By Stacy Damitio
The anxiety of school paired with hectic work schedules and personal lives is a reality for most students. Imagine battling those things while having no place to call home.
Mitch Wheeler, Glendale Community College Graduate, now employed at GCC’s Veterans Center, was in such a predicament. He pushed passed those barriers achieving success.
“It is always dark before it gets bright,” Wheeler said.
Sept. 11, 2000, Wheeler enlisted in the Air Force specializing in security forces while stationed in Italy.
During his time in Italy he met his wife, also a GI. After three and a half years, Wheeler ended his time with the Air Force. His wife was later stationed at Luke Air Force Base, bringing the couple to Arizona.
The couple had two children. They were having problems and she was served with divorce papers. Wheeler went to work the night she was served, arriving home after the night shift finding her and the children gone.
“The next morning a sheriff’s officer showed up at the house and I found that she had filed a restraining order,” Wheeler said.
His brother who had just moved in was also forced to leave.
As the officer stood outside giving Wheeler 20 minutes to vacate the premises, he rushed to gather his belongings. Due to the stressful circumstances, he left without his social security card and his credit cards.
“I went to the bank, we had a joint account, and she had taken all of the money out of the account,” Wheeler said.
Left with no money, Wheeler and his brother were on the streets with no food, water or shelter—his wife retained residence of the home, money and children.
“With no resources or anything like that, my brother and I slept in the truck for a couple days. We ended up finding an abandoned house out in Buckeye,” Wheeler said.
The brothers snuck into the houses seeking shelter from the elements. With no running water, they showered at local truck stops or the gym they had memberships at.
Wheeler was in the midst of finals at the GCC’s North campus.
“I had to continue to go to those classes, and I was already enrolled for summer EMT classes on [the main campus,”] Wheeler said.
His mother sent them money, most of which Wheeler used for an attorney.
“I was able to make sure we rationed our money so we could eat and have water and enough gas,” Wheeler said.
Once summer classes started, they parked in GCC’s parking lot sleeping in the truck. In the morning Wheeler would get up and attend classes all day.
Eventually they found jobs working security for a few hours a week at a bar. It was not much, but it got them by.
“You would be amazed at what you can do with $100,” Wheeler said.
Despite the overwhelming circumstances, Wheeler graduated from the EMT classes, passing the national certification.
“One thing I can say about Mitch is, he never gives up,” said Chris Spicer, GCC veteran advocate. “He was burning the candle at both ends for a long time.”
Wheeler got a job at a plasma center making decent money, allowing him to get his own apartment.
The court date finally arrived. The judge threw out his restraining order. The couple divorced, splitting time evenly with the children.
Wheeler started taking more classes at GCC, graduating with a 3.86 grade point average as he worked and took care of his children while his ex-wife was deployed.
“God is testing me every day,” Wheeler said. “The more pressure you put on me, the better I do.”
He is currently studying molecular anthropology at Arizona State University, which is the study of genetics. This semester he is taking 17 credit hours, still maintaining a high GPA.
His goal is to have his masters in underwater archeology.
Wheeler has been at employed at GCC’s Veterans Services for two years. He helps other veterans enroll in classes.
“The vets love him. He talks their language,” said Jodi Russell, co-worker. “He’s got a good rapport.”
Wheeler was elected to Vice President of the Veterans Support Coalition in 2011.
His achievements were recognized by Phoenix City Mayor Greg Stanton in November 2012.
“They gave me an award for superior academic achievement in the face of hardship,” Wheeler said.
“The true character of a person comes from the inside, and he’s got character,” Spicer said.
Staying focused not letting crushing circumstances debilitate him is a commendable feat.
“I always remember never to confuse my path with my destination,” Wheeler said. “Even the bad times, I still just love being alive.”
By Stacy Damitio