moving to the Lowcountry and starting work at Summerville Medical Center in 2015.
Michel conducts general surgeries—hernia, gallbladder, and colon—as well as anti-reflux, bariatric and robotic surgeries.
A year before moving here, he retired from the Air Force with the rank of major, having spent the chunk of his 20 years as a surgeon in Iraq and Afghanistan. Michel even boasts a Bronze Star, which he said he received for working a mass casualty incident.
Michel said he’ll never forget the alarming pages he and others in his unit would receive while stationed overseas. About two to three times a month in Afghanistan, Michel’s pager would alert him to an impending terrorist attack.
“The pages that we got there—although they were somewhat medical related—the pages were, ‘rocket launch, There’s a rocket coming your way so get under your bed and prepare to come into the makeshift hospital,’ so that’s a little bit unusual,” Michel said.
Luckily the rockets rarely resulted in damage or injuries since Michel explained the launchers weren’t exactly the most accurate.
“The Taliban...or whoever it was that was firing these rockets, they never really had any good guidance systems,” he said, “And so they would go out there, they would have these rockets they would kind of sneak out outside the fence of the base....and they would literally hook it up to an egg timer...and they would run away.”
Also etched in his mind was an ironic moment at Bagram Air Force Base.
Michel said he received a patient who had been shot in the field near base. After operating on him and saving his life, Michele said he received a heartfelt “thank-you” from the man’s Army buddies—the ones he learned, not long after, had proven themselves the truer heroes of that day.
“They were actually intercepting a group of Taliban that had been coming down planning to attack our base,” Michel said. “So these guys actually saved my life.”
While Michel doesn’t regret his military service, it was a 20-year period he also candidly explained he doesn’t care to repeat. When asked which military role he preferred—pararescue man or physician—he gave a simple, honest reply: “None of the above.”
“It wasn’t fun by any means. It was something that was necessary, and one of those things that I’m glad that I had the experience, but I wouldn’t want to do it again,” he said.
Michel is mostly thankful for the way the military shaped him into the doctor he is now and conditioned him to handle stressful moments, like surgery.
“It sort of formed who I am and how I do things today,” he said. “If you literally have someone’s life in your hands, in order to handle that level of stress you need to be able to remain calm and be able to operate literally under those types of circumstances. ...Things that are major stressors for most people don’t bother me. I can handle that kind of stuff.”
While he admitted he can handle an unexpected heavy bleeder during a critical bariatric operation, Michel said he’s not a fan of everyday stressors like Lowcountry traffic.
“I can’t handle (people) that don’t know how to drive, so it’s the little things that bother me,” he said with a laugh.
Michel and his wife Julie have two children, Ava, 2, and a younger son he’s nicknamed “Scooter.”