Mike Fanning is a doctor of chiropractic out of Southern California with a specialty in sports medicine. He is an Air Force veteran, a marathon runner, a cyclist and has a ton of amazing life experiences that have put him on the path he’s on today. Please welcome a good friend of mine, Dr. Mike Fanning.
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Soldier On with Dr. Michael Fanning
Michael, how are we doing?
I’m doing all right, Kevin. How are you doing?
I’m very good. Excited for today’s episode.
Thanks for having me on. I appreciate you asking me.
Mike, where are you from?
Originally, I am from the great state of Rhode Island, just a suburb of Providence called Smithfield.
You grew up in Rhode Island and you went to high school out there?
Yes, sir. I just went to a public school, Smithfield High School. I graduated in 2005.
You played any sports in high school?
I played a lot of sports growing up. However, my behavior problems kept me off of a lot of school sports.
Were you a rowdy kid in class or what?
I just couldn’t sit still.
What did you do after high school?
Immediately after high school, I got shipped out from Boston to San Antonio Lackland Air Force Base and I joined the Air Force, then they shipped me out in August. I had eight weeks. I made clam cakes all summer and then put on a plane.
What made you want to join the Air Force?
Soldier On: I had been doing a lot of substance abuse. I decided I needed to get my act together.
Basically growing up, my father would always tell me that I needed some more discipline and I needed to join the Marines. There was one point I remember particularly, not very proud of it, I had just turned eighteen, I woke up hugging a toilet. At the age of eighteen, drunk. I had been doing a lot of substance abuse. I decided I needed to get my act together. The next morning, I went with this girl who I was friendly with. She was joining the Air Force and she said, “Just come talk to our recruiter.” She had been telling me that for a couple of weeks. I just told her I’m going to go with her that morning. I went to the recruiter that morning, he told me to get my act together and come back a week later because I was hungover.
Did you sign up that day?
I couldn’t just because I was underage and I was drinking. The recruiter was pretty pissed off at me. I went back a week later. I failed the drug test so they didn’t want to ship me out. I waited a month and then I signed up. It was a little bit of a longer process.
Then they shipped you off to San Antonio. What was that like?
Air Force basic training is easy, honestly, compared to my secondary training that I went through. The only thing hard about it for me was folding clothes. I found out a couple of good things. I was put in a leadership position that I got out of comfort zone. I found out I was a really good runner. That was the beginning of my running.
How did you find that out?
One day, we had to do a PT test and I finished the fastest out of my platoon, which was about 90 people. They asked me to represent the squadron in the Lackland Air Force Base games. The week before you graduate, all of the squadrons, there are probably 6000 people who are there, they throw different events, like a pushup competition. I got put into the 5K and I actually finished in 5th overall. I had never ran a 5K in my life.
Did you even run for fun ever?
No. I played soccer, played football, hockey, not as much as you. I played tons of sports growing up, but I never ran over a mile and a half. I have it in my genes, both my parents were runners in college.
You did the basic training and everything, what was next for you?
Soldier On: I don’t want to get in trouble. I feel like if I stick around in my town, I’d probably get into trouble.
I went into the Air Force with no job at all. It was either that or they were going to make me weather man. I was going to have to wait until basically eight months after I graduated. I was like, “I don’t want to get in trouble. I feel like if I stick around in my town, I’d probably get into a little bit of trouble.” This group of guys came to me. They were pretty badass. They were from the TACP, which stands for Tactical Air Control Party. They told me a little about the job and it sounded good. It wasn’t your typical Air Force job. I’d be with the Army, I’d be dealing with close air support, which is calling in artillery fire, airstrikes from fixed-wing aircraft or from helicopters or actually drones nowadays. I was like, “That’s pretty cool.” They ran me through a battery of tests. This will become important later, I didn’t do very well on the sit-ups. I just barely pass for them. They’re like, “You’ll be fine. We’ll ship you off. We’re going to send you to Florida when you graduate and you’re going to go through your six months or seven months of training down there. It’s going to be a little different than what you’re used to here in Lackland.”
When you said you didn’t do well in the sit-ups, were they just like, “Do as many sit ups as you can”?
Typically, for an Army, Air Force, Marine test, you have to do as many pushups as you can in X amount of minutes. They had to do an Army test. It was really wasn’t that difficult, but I was a lazy pothead before I joined. It was 50 sit-ups in two minutes, which really isn’t that hard, but I’ve got to 50. When I got shipped to Florida, on the first day, you have to take this test and you have to do two minutes of pushups, two minutes of sit-ups, two minutes of pull-ups, a two-mile run and then you do a rock march with a weight on your back. I passed everything except the sit-up test. I failed by just a couple. I failed so I couldn’t go on with training and I hadn’t even started yet so that was pretty embarrassing. It was tough because I’m an eighteen-year-old kid and I’m away from home and I failed. They gave me a choice, Sergeant Ramos, he was like, “You can leave, go somewhere else and get a regular Air Force job or we will put you in remedial training with Sergeant Lombardo. He will train you for the next two months. You have to wake up at 4 AM to 8 AM and you’re basically his bitch for four hours.”
Did you go with that option?
I did. That dude was the scariest dude I have ever met in my life. He taught me a lot of really good life lessons; smoked the shit out of me for four hours a day.
For two months, you woke up at 4 AM and you just busted your ass until 8 AM?
Yes, then I had to go and do detail after that all day. He taught me a lot of really good life lessons. He pulled the best out of me. I realized how strong you can be if you put your mind to something.
You finished the two-month training and then what happened after that?
Soldier On: We learned how to do airspace deconfliction, you just learn about different weapon systems.
Then I went back into the regular training to become a TACP. We call ourselves ROMADs. I went through that training. That was, like I said, seven or eight months of just doing field training, weapons training, we learned how to do airspace deconfliction, you just learn about different weapon systems. Passed that, then I went to Western Washington after that.
They’re flying you all around the country and you’re busting your ass doing this, but you probably got to see some cool stuff while you’re doing all that.
I saw some pretty interesting things in Florida. It was in Destin area at Hurlburt Field, they call it lower Alabama. There’s a lot of rednecks and meth and all that crazy stuff down there. Then I got shipped out to Western Washington, the Fairchild Air Force Base maybe. I did survival school. That was only a month long, but that was pretty fun. Then I got shipped to Fort Benning; that was my duty station, that’s where my unit was. Then I went to Airborne School there. I got there in July and then I got trained up there, how everything works there, got trained up on the weapons, our radio systems, dealt with the Army. I’m like a small Air Force unit, probably about 20 guys supporting a brigade of Army; a brigade is about 5,000 people. You get broken down into different battalions and then you go support different battalions. There are four or five battalions in a brigade.
Did you have any intention of flying at all, joining the Air Force?
No. There are a couple of routes. You have to go to the academy, which I had never would have gotten into. My grades weren’t good enough in high school. Or you can go to college. I didn’t have the grades to go to college. I didn’t even apply to college honestly when I graduated.
What’s interesting about that is you had really good grades in chiropractic school.
School just bored me.
You did awesome. I think you just set your mind to that and you did really well. That just goes to show, you can learn anything if your head is in the right spot. You’re up in Western Washington and you’re part of this Air Force, what was it called again?
I was at the survival school in Washington. I got flown to Fort Benning in Georgia and then I got to my unit there. I went to Airborne School. I was with the 15th ASOS Detachment One. ASOS is Air Support Operation Squadron Detachment One. I was with the Tactical Air Control Party, which everyone calls the TACP. I was there for a few months. I got hazed and all that good stuff, got put back into reality with that, “You’re a piece of shit.”
At any point, were you like, “I need to get the fuck out of here,” or were you loving it?
Soldier On: I loved it. I had never really been challenged mentally and physically to that point.
I loved it. I had never really been challenged mentally and physically to that point because I went to work every day and I had to be on my A-game. They’re going to be quizzing me. If I don’t get quizzed, they’re just going to bring me out back and just smoke the shit out of me for an hour. You’re either going to be a dirt bag and not really do much and just curve by, or you’re going to go and elevate your game a little bit, make sure that you know your shit and that you’re physically fit too.
What’s next there, Mike?
I gotten trained up, got the call in 2007 when my favorite president, George Bush, called in the surge. That was in January. They called the surge over the next six months or a year. They’re going to increase the troop levels in Iraq. Immediately, my unit got shipped to the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, which is in California, actually my first trip to California, and did some pre-deployment training that’s six weeks long in the desert out near Barstow. That was my first experience with Los Angeles, actually. We were done with training. We were like, “Let’s go down to Los Angeles and spend a couple days there.” I was like, “I hate this place. I’m never moving here.”
I got done with that. I went back to Georgia and I’ve got two weeks off before I was headed to Iraq. When I got all ready, got ready to go, did all of my training that I needed to do, saw my family one last time and then got on a plane and flew directly to Qatar, Al Udeid Air Force Base.
How long is that flight from Georgia?
Actually, we flew from Atlanta to Baltimore and then Baltimore; we hopped, we went to Germany, Italy and then Qatar. It had been probably fifteen hours without the stops.
How were you feeling? While you’re heading over to Iraq, what’s going through your mind there?
Soldier On: I was going with some really experienced guys. They put my mind at ease.
Honestly, I’m nineteen at the time. I didn’t really know what to expect. Luckily, I was going with some really experienced guys, some guys that had been supporting some ranger units, some Special Forces units. They put my mind at ease. There are two of us that were brand new on our first deployments, but everyone else was really supportive. Honestly, I don’t remember thinking about it or being that nervous going over.
You touched down in Iraq, did they start you up right away?
No. Honestly, it’s one big bureaucratic clusterfuck. I go to Qatar and I inprocess there, let them know that I’m there, get our weapons issued to us, get our orders, what we’re doing next. I spent a week in Qatar. If you want to know what the surface of the sun feels like, go to Qatar. It is white. I didn’t bring sunglasses. We’ve got in there in the morning, went to bed, I woke up and I couldn’t see. It was so fucking bright. It was like looking into one of those fluorescent lights. It was so freaking bright. That place is a joke because it’s an Air Force Base, there are girls in bikinis, there is beer served. It’s ridiculous. It’s like you’re not in harm’s way, you’re in a pretty unusual country. It’s actually a beautiful country, I came to find out later. I went to Doha and it’s absolutely gorgeous.
This is Iraq?
No, this is Qatar. It looks like Michigan, actually. It’s just in the Persian Gulf and it’s right across from Iran, on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Yemen.
Were you looking at maps before you went over there? Or when you got over there, you really started to know the area and where you were?
I had no idea where Qatar is. I had never heard of that. Before I went, I knew I was going there just for a couple of days. I started looking at the map. I love maps now. I’m looking at the map, checking out where I’m going, looking at the city and everything. I couldn’t really explore too much that first time going to Qatar. We flew to Kuwait for a day and then to Iraq. We landed in Baghdad, which is the place where all the big generals are, where all CNN is. It’s massive. It’s where all the generals are, it’s where all the big brass is. Then you do inprocessing there.
It’s actually Saddam’s palace. One last “Fuck you” to Saddam Hussein, we set up our communications in our main base in Saddam’s old palace. My career field, the TACP, they had a house called the TACP house and it was supposedly Saddam’s guest house. Have you ever been to New Port, Rhode Island?
Yes, I have.
It was probably twice the size of one of those beautiful mansions. It was absolutely beautiful. Granted, when US got there, they destroyed everything. Everything was handpicked, all the gold. It wasn’t as nice as it probably was, but it’s still pretty freaking nice. We were there for a few days, made sure we got all our equipment ready, gear checked everything. I was going to be shipped off with a couple of guys down about southeast of Baghdad, about 30 miles outside of a town called Salman Pak, which I didn’t think was significant, but it was actually an old capital of one of the old remnants of the Persian Empire or the Achaemenid Empire a couple thousand years ago. There’s this really cool building. I can’t remember what it’s called. It’s a rinky-dink little town, primarily farming.
The reason why we’re sent there is because there was a main supply route that went all the way from Kuwait, all the way up to Baghdad. We were monitoring. There were a lot of weapons flowing to Baghdad so we’re trying to intercept that. That was just hanging out in that little town, going back and forth between that. We had another unit that was up in a place called FOB Hammer, which I would go to. I would eventually be up there for most of my time later in my deployment. It was just a larger base where we trained the Iraqi National Police and the Army. I didn’t personally do any of the training, but it was like a combined base. It’s a lot larger than the patrol bases that I was in at the beginning of my deployment.
Overall, how was your experience of your whole deployment over there?
It was definitely a very eye-opening experience. The good thing about going to overseas now is you have the public support nowadays. You don’t come back and someone spits in your face like those Vietnam vets, which is good. I had heard about Iraq from my seventh grade teacher. She would go, “Raise your right hand and go, the Tigris. Then raise your left hand and go, the Euphrates.” She goes, “Land between two rivers, the Mesopotamia.” I always thought she was a fucking idiot. I remember that, I’m like, “Holy crap, I’m in Mesopotamia now.” Honestly, if you can get passed where you are and why you’re there, it actually has some beautiful farm land. The local people are nice, they’re dirt poor, they’re picking through garbage. They’ve been at war essentially or sustaining American bombardments since the early ‘90s and now, we’re in their land again.
I had a little bit empathy going through. An eye-opening experience basically from the perspective of, I’m coming from a blue-collar, middle class family in New England, now I’m in a Third World country where people don’t even have television. They’re living in mud huts, not everyone has cars, they’re walking; women are walking around in burkas. They can’t show their face. Honestly, I couldn’t speak any Arabic, but you definitely get some different perspective. For instance, in the Army, you have a rank structure. It doesn’t matter how old I am. If I’m older, say I’m 45 years old and there’s a lieutenant but I’m a sergeant, that lieutenant supersedes me. I have to listen to everything he says. Iraqis don’t give a shit, and I know it’s the same thing in Afghanistan as well, though I didn’t go there. If they’re going to communicate, they want to communicate with the leader. They don’t look at rank, they look at who’s the oldest because they look at that as a sign of they’re the eldest, they’re probably the wisest. You have these second lieutenants or butter bars and they’re in charge, but the Iraqi elders or the tribal leaders, they want to communicate with the oldest gentleman there. That’s always going to be the crusty old platoon leader or the platoon sergeant. That was cool.
Do you guys let that happen?
You have to. Really when it comes down to it, the say is on the ground commander. At the platoon level, that’s usually like a second lieutenant, which is a really young guy. But if you’re out there on a battalion mission and the ground commander is there, he’s typically the older guy. He’s a lieutenant colonel. He’s a little bit older. He’s typically going to be one of the older guys, so they will listen to him, granted we’re doing this all via translator. Even with a translator, you’re directing your communications at whoever you’re talking to even though there’s a person standing there. When we first went in there to Iraq, it was really aggressive. We need to knock off these insurgencies. There’s a lot of bombing campaigns and really a lot of rounding people up and putting them into detention centers.
Soldier On: We need to build these people’s infrastructure. We need to build their roads, help rebuild their bridges.
As the deployment went on, it was more of, “We need to build these people’s infrastructure. We need to build their roads, help rebuild their bridges.” At that point, it was a little bit safer. The actual battalion commander would go out on those missions. Honestly, it was more like propaganda. You would have a huge security detail out there so it’s really safe. The ground commander would walk out there with no body armor. He would have CNN or one of the TV networks out there saying how safe it was, but no one realized that we had drones overhead, we had an F-16 overhead. Everything was being monitored. Towards the end of the deployment, it was direct communication with the older tribal leaders and the older battalion brigade commanders.
Did you have any really scary moments over there?
There were a couple. This wasn’t the Battle of Felucia for me. I didn’t get into really heavy fire. There were a couple of times. I was in a position where my direct job wasn’t to go in and go into a stack and go into a house, but we had to stay back with the ground commander, which could be a set of first lieutenant or a battalion commander. We were providing the air support. We did go block off a compound and go in. We were standing back with the aircraft overhead. If anything did happen, we’d pull the guys out and then we’d go in and drop a bomb or just at least to show a force.
There were a couple of times when it got a little scary just when there was a little bit of a gun fight. I didn’t have to fire my weapon, which was nice. When you start hearing gun fire, it gets a little scary. I was on top of a building my first time and there was an RPG that did hit the building, that was pretty scary. It was an old Iraqi Republican guard building. It was a pretty sturdy building, but that was pretty scary. Actually, before I even gotten to that, we go out on these convoys and just ground clearance or going out as a detail to bring supplies to different patrol bases or combat outpost or forward observation bases. Sophistication of the IEDs, we were coming back and we were figuring out how to detect them ahead of time. There were a couple of times where last second, we did get there. We had to detonate them. That was an eye-opening experience, “Shit, I’m here less than 30 days and then we go ten feet off the base and then all of a sudden we’re stopped. What the fuck is going on?” Everyone is getting impatient and then we detonate an IED. That kept me in check. I wasn’t in anything super serious. I was fortunate enough for that.
Even probably just driving through the streets, seeing the people, seeing the way they live, seeing all the shit going on. That’s enough alone right there to just take a couple steps back and be like, “This is completely different than what I’ve been experiencing.”
When you come back and you start driving, you end up going to the same thing. You’re scanning the road for IEDs and trash.
Talk about that. When you got back, how was the transition back from being in Iraq to being back in the United States?
Soldier On: Honestly, I didn’t think it would be tough, but it really is a tough transition.
Honestly, I didn’t think it would be tough, but it really is a tough transition. I’m not going to compare myself to the Vietnam vets because I didn’t live in the mud. I’ll preface that by saying when we did go overseas, we didn’t have showers or hot water or anything. We were eating those MREs for the first couple months and not really taking any showers. As the deployment went on and I moved to a bit larger base later on my deployment, it actually got really nice. I got a hot shower and I got three hot meals a day. That was nice. It was a little bit of a slow transition.
That’s something people don’t even think about though. Most people in the US, they’re taking hot showers every day, they’re eating five or six hot meals a day, let alone three. You take it for granted.
It’s ridiculous in Iraq, or it was. Obviously, it’s not the same now. As I was leaving, they were putting coffee shops and they even had Burger Kings on some bases over there. It was fucking insane. Some people who were at larger bases in Iraq, it wasn’t even like they were over there. They had a humongous gym and they had a Burger King and hot women. I didn’t see a good looking woman at least for the first four or five months in my deployment.
I had a really great support system with the guys I was overseas with. They had done it three or four times. A lot different deployments on what I had been on, they had been with Special Forces Units or Ranger Units or had been in the thick of stuff during the initial invasion. I don’t want to take anything away from them because there were some guys I met that did really great things prior to when I got there. I don’t feel like I did anything that great when I compare myself to them, but I’ve definitely served amongst some really honorable guys, and they’re still doing it. They’re still out there. I have a couple of guys that are with the SF units that are supporting the rangers. They’re gone over every four months and they’re training their asses off. They give up a lot for this country. Whether or not you believe what we’re doing is right, they’re still fighting for, I’m not going to say for our freedom, but they’re fighting for America and they’re fighting for this country. I have nothing but love for them.
Getting back to the question, it was really tough honestly because you go back and everyone pats you on the back, your family and they’re happy to see you. You’re in a bubble when you’re in the military because everyone’s been there and everyone’s done that so no one says anything about it. You end up seeing a lot of alcoholism and drug abuse. Unfortunately, I had been through that. Honestly, early in my life, under age, I smoked a lot of weed, did a lot of hallucinogenic and I drank a lot. I was like, “I don’t want to get back into that.” This is when I had actually got into a really good shape in Iraq. I started doing CrossFit back when it was starting to get big in the military. I used that frustration and anger that you get when you’re overseas and you have this eye-opening experience of corruption in the bureaucratic side of American foreign policy. I personally was really angry. I’m still angry when it comes down to it. I’ve learned to channel that. I started getting really big into CrossFit. This is when I started to pick up and run a lot. At this time actually, contrary to popular belief of what people tend to think about the past, gas at this point was $4 under George Bush. I drove a Jeep that was lifted so I got about twelve miles of the gallon if I was lucky. I was like, “I can’t afford this. I drive 30 miles to work and I drive 30 miles home. I am going to buy a bicycle.”
# When I met you at chiropractic school, you didn’t have a car or anything. You’re always riding your bike.
I ended up getting rid of my car when I got out. That’s when I started riding, nothing big, just riding my bike to and from work.
Yeah, 30 miles there and then 30 miles home.
You were riding your bicycle?
Yes. I got into fantastic shape. I had a buddy who sent me this some years ago, “Bicycles, run on fat and save you money. Cars, run on money and make you fat.”
Where are you at this point?
Soldier On: You don’t necessarily fail out completely, but you fail one section and then you have to start again.
I’m still at Fort Benning. I did thirteen months in Iraq. Going back, I did my mid-tour leave in my tenth month. It was actually during the 2007 Patriot’s undefeated season. I actually bought tickets to the AFC Championship game that year in Foxborough. I hadn’t spent any money in ten months so I had a lot of money. It was $1,500 a pop for the tickets. I brought my dad there. That was pretty cool. I’m three years in, I still have a lot to learn. I actually come to find that there was another glitch in my path. At this point, I was getting into shape, I was in phenomenal shape, I was doing really well. I was getting set up to be the golden boy of my unit. I had an opportunity to go to Ranger School at this point. The Ranger School is a leadership school in the Army so it’s primarily Army. Actually, more recently, two females made it through. That’s a huge deal because females have never been allowed to go and never made it through.
Typically, it’s 90% fail rate. What I mean by that is you don’t necessarily fail out completely, but you fail one section and then you have to wash back and start again. A lot of people end up making it through, it’s just they stress you, you don’t eat a lot, you don’t sleep a lot. I got the opportunity to go to the Ranger School. However, I failed my land navigation. I failed out, I would’ve washed back. However, I was pulled by my unit. Somehow, somewhere, someone said I quit and I failed on purpose so I got blacklisted for a little while.
Why did you fail on purpose, because you didn’t want to do it?
No, I didn’t fail. I just failed my land nav. Someone out there, I don’t know who got this idea in their head, but the idea was that I failed on purpose, which I did not. I don’t quit. I’m not a fucking quitter.
That’s so strange. How could they even say you failed on purpose?
I went with a buddy who did that, who did fail on purpose. He was like, “Fuck this. I don’t want to do this.” It probably looked bad from an outsider’s view. We both went in there together. He failed on purpose. I just failed because I apparently sucked. I thought I was good at land navs, but apparently I’m not good at all. I got blacklisted. I wasn’t allowed to do a lot of things. I was treated like shit not by my close constituents, but from a larger scale. It turned me off to my job, honestly. At this point, I was like, “Fuck this. I’m going to go and I want to be a rescue diver. I’m going to go be a rescue diver. I’m going to try to cross train into this.” This was about six months after the fact. I just got into a rut. I don’t like to stand still for any single period of time.
Soldier On: Am I going to stay in this job? Am I going to progress? I need to do something.
I had a couple years left in my enlistment. I was at a point where I to make a choice. Am I going to stay in this job? Am I going to progress? I need to do something. I was like “I’m going to go and be a rescue diver.” I dropped a package for that. My commander who was the one who blacklisted me, he did not approve it. I got stuck in my job. I continued to do the job. I continued up with training, I went on different training trips to Las Vegas for three or four months, which was another fun time.
That’s funny you say that too because I remember me and Kevin Fisher were going to Vegas one week in a chiropractic school and you’re like, “I’m never going back to that place.”
Honestly, it’s a great place. I did a lot of triathlon training later on down the line. I did some good exploring when I was there, but my first couple weekends there, you know how it goes when you go to Vegas.
That place is good for one day, maybe two, then it’s just all downhill after that.
I went there, that was fun. I learned a lot there. Actually, right after I got back from Vegas, I went to a unit in Portland. I tried out for them to go to be a rescue diver, which is in the Air Force called Pararescuemen. I went there and that was a swim, a run, pushups, sit-ups and then they drown you basically for a little while because you need to be good at holding your breath for their training.
Is there someone physically pushing you down?
Yes. I did really well with the interview in that process. They were like, “We’d love to have you on. Just need to drop your packet.” I dropped my packet, like I said, it got denied. At this point, it was a transition, commanders changed. I went to that new commander and I was like, “I want to do this. I’ll do what you guys need me to do,” which is they needed me to make a new deployment. When I got back, he was like, “You can go and cross train into this new job.”
I went back to Iraq for a second time.
You did two tours over there?
You came back, they said they’ll let you do the rescue diving?
Yes. It’s what I signed up for. I had to do my duty. My job in the Air Force was only about 40% manned. You have to do a lot of deployments. You have to do a lot of shit that you don’t particularly want to do. It’s funny because it’s called Tactical Air Control Party and those guys can freaking party. I went to a lot of different towns in the south. I went to places like Camden, Alabama, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which is funny because that’s where Paul is from. I guarantee you, we met before we went to chiropractic school. We’d hang-out at the same place called Ropers. We all got hammered when we were there.
Soldier On: If you show empathy and you show them that you’re respectful, they’re going to do the same back.
You see a lot of how backwards even this country is. You go to these small, really segregated towns in the deep south. I went to this place Camden, Alabama, which is on the line of Mississippi and Alabama. I go into this town with a buddy of mine. We’re both Yankees. I’m from Rhode Island, he’s from Massachusetts. We go into this little place where they have fried chicken and that stuff. It’s all blacks. They go in and we sit down. The lady comes up to us, she was like, “What are you guys doing in here?” I’m just like, “I just want to get some food.” She’s like, “Are you sure you want to be here?” I’m like, “Yeah, why wouldn’t I want to be here?” She’s like, “Your folk don’t usually come in here.” I was like, “Shit. This shit’s still going on in this country,” the segregation. Wed talked with them. It was really friendly. Honestly, I’ve learned there’s a lot of hate and anger out there and prejudice, but I found that for the most part, people are pretty good. If you get to know them and you show empathy and you show them that you’re respectful, they’re going to do the same back.
Going back, I went on my second tour in Iraq. In that second tour, I was down and outside of Karbala, which is a holy site for Sunni Muslim, which is the minority in Iraq, predominantly Shiite there. Shiites are majority in Iraq and Iran. Everywhere else, Sunni are the majority. That was a holy city for the Shiites. We were from a distance. This was when Obama was in power now. The focus was stand back and just provide surveillance. I didn’t do anything that second tour significant. I did, however, hurt my hand in a weight lifting accident. This is significant because I hurt my hand. I did think a lot of it because it was fucking killing me. I went the medic there and they said, “You’re fine. Just ice it and wrap it.” This went on for about four months, going to the medic at least once a week saying, “My hand is killing me. Can someone take an X-ray or something?” No one really believed me that anything was going on. I couldn’t do anything. I continued to lift weights, I continued doing my job, which really wasn’t a whole lot at this time.
Soldier On: I had gotten my surgery on my hand. That was another trajectory. I was not going to go be a rescue diver anymore.
After I went to a new forward observing base, FOB Echo, which was up along the Tigris, I come to find out, I finally went in and I actually banged my head and I had to get stitched on the corner of a building. When I went in there, there was a PA there and they had just gotten an X-ray there. I’m like, “My hand is killing me. Can someone please just take a look at this?” They took a look at it. He’s like, “Why don’t we take an X-ray. We just got it in.” He took an X-ray of it. This is five and a half months after I initially hurt my hand. Took the X-ray and I had a vascular necrosis of my scaphoid on my left hand. The PA was like, “You really need to get surgery on this immediately because that bone is dead.” I talked to my supervisor and my commander. Within two weeks, I’ve got shipped back to Georgia where I was set up. Within the month of getting that, this was in August of 2010, by August 21st, I had gotten my surgery on my hand. That was another trajectory. I was not going to go be a rescue diver anymore.
At this point, I started applying to schools. I’ve got accepted to University of Auburn, University of Rhode Island, University of Arizona, University of California, San Diego and University of Utah and Boise State. I loved Salt Lake City from past training trips. I did a lot of training out in the Salt Flats. I decided Salt Lake City was for me, I loved it. Every time I’d gone there, it was such a great place. It was really such a beautiful view, the trails were great. I was like, “I could live here. I’d definitely live here.”
That’s where you met your good friend, Brandon, over there.
I did meet him up there.
What did you want to do in Utah?
I decided I was going to go to PA school. At this point, I had gotten an Associate’s from the Community College of the Air Force. I did online schooling and some classes through the Community College of the Air Force while I was in. I got my Associate’s degree in Information Systems, whatever the fuck that means. Got out of the military May of 2011, but I was going to separate in August. I had two months of saved up leave where I could just go out and do my own thing. At this point, I went home to Rhode Island, spent some time with my family, did some traveling around New England, gone and seen some friends. Then I packed all my stuff up in a U-Haul on August 1st, 2011 and moved out to Salt Lake City. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have point of contacts. I didn’t really have a plan other than I was starting at the University of Utah on August 20th. I got out there, found a house relatively quick, but I stopped along the way. I did a little bit of detour through the Midwest, checked out some places. I was at the middle of America, how I do not like Nebraska, but I got there, started up.
I was trying to get in touch with someone from the University of Utah Triathlon Team because over the previous summer, I had done half IRONMAN for the first time. I wanted to get more to triathlons as an outlet for my anger and my frustrations with the military and, honestly, my depression. I thought triathlon would be a good transition because I couldn’t go back to weightlifting because of my hand, the screws that were still in my hand from that scaphoid surgery.
Do you still have the screws in?
Yeah, on my left hand. You can see the mobility from my right hand to my left. That’s the most extension I can get. I had been emailing someone from about February from the University of Utah Triathlon Team, which come to find out was Brandon. I was emailing him once a month trying to find someone, “Do I need to get a physical to join the team?” I didn’t know how organized it was. I started school. It was really tough to make friends at University of Utah.
Why is that?
Utah, as you know, is primarily LDS or everyone knows them as the Mormons. They’re pretty conservative, tattoos aren’t really allowed. I went there and I wore my short shorts, I’m wearing my running gear around, I’ve got tattoos and I swear a lot. I can be loud if I want to. I’m 24, 25. I’ll be honest, I’m a little rough around the edges if you don’t know me.
You’re a very real person and that’s what I love about you. It’s, “Take it or leave it. This is who I am.” That’s what really drew me to you. I remember the first conversation I ever had with you. You were walking around school with the shorts and the tank top. You didn’t show up to class with shoes. I remember my first conversation with you, I was like, “What’s up, Mike? How come you’re not wearing shoes?” You go and you just looked at me, “They’re prisons for my feet.” I was like, “I fucking love this guy.”
I did say that, “Prisons for my feet.” I was frustrated with the military. I was tired of being told what to do and wearing boots around. I was like, “Fuck this. I’m just going to go. I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do anymore.” Luckily, I met a couple cool people. Initially, I met an Army veteran who had done some tours in Iraq. Him and I were good friends from the get-go. We’re older than the general college population, which is 20 years old. I’m 25, which isn’t old, but I got a little bit more life experience. I swear a lot, I guess I can be intimidating with my tattoos. I don’t particularly find myself intimidating. Most people I would come to be friendly with were older, more seasoned people.
Soldier On: I still was having tough transitioning to the civilian life.
I still was having tough transitioning to the civilian life. You go from the work ethic of rank structure and everyone does what they’re told to do. Everyone’s pretty motivated that I was associated with in the military and you go to just incompetent assholes, people who have to be hand-held, people who are just entitled on the outside world. I’m still frustrated with it, honestly. People just think they know it all. Most of the time, I keep my mouth shut. There are some people who need to be put in check. You do not know everything. You’re in a Southern California bubble, you’ve had a lot of money, you don’t have a lot of life experience. Even if we’re the same age, we’re both 30. I’m not saying I’m better than you, but you need to get out more and experience life outside of this Southern California bubble.
Going back to Utah, I got involved with the triathlon community. Finally, Brandon answered my emails six months later. My first experience with him was we meet at a coffee shop with a bunch of people. I had met with the triathlon group. Brandon is just oblivious. He’s got a good handshake. He shakes my hand really well. I’m like, “I like this guy.” Then he’s just on his freaking phone. He will not look up. I was pretty pissed. I’m like, “Would you just look up? I’m Michael, I’ve been trying to get touch with you.” He’s like, “I’ve been trying to get in touch with you.” He’s a little timid. He didn’t really know how to handle me at first. I was an asshole to Brandon at some point definitely. We hit it off really well. Him and I did a lot of triathlon training together. He’s a really good swimmer. I’m the better at running. We’re a little bit short distance. Him and I are pretty even, but since I’m a lot lighter, I’m really good distance. We got trained together. He got me in with his buddy, Wesley.
Wesley was definitely a really good mentor for me on the outside world. I helped work with him a little bit as an assistant coach for his triathlon coaching company. He did a lot for me. He gave me a job. I didn’t have my car in Utah. I sold my Jeep. I just had my bicycle. I took public transportation. It was good to have someone who really believed in me as an athlete. He wanted me to do well in triathlons. He really pushed me. He gave me a job to help coach. He’s a standup guy. Honestly, he gave me the shirt off his back. I feel indebted to him. Hopefully, I can repay him here in the future when I get on my feet again. He’s actually the assistant coach for the Paralympic Triathlon Team. I’m hoping to work with him in that capacity. He was my coach, honestly. Wes was my coach. Wesley was Brandon and I’s coach with triathlon. He helped me train for IRONMANs, my first IRONMAN Triathlon, which I didn’t do very hot in, but it was a tough one. He helped me train to continue on. In that first season in the summer of 2012, I qualified for the half IRONMAN World Championships. I came at Lake Stevens Triathlon IRONMAN, which is a half IRONMAN. I came in 15th overall including professionals.
What consists of a half IRONMAN?
Soldier On: I have managerial experience. I have combat experience. I have communication experience. I just want a job.
Half IRONMAN is a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike and a half marathon, so 13.1 miles. I did that. I had a five-minute penalty, actually, for drafting, which I still say is bullshit. I finished in 4:29. I would have finished 4:24 without the penalty. I did pretty good. My triathlon career was looking pretty positive. I had some goals to go and do. I won the qualifier for Kona, which is the full IRONMAN Championship in Hawaii. I didn’t even race in the half IRONMAN championships. I didn’t have the money. When you get into the outside world as a veteran, and any veteran that’s going to listen to this I’m sure they can attest to this, people love the fact that you’re a veteran but they don’t really give a shit about you. They’re like, “Thank you for your service, but you don’t have any retail experience or you don’t have any food service experience.” I’m like, “I have managerial experience. I have combat experience. I have communication experience. I have a long list and I just want a job.” I could not find a job, so I couldn’t sustain my training that I was doing for the next year to continue on and do a triathlon training that I wanted to. I continued to train with triathlon, but Wesley gave me a job. I had income through the GI bill. They were paying for my school and a stipend, but it wasn’t enough. I was living pretty lean. I had to move in with some friends. We were living in this house with no heat.
In Utah. I lived pretty lean. I was living off of rice and beans, essentially. I was waking up at 4 AM to go coach, then I was going to class. I had these odd jobs, just shoveling snow for people. I still couldn’t get a job. I applied into a running store. You’d think, I’m a pretty decent runner at this point, I’m a veteran, I don’t know. I was friendly with some of the people at this running store, but I still didn’t get the job. That was pretty frustrating. I applied to California Pizza Kitchen. I applied to Whole Foods. I applied to all these different places. No one would hire me. I was just so aggravated. At this point, I finally was like, “I need to do something.” If I want to go PA or Nursing, I need to get a job in healthcare. I went and got a Nursing Assistance Certification, then I took the test. I ended up getting a job a couple months later at the University of Utah. At this time, I’m still training for triathlon, I’m still running a lot, I’m biking everywhere in ten-degree weather. Definitely learned how important to have a beer it is in cold weather. I gave an appreciation for people who take public transportation everywhere or people who don’t have cars. At that point, I got a job with the nursing; wiping asses and changing catheters and cleaning out colostomy bags really wasn’t my idea of a job for the rest of my life.
All through this venture, I had met a guy named Tom Fletcher. He was another good mentor of mine and he was a chiropractor. He was a great laid-back guy, like a California surfer pothead, but he was the furthest thing from pothead or a California surfer. He was a really good athlete. I think he knew that I was having a little bit of a tough time. I had gone through a little bit of a break up with a girl I was dating who I really liked. I was still down. I got diagnosed with PTSD later on, depression; like lost in my life. I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing. I had some good friends but I didn’t have any really close friend that I could come in and vent to. I didn’t want to seek out any help with the VA at this point. Although, I did volunteer at the VA. I did volunteer once a month just at the front desk helping the old Vietnam vets, shooting the shit with them. It wasn’t anything big. I didn’t really have the time commitment to give more than that.
On a side note, when one of my friends, Liz Miller Bennett, she saw I was going through a tough time. She knew I love to do burpees. She was like, “Why don’t we do a burpee mile for the breast cancer awareness month?” This was in October of 2012, about a year before we started chiropractic school. I had no idea I was going to be chiropractor at this time. She was like, “Why don’t we do a burpee mile and we’ll raise money for a local charity?” I thought that was a great idea. Her, my friend, Wes, and I got together and we brainstormed and we’ve got all the logistics together to throw a burpee mile together. We’ve got the Utah Jazz cheerleaders out there. We’ve got all these giveaways. We had about 200 people to show up to do a burpee mile. We raised about $2,500 for a local charity for sexually abused kids. That was fun. I was like, “It felt really good to give back.” Especially, first of all, get people out who aren’t used to going out exercising as a team and then raising money for a good cause and then actually giving money to kids who needed it.
Fast forward, I’m working at a hospital, in a rough spot. Our buddy, Brandon, for those of you who don’t know, is a good buddy of mine through chiropractic school. He applied to chiropractic school because of my buddy, Tom. Tom was like, “Mike, why don’t you come down and see what I do because you want to get into healthcare. You had talked about PA and physical therapy. Just come out and see what I do.” I went down to his office. I worked with him for a couple weeks. Actually, Brandon was on a vacation so I worked the front desk for him. I saw what he did, his interaction with patients. He did a lot of soft tissue, a little bit of rehab, but I saw how he changed to a lot of people’s lives that were injured, people with sports injuries, general aches and pains. He was able to get them back to life, back to sport, back to daily activities, daily living, pretty quick. I was like, “This is pretty powerful stuff, chiropractic.”
Soldier On: This is the change I need. I have to make a good change. We went to chiropractic school.
I was like, “Brandon, fuck it, I’m going to apply with you and see what happens.” I’ve got accepted down here in Southern California University of Health Sciences. They’re going to pay for most of my schooling. I was like, “This is the change I need. I have to make a good change.” In August of 2013, Brandon and I packed up our bags and said goodbye to my good friends in Utah. We moved down, went to chiropractic school.
Nothing much to really talk about there, it was pretty much constant hell for three years. Every semester, they tell you it’s going to be done. Honestly, there are ten semesters. It didn’t really stop until probably ninth term, the constant worry and stress and not getting passed the next term.
It even continues in tenth term because you take boards in tenth term. You don’t even find out if you passed boards until after you graduate. At the first year of chiropractic school, I competed in triathlon and some racing, but it was pretty stressful and I was pretty burned out because I was waking up at 3:30, 4:00, getting in a 50-mile bike ride, being in class all day, going home, swimming. I’ve been a year and a half at this. Going into sixth term, I knew that that was going to be tough and seventh term with clinic, I was like, “I need to really get my act together. I’m going to be burned out.” I just had to hang up my triathlon. I decided to stick with the running. I had to stay active. This is when I really did strictly running only.
You’re in the Sports Medicine program at school. Obviously, you get a lot of athletes and everything. What do a lot of athletes come to you with?
I took advantage of this Sports Medicine residency for a couple reasons. A) My wife’s from Southern California and we would both like to leave but we both need to save some money up. I thought, instead of starting up a practice and getting stuck here, I’ll take advantage of this opportunity. I did that, but then on top the learning aspect, I’m going to get my diploma in Sports Medicine. Then C) I had to deal with law enforcement because we have a new branch of sports medicine here, which is great for me since I’ve got that military background and my father was a police officer, so I understand what police go through. With the tactical athletes, I see a lot of overuse injuries or deconditioned injuries. What I mean by deconditioning injuries, you have a deconditioned athlete, someone who’s not in shape anymore, and they go pursue a suspect on foot and they go after the guy in a non-contact ACL.
I deal a lot with, not just ACL tears, but meniscus injuries, low back disc herniation. I love soft tissue, personally. I know it’s not every chiropractor’s thing, but I love it. I do a lot of soft tissue and rehab with that particular cohort, like I said, mainly low back, a little bit of neck and lower extremity like hip and knee. I do a lot of rehab, pre and post-op with those guys, even just working on loosening up some hip injuries, loosening up a lot of the soft tissue and rehab exercises. Of course, the chiropractic adjustments is definitely going to be big.
I remember once a year in high school, I would pull my groin playing hockey. In my junior year, I finally found a sports medicine chiropractor. I would be out for three or four weeks. The season is not that long so that would be devastating. I remember this guy, he did a lot of soft tissue work around my leg and my groin area. I was back playing hockey in a week. It saved my season. Sports medicine chiropractic works wonders; chiropractic in general is a life saver. What you do with a lot of the soft tissue work, it’s definitely very necessary. It doesn’t have to be hockey, it could be any sport, running, anything. Or even, like you said, it doesn’t even have to be sports. You can come in there with low back pain and a lot of soft tissue work is very valuable.
Soldier On: I deal with concussions and how to deal with concussions, on how to return them to play.
Also, I worked with football, track and field. With the football players, I deal with concussions and how to deal with concussions, on how to return them to play. They have a horrible strength and conditioning coach at the football program over here at one of the high schools. I actually do a lot of rehab with them and working on getting them back to play, post-injury. I actually don’t even do a lot of chiropractic on a lot of the football athletes, but I notice a lot of neck injuries in football players. I’m going to try to do a research over the next two years on the prevalence of disc pathology in football players. There is a lot of discogenic pain and I’m learning that more because I do a lot of McKenzie end range loading stuff. I found a really good way to deal with soft tissue-wise, but mainly that chiropractic is really good for generalized upper back, neck injuries and shoulder injuries.
Honestly, I have seen ACL tear, I’ve seen cervical spine radiculopathy, I’ve seen many concussions, getting good at the rehab aspect for shin splints or plantar fasciosis. In my five months being a sports resident, I’ve seen relocated shoulders. I’ve just seen so many injuries. I’ve missed some things too, but the good thing is they go somewhere else. It’s like, “I’m going to get better at making sure I nail that diagnosis.” That’s my favorite part. My dad’s a detective, so I got that in my blood. I want to find out what’s going on. My favorite thing of being a doctor of chiropractic is not only the treatment, I want to get you a good diagnosis.
Mike, where can people find you, get treatment?
If anyone’s interested emailing me, my email is MichaelFanning@scuhs.edu. I have my Instagram page for Dr. Mike is @Sports_Spine_MF. What I do there is I just talk about some rehab stuff. That’s pretty much it. I don’t have a website up yet. That will be a slow transition when I open my own practice a couple years. If anyone has any sports related injuries or questions, I love doing research and I’d love to point you in the right direction if I can help you out.
Mike, thank you so much for coming on. That was one of my favorite episodes. I really appreciate you putting all the cards on the table, telling us your life experiences. Thank you so much.
I really appreciate you asking me to do this. No one’s ever asked me to tell my life’s story to them. I’d like to leave you with the interesting people ask questions. You’re a very interesting person, you want to know about all the people; people who just talk about themselves. They just do that because they want to be interesting, but they’re probably not as interesting. I know you have a lot of life experience yourself. You’ve been through a lot and I really appreciate you reaching out and giving me the time to share my story with everyone.
Mike, it was a good one. Thank you so much.
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