All Michele wanted to do after graduating law school was to get out of Pennsylvania.
Serving in the military wasn't on the top of her mind after passing the Bar Exam and graduating law school in a small Pennsylvania town. First she thought about becoming a prosecutor, then she considered applying to the FBI. But the idea of military service germinated in her mind, and she eyed the Judge Advocate General's Corps with interest, growing increasingly attracted to recruiting buzzwords that suggested the opportunity to see the world.
"I never traveled much. I've got a blue collar background, and my dad's a steel worker. We never traveled much as a family, and I didn't do the euro trip that so many college kids do these days. When I looked at the Air Force I thought, 'I could actually leave Pennsylvania? No way!' It sounded a lot better than the career paths of most of my classmates."
She took to her military career immediately, and went on to serve 13 years as a JAG officer with the Air Force. Michele base hopped all around the country, picking up new outdoor hobbies at each duty station. At Eglin AFB in Florida, she kayaked the waters of Choctawhatchee Bay and its tributaries. Stationed at Travis in California gave her the chance to pick up mountain biking.
But it was at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, near the Chugach Mountains, where she picked up her passion for mountaineering.
"In Alaska, any time I was stressed, I would get out," she said. "The peace you can found out there is amazing. The noise is quiet, but the noise in your brain is quiet too. Especially at higher altitudes, when all you’re thinking about is controlling your breathing."
But a USAF officer can't spend all her time on mountain trails. It was 2007, and the War on Terror was rumbling along, and Iraq was inflamed with full-on sectarian violence. She deployed to Baghdad where she provided legal support to the Joint Area Support Group out of the Green Zone.
The mission in Iraq was an especially complicated one in 07, and Michele was never without a task to keep her busy. She provided day-to-day advising on legal contracts dealing with the myriad of personnel making up the many arms of the American and Coalition machine. Security contracting, civil engineering, financial elements, mission details … as the go-to expert, Michele tackled every legal nuance under the Iraqi sun.
Others relied on her for more personal matters. "Soldiers would come back in from one of the outposts after weeks or months, and they'd return to things like divorce papers or emails from spouses telling them they'd taken the kids and moved out of state. But no sooner had they read them were they back over the wire to fight." She'd call stateside on the soldiers' behalves, putting her legal prowess to work, sorting out emotionally difficult odds and ends.
"There was this one kid who was a classic car buff. He'd bought about 850 bucks of parts from some guy who ended up stiffing him when the order went bad. He's 20 years old, and he had to go on patrol every day, and he didn't have the time or the energy to deal with this. And $850 is a lot of money to a soldier of his paygrade. So I sent a couple letters and managed to get him a refund."
Though she was in the International Zone, often working out of an air-conditioned office, Michele wasn't exactly out of harm's way. 2007 was as volatile a year in the country as many that preceded it. Insurgent mortar and rocket attacks occasionally claimed a life or caused injuries to both civilians and military personnel. Sirens would blare at random hours, signaling incoming fire. Once, while touring the IZ with an advance team, her group was targeted by mortar fire, and intel later suggested someone nearby was reporting their positions. The constant need for "head-on-a-swivel" situational awareness was enough to put anyone on edge.
When Michele's deployment was up, the edginess followed her back home.
Certain smartphone ringtones reminded her of the rocket sirens. Being out in public made her nervous. A crowded hockey game she attended made her squirm in her seat.
Her first instinct to her condition was doubt. She questioned the severity of her trauma. "You say to yourself, 'well my Humvee didn't get hit by an IED, and my trailer didn’t get shredded by shrapnel, and I didn't ever fire my weapon … so why am I as angry and scared as the guy who did have those things happen?' But I learned that the comparison—'other people have it worse than me, I can figure this out on my own'—becomes an obstacle to seeking help."
After some counseling—and an official PTSD diagnosis—she learned to avoid the comparison. "I had a JAG friend who rode in convoys or by helicopter to different neighborhoods to talk to people, gather intel, win hearts and minds, all that kind of stuff. She had a lot of close calls. We would have lunch during down time when she was back in the Green Zone, and we agreed it all sucked. We never compared who's experienced sucked more. It just all sucked."
Michele tackled the challenges of returning home from deployment in the way she knew best. She packed up a pair of ice axes, boot crampons, and her trusty jacket—a ten-year-old North Face, with as much character as it had stories to tell—and started scratching mountaintops off her bucket list. In 2008, she joined a group of climbers at Paradise Trailhead at the base of Mount Rainier in Washington state. Starting at 5,400 feet above sea level, she trekked up 5,000 more to Camp Muir.
It was mid-June, but Rainier's weather isn't as easily predictable as a typical summer day. The altitude is susceptible to sudden storms that defy forecasts. Michele and her group prepared for the worst. On summit day, the weather grew foul, fierce winds buffeting the climbers with every step. Whiteout conditions brought visibility down as they climbed, roped together as a team, amid crevasses and hazards.
Over the years, the National Park Service laid out a fixed route to the crater ridge to guide climbers away from crevasses and seracs—dangerous, unstable ridges of ice prone to toppling. After the rim, climbers unrope and hike to the Columbia Crest, Rainier's highest point.
She was paired with a woman who was training to be a guide for the very outfit they were climbing with. But by the time they'd reached the false summit—a flat and relatively safe zone that serves as a staging ground before Columbia Crest—the woman was tapped out.
But Michelle would not be defeated. The crest in the distance promised victory. "The wind was so strong. I was so tired," she said.
"I literally army crawled the final paces to the summit marker."
She made it. At 14,409 feet, encrusted in ice and oxygen deprived, Michele stood on the crater's edge, the summit of Mount Rainier.
"I felt like it was the first true achievement I accomplished since returning home. I overcame what mother nature threw at me, and my negative thoughts, my doubts, and I basically did it all on my own. And though I stood there with other climbers, I felt a solitary victory. I shared these feelings with no one. For that moment, it was just me, the lawyer from Alexandria, on top of that mountain."
Since her Rainier summit, Michele hasn't slowed down at all. In 2011, she joined a Seattle-based outfitter to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. She's run half marathons, full marathons, including the Marine Corps Marathon in 2012. She continues to play in a local women's hockey league.
And at the time of this article's publication, Michele Forte is likely zipping up her favorite jacket, cinching her backpack straps tight, and breathing the crisp Himalayan air from Kathmandu, Nepal. She's just embarked on a 17-day journey in the Himalayas. There, she'll reach Everest base camp, and trek all around the Khumbu Valley. When asked, as she often is, if she plans to tackle Mount Everest at some point, she shrugs it off as a dangerous impracticality. She's already proven to herself what she's capable of, even while her bucket list remains incomplete.
Next up, she's got her sights set on Machu Picchu. "Maybe I'll do that in 2018. Then afterward I can stick to bicycle wine tasting tours in Tuscany. Or pub crawls in Ireland," she says.
"Places with hotels instead of tents."