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Veterans never stop serving their country.
Mike Vail, an Army veteran and co-owner of Endless Ability, doesn't let his war injury hold him back from anything in life. The 31-year-old joined forces with Antonio Quistian Jr. to create a brand of jeans that cater to the needs of those restricted to wheelchairs. Their work goes beyond clever fashion, they offer peer support to veterans and civilians alike.
Inked spoke with Vail, and he quickly charmed us with his optimism, "You can’t help what cards you’re dealt in life," he said. "All you can do is try to play them in your favor." Vail became paralyzed while overseas as an Army Corporal in 2012, nearly seven years after he enlisted. He completed his rehabilitation in Tampa, Florida, and was discharged in September 2014, "They want to make sure you’re on your feet before they let you go," he laughed. "Your feet. I'm also a sit-down comic."
Like many veterans, Vail's injury left him "in a dark place," but a Facebook friend request from Chris Collins, owner of Steadfast Brand, helped to fix that. As did his newfound success with Endless Ability. "If you have a passion you find a way," he said. "That’s what our company is about." His latest tattoo comes from artist Jime Litwalk, "He did a punk rock pin-up chick on my leg." According to Vail, the greatest part about the tattoo community is the fact that no one stands while getting inked. "I'm not going to tell you the other places that people are all sitting down and it's accepted," he joked.
We spoke with the veteran on all the glory that is Endless Ability, the wild presidential election, and how the tattoo community gave him a major confidence boost.
What are all the bells and whistles that come with Endless Ability jeans?
When was the last time you went to your closet and said, what’s the easiest thing I can wear today? That's what I did every day. There was never anything except sweatpants, and how do you feel in sweatpants? Trying to go out and feel good and be productive? You look good, you feel good.
The Ability jeans keep you from getting pressure sores and things like that, because they’re low in the front and high in the back. We have no use for pockets on the back, and they could cause pressure sores that are really detrimental to our health, so we put pockets on the back of the calves. I can reach down and have a zipper on one side and a slip pocket on the other. It’s awesome.
It’s the little things.
Exactly. Besides the jeans, we do a lot of peer support. Me being a veteran, I go to the VA and I speak with the guys, newly injured guys. It’s a hard road. You can let it make you or break you. We try to get people active and keep them out there. Sometimes it’s like teaching people how to live again. You don’t know what you’re capable of anymore and you have to relearn that.
And Endless Ability caters to everyone.
It’s across the board. I handle the veteran side of everything and Antonio takes on the civilian side. We always try to do events and ability expos and stuff like that.
I would like to get enough funding to put the jeans into the VA. That way they could be readily available to veterans. Once they gained momentum there, the adaptive equipment companies could start carrying them and get them to the civilian population too. Maybe even get them authorized as a medical device. The truth is, when you get paralyzed or put in a chair for whatever reason, you can’t go anywhere in America and buy a pair of jeans that are made for you. They don’t exist. The VA would be a spot to do that.
Do you think VAs are as beneficial as they need to be for veterans?
I do. I think that a lot of times people don’t continue to advocate for themselves. Even though you’re hurt you do have to realize people aren’t going to do it for you. You have to stand up for yourself or you have to have someone there that can. It’s a hospital; it’s hard for them to do everything for you.
I’ve pretty much lived on my own since I got hurt. I live 11 hours away from my family because this is where I chose to do my recovery. I learned how to live and how to make things work. I don’t have anybody to come to my house to do much. If I need a light bulb changed I call a neighbor. I do everything myself, it’s part of my independence. One day I might not be able to do everything myself and I may need to call on some help but until then I'm hard headed.
My abilities are endless but sometimes my abilities are only endless because of the people around me. I could climb any mountain, but I'm going to need a push. We live in a world that isn’t exactly designed for us so every once in a while we do appreciate a hand. There have been situations where I think letting someone give you a hand can help him or her more than it can help you.
Everyone needs a little help along the way.
Being in a chair I think I have the ability to help most people reassess their own lives. You know, they see me having a good time and think, what is my problem?That guy’s in a wheelchair!
What were the biggest obstacles you faced after being injured?
A lot of it was just being comfortable in my own skin. You wake up from a catastrophic life-changing event a different person. Getting out there was really the biggest thing I had to overcome in my own mind. People always say, "I don’t even see the chair!" Well, I do. You know? That was a big thing for me to get over.
The tattoo community helped me get away from that. When I came down here to Florida I was on the news for some of the exoskeleton research they were doing at the VA. It’s a machine that I wear and it stands me up and I can walk in it pretty much. I was wearing a “Support Tattooed Military” shirt from Steadfast Brand. I didn’t even know they were in Florida and then I get an add on Facebook from Chris Collins, the owner of Steadfast.
He invited me down to a show and to the shop, and he was one of the first people to reach out to me. He kind of pulled me back out there. I would go to a tattoo convention with thousands of people, but I had an entire booth of people that knew me at Steadfast. I felt comfortable because I had my whole team over there. And hey, who’s standing up getting tattooed anyway?
Did you have tattoos before going into the military?
Yeah. I started getting tattooed when I was 18, I joined when I was 20.
What was your first?
I have to reminisce. It was a koi on my forearm. It’s bad that I have to remember a tattoo that’s that big; it’s my whole forearm.
Do you mind sharing how you got injured?
We were on a routine patrol. I ended up being ejected from a Humvee and that Humvee landed on me, which broke my back. I was awake through the whole thing; it was a long wait. Waiting for that chopper. That’s all that really stands out of my mind about it. It was quick. Being thrown out of a vehicle is an uncontrollable force. It’s not to be reckoned with.
Lets talk politics. As a veteran, what is your opinion of this election cycle?
I'm excited to see what it would be like for a businessman to run what I see as the biggest business of all—a country. People are focused on the wrong things these days. The more rights we give, the more separated we are.
Steps are being made to include females in the draft, should there be one. And all combat roles were just opened to women in December. How do you feel about that?
I've met some pretty badass women in the military. I think people are what they want to be. I'm not going to look at any woman as weak. It takes intelligence, it takes heart, it takes a lot more than how much you can bench press.
Just because you're in the military doesn’t mean you’re carrying around some one-ton package. I don’t know what people imagine? I don’t feel that the military would put a person somewhere that they are ineffective. They’re not going to set you up for failure.
Why did you enlist?
I came to a point in my life where I just felt like I had to do something different. I went to a recruiter and said, I don’t need a pitch—I just want to join. One of my buddies joined with me. And I used the bonus money to buy a motorcycle. So did he!
So you’re a bike enthusiast?
I love bikes. I actually bought a bike while I was still overseas but I got hurt so I never really got to ride it.
There is an Endless Ability bike on your site, how did that come to be?
Antonio loves that bike. He and his dad built it. Everywhere he goes, people’s jaws drop. They don’t believe it. I want to try the Polaris slingshot. I just feel like being able to lean back more would be more suitable for me in my situation. I feel like I would be more comfortable riding if we were to do cross-country rides and benefit rides.
What has been the most rewarding since joining Endless Ability?
I went through a lot. Soon after getting hurt I went through a divorce and then it was just time to grind. I had to pick myself up. It was a dark place. That depression turns into anger, and that anger then turns into the best fuel I've ever had to overcome anything I want. I let those things push me. You’re already hurting; why not get something from it?
You’re helping so many people in and out of your community.
Peer support is great. [Family and doctors] have no idea what you’re going through. All it takes is that one like person who can answer questions that you may be embarrassed to ask other people.
I speak to groups of wounded guys with bum knees, maybe missing a couple fingers or they’ve got scars. When I hang out and talk to them these guys perk up. A bum knee isn’t so bad. Get over it. Live, man.
To purchase a pair of Endless Ability jeans for a veteran, visit www.endlessability.com.