Former law enforcement officer looks back on journey of going back to school
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — When Mitch Wheeler left his hometown of Bridgewater for a career in the U.S. Air Force, he couldn’t wait to leave the small Aroostook County town where he had thus far spent his entire life.
Fresh out of high school in the early 1990s, Wheeler never could have guessed that more than 25 years later and after nearly two decades in law enforcement he would receive a college degree from the University of Maine at Presque Isle and become a physical therapist assistant.
“I didn’t really pay attention in high school and remember that I partied a lot,” Wheeler said during a special alumni distinguished lecturer presentation at UMPI this past Tuesday. “I never thought that I would need to use subjects like English or math. I knew I wanted a career in the military.”
But when Wheeler stepped off the airplane in San Antonio, Texas, the reality of his new life hit him just as hard as the 90-degree heat. He was far from home for the first time, interacting with people he did not know and was not used to the harsh instructions and commands from his staff sergeants.
“I realized that I was just a little fish in a big sea,” Wheeler said. “I remember wanting to get back on the plane and come home.”
Thanks to support from his parents and friends back home, Wheeler graduated from Air Force training and went on to serve at now defunct Griffiss Air Force Base in New York. He pursued his interest in law enforcement by working for the Security Forces branch of the Air Force.
Wheeler later took an Air Force position in New Mexico, for which he still cannot disclose the job duties because they involved high-stakes government operations. It was after he was called upon to save a civilian’s life while off duty one day that he felt compelled to pursue a new career as a police officer in Maine.
“It’s easy to say, ‘I would put my life on the line to save someone else,’ but you don’t really know if you have that type of courage until the moment comes,” Wheeler said. “After that incident happened I knew for sure that I wanted to be a cop. I wanted to help people and make a difference.”
Although he initially wanted to return to Aroostook County after leaving the Air Force, Wheeler accepted a position as a police officer in the town of Cumberland. Throughout his 17 years in law enforcement he also worked for the Yarmouth Police Department, the Presque Isle Police Department and the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Office.
During his time as a deputy and K-9 handler for the Sheriff’s Office, Wheeler formed a deep bond with his canine partner Max and colleagues and knew he was making the difference he wanted to make for his community. But as the years continued, changes in administration resulted in many budget changes, including the elimination of the K-9 program.
As Wheeler spoke to a crowd of around 20 individuals at UMPI — including family members, friends and fellow students and alums — he recalled how over time he began to enjoy his position in law enforcement less and less. While searching new career options, he recalled something that his father — former Aroostook County Sheriff Edgar Wheeler — had once told him.
“My father passed away in 2007. He said that one of his biggest regrets was not spending as much time with his family as he would’ve liked,” said Wheeler, who now lives in Bridgewater with his wife, Alison, and children Chloe and Jack. “I found myself going down that same road. I was stressed and I was taking it out on my family.”
In 2015 Wheeler discovered that UMPI had an associate of science in physical therapist assistant program, which helped renew an earlier interest he had in pursuing the career field. Nine years before, Wheeler had injured his back and went through physical therapy at Northern Light A.R. Gould Hospital, known then as The Aroostook Medical Center. His therapist, Michelle Slike, had mentioned that he might do well as a PTA.
At the time, UMPI had not yet established its two-year PTA program and Wheeler did not want to uproot his family with a move to Bangor, where the nearest program was located. But years later Wheeler was more than ready to pursue a more rewarding career path despite the challenges of having been out of high school for two decades.
“Students aren’t formally accepted into the PTA program until the second year, so during my first year I had to take English and math,” Wheeler said. “Those same classes I never thought I’d need again after high school.”
For Wheeler the biggest challenges of returning to school were learning how to form regular study habits and persevere through the complex PTA curriculum, which included courses in therapeutic exercise, neurological interventions and data collection. He gives much credit to all his professors, including PTA faculty members Vanessa Patenaude and Chris Rolon, and his fellow students for their guidances and support.
“I’ve gone through basic training in the Air Force, police academy and earned three black belts in martial arts, but that PTA program was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Wheeler said. “But it’s been so rewarding and I know I never could have accomplished everything alone.”
Wheeler graduated from UMPI in 2017 and now works as a PTA at Cary Medical Center in Caribou, where he also completed his clinical training during his final semester. The fact that he has succeeded in his new career is no surprise to his longtime friend Scott Rusby, of Bridgewater.
“Mitch has always been a go-getter. When he wants something badly enough he puts both feet forward,” Rusby said. “He’s proven that anyone who has a goal can go out and do it.”