BY :: LAURA BERGELLS
PHOTOGRAPHY :: TERRY JOHNSTON
“I’m not the most gung-ho, hardcore military guy,” admitted Electrician’s Mate Third Class Michael K. Bell of the US Coast Guard. “I joined because of the educational benefits.”
“To tell the truth, I didn’t even know what the Coast Guard was. I’m from Missouri. We don’t have coasts.”
“But after I joined, I went off to boot camp and things progressed from there, as they do for everybody.”
However, Bell’s career progressed on a path that took him by surprise.
At 22, Bell held many physical fitness records with his unit. He was in such good physical shape he was asked to be the unit’s health and wellness coordinator.
But then, in November 2007, he went to the dentist.
“I had four wisdom teeth removed, actually,” Bell said. “Four days later, I had a bleed, you know, basically a stroke. I was at the hospital there in Michigan for 4 or 5 days. Then they flew me to St. Louis. That’s where I did my physical, occupational, speech — every kind of therapy you got.”
The stroke left Bell completely paralyzed on the entire right side of his body. He spent one and half years in intensive therapy, learning how to perform daily activities like walking, eating, and speaking.
“My main motto since I’ve had my stroke — my family always said this, too, when I was going through rehabilitation and stuff — “Adapt and Overcome,” said Bell.
As Bell works with the Fashion Has Heart program to create a t-shirt and boot design to benefit wounded warriors, he is keeping his inspirational motto in mind. When Fashion Has Heart director Mike Hyacinthe approached Bell to ask if he’d consider participating in the design project, Bell didn’t hesitate to accept the challenge.
“I do these things because I was that guy that, you know, was going through all these detrimental issues through my life,” he said. “Any way that I can find that could make me feel as though I’ve accomplished something by helping someone else out, it really feeds your own energy.”
“You really feel compelled to give back,” said Bell.
“I’ve been helped by amazing people. Without their help, and not just like, I mean, because it’s their jobs. These are people who are going out of their way. Selfless people. It’s nice to know that still exists.”
Currently, Bell is pursuing an education to become a Rehabilitation Counselor.
“Along the way, through all the BS that you go through, that everybody goes through, you notice that lots of other people are going through that BS, too,” said Bell. “That same concept works for civilians. There are people that are overcoming things. You form a bond.”
“A hardship is a hardship,” said Bell. “And seeing someone else triumph helps me a lot.”
“It feels good because you’ve maybe inspired someone else not to give up. Just maybe find new meaning in life. Because it’s a totally new world after, uh, shit go down.”
Since the stroke, Michael is adapting and overcoming his totally new world.
“There’s so much stuff you really can’t do with one hand, that you wouldn’t know until you went to try and do it,” he said. He mentioned that his sister recently helped him to tie his shoes. And that his mother bought him a can opener than he can use with one hand.
“My whole family has been so supportive every since my stroke,” he said. “I said ‘adapt and overcome’ earlier, but I wouldn’t have been able to had not my family been forcing me to do that…I wouldn’t have progressed to where I did and where I have.”
Yet paralysis is not the largest challenge Bell faces.
“I’m very socially awkward now,” he said. “I was shy before. But I’m overly judgmental about my own stuff.”
“The biggest issues to overcome is the social aspect of things,” he said. “The anxiety. It really hinders a lot. Some days it’s worse than others. It’s something that, I don’t know, it’s out there a lot.”
“I haven’t necessarily lost a lot of friends, but I don’t go out and do a lot of things that I used to. Just because I don’t want to inconvenience people. But I also don’t want to go somewhere and not be prepared for whatever is going to happen.”
For example, Bell explained that he doesn’t want to find himself in some random place in a city, alone, where he might fall or get stranded. Even with family nearby, a recent fall left him with a scrape on his hand. Bell prefers not to be alone — but to travel with family and people he trusts.
“There are certain people that I’ve come across in my short time in the military, I would consider them family,” he said.
Bell said he recently travelled to speak at a family symposium in Washington DC.
“I was in Washington DC. I don’t know. Not quite a year ago, small room. Some people and press. Maybe five veterans up front, talking,” Bell said. “I had my mom come with me. I prefer to have someone with me. It is difficult, travelling alone.”
“When it came time for me to talk, I just couldn’t. I just froze. At the symposium, I froze and just started crying.”
“The topics. They really hit home sometimes. You put yourself in situations that others might be going through. You feel it.”
Aside from the benefit of helping other wounded warriors, The Fashion Has Heart project offers Bell a unique opportunity to adapt and overcome social anxiety.
“No matter how it turns out, I will have come out and done this,” he said. “Even if it doesn’t come out very good, I did it. I came out and I did it.”
“And for me, doing this kind of stuff in conquering a lot of fear and angst. It’s accomplishments for myself. Most others probably don’t notice that so much, but these sorts of things are big things for me. And they hopefully will help my social awkwardness.”
Adapt and overcome. It’s the Michael Bell motto.
The Corporal Hoffman Series is a project series created by [Fashion Has Heart] in conjunction with hero, U.S. Marine, Corporal Josh Hoffman.
[Fashion Has Heart] is a non-partisan, non-profit organization established to utilize the powerful mediums of art, design, and fashion to support and benefit the wounded heroes who have sacrificed for the American freedoms to express oneself and create.
To contact [FHH] Founder, Michael Hyacinthe for additional information about this Corporal Hoffman Series Design Project, email: firstname.lastname@example.org