Figuring out the niche you fit in: Joe, Michelle Dailey have adapted to life’s many changes

By Chelsea Retherford | Living 50 Plus

Joe and Michelle Dailey met on a ship porting at Guam, a U.S. Island territory in the western Pacific. At the time, they were each enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

Joe retired from the military after nine years of service in the Navy and 14 in the Air Force. His wife, Michelle, was forced to medically retire after eight years of Navy service.

The couple, both in their 50s, say the key to staying mentally and physically healthy in this chapter in their lives is to “find something you enjoy doing.”

For Michelle, that’s giving back to other veterans.

Following her military career, Michelle took a job as a Veterans Affairs representative at the University of North Alabama, where she said she was able to help veterans who were students find the resources and benefits available to them.

In that position, she met Mary Day Smith, who serves as post adjutant for the American Legion Post #11 in Florence.

“I joined the post because of Mary,” Michelle said. “When I left UNA and retired, I was like, you know what, I’m going to see if they need help. Mary doesn’t have to do what she does. I’ve seen her help so many other vets, and that’s why I wanted to join.”

Now, Michelle can be found volunteering at Post #11 on Court Street three days a week when the facility is open. Most days, Joe is there too, she said.

The Daileys help maintain the offices. Joe cuts the lawn during the spring and summer months, and Michelle said she helps Smith with anything she needs done from registering veterans for VA programs and benefits to organizing upcoming events.

“For me, it’s important to help other veterans get their benefits because they helped us,” Michelle said.

After Michelle suffered a stroke that forced her into early retirement, she said she and her husband both benefited from the Wounded Warrior Project and joined the chapter in Huntsville.

“During COVID, it helped us, because they sent us Zoom kits,” she said. “We had Lego kits, we had cooking classes online, and we made candles. We did things together at home.”

Engaging in those activities proved to be therapeutic for the couple, and now the Daileys want to pay that forward. Because they understand what most veterans go through, they hope to encourage others who haven’t joined the American Legion or other veteran organization to do so.

“Everybody needs a support group. You have to reach out,” Joe said. “It’s like a community. Once you serve — it’s like a football team — once you’ve been through that, you’re part of our team.”

When asked what led them to joining the military, Joe and Michelle each said they were looking for better opportunities than what they felt were available to them at the time.

Joe, a native of Lauderdale County, joined the Navy while he was living in North Carolina.

“I was in a dead-end job and, honestly, it was just not a good situation for me,” he said.

Michelle, who hails from San Antonio, Texas, said she was also looking for a way out of her situation.

“Growing up, everybody was either in gangs, going to jail, or coming up pregnant at like 14 or 15 years old,” she said. “I didn’t want to be there, so it was about trying to find a better life.”

In weighing his options, Joe said he chose the Navy with hopes of seeing more of the world. That dream came true for both the Daileys. Together, they’ve set foot on nearly every continent except Antarctica, and Michelle has not yet been to Africa.

The Daileys feel that the service also enriched their children’s lives by allowing them to travel and study abroad in their youth. Aside from seeing places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Paris, Amsterdam, Belgium, Rome and Sicily, the Daileys also lived for a time in Japan and in Germany while Joe was stationed there with the Air Force.

“We’ve been everywhere. So, our boys grew up seeing and meeting different people, trying different things, experiencing different cultures,” Michelle said.

Now adults, the eldest Dailey son, Tristan, is making a name for himself in the local music scene in Florence. Their second son, Connor, decided to follow in his parents’ footsteps and join the Navy.

Joe and Michelle said their youngest is now living in Florida with his wife, Isabel.

After 29 years of marriage, the Daileys still love to travel. Michelle said they still have a few items to check off their bucket list, like taking a trip to Greece, or hiking the active volcanoes, Acatenango and de Fuego, in Guatemala.

Several years ago, the couple decided to make Florence their home base because Joe felt he needed to be close to his parents.

“I was still in the military at the time, and my dad was really sick, and my stepdad was about to pass away,” he said.

Since their move back to the Shoals, Joe lost his father, Freddie Micheal, but he still has his mother, Josephine.

Michelle said she makes the trek back to her hometown a few times a year to be with her parents, Rachel and Luis Salgado.

While visiting San Antonio, Michelle joined the Pink Berets, a nonprofit dedicated to providing aid and relief to women who have served or are serving in the Armed Forces or as first responders, and who have suffered “invisible injuries” such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, military sexual trauma or traumatic brain injury.

Michelle said the support group introduced her to boxing and equine therapy to help her deal with some of the experiences she had in active duty.

“A lot of people don’t understand, when you go in, you’re not the same person you were when you come out,” she said. “When you go back home, people don’t understand why you think that, why you walk like that, why you do this, or why you do that. It’s just something that changed you.”

The Daileys said it’s as important to find a supportive circle as it is to find healthy coping tools in healing from past trauma.

For Michelle, that can mean working out and channeling her emotions through physical activity. Since she’s joined Post #11, she’s also discovered she has a passion for scrapbooking and record keeping as the post’s elected historian, a position she has held since 2016.

For Joe, who also aims to stay physically active in retirement, that meant exploring new options after knee injuries and surgery forced him to give up running.

Now, Joe works out with Michelle in ways his body can handle. Instead of going for a daily run, he swims at the YMCA of the Shoals.

“Yeah, you’ve got to find things you like to do,” Joe said. “You’ve got to have a plan, but don’t get bent out of shape if your plan doesn’t go the way you want it to. Be able to adapt. Don’t just sit down and give up.”

The Daileys said they each learned to cope with the stressors of leading a military life together, becoming parents in active duty, and now empty nesting as retired officers. It’s something they each say they had to figure out for themselves.

The Daileys encourage others in similar situations to do the same.

“It’s about figuring out your little niche that you fit in; that’s yours,” Michelle said. “Joe can have something totally different, but we help each other. There are mornings he doesn’t want to go walk or workout, but I have to do it to clear my head. That’s how you get along. You have to.”