Michael Fayette’s colleagues all used the same expression to describe how he lived: He spoke truth to power.
As a lieutenant colonel, he blew the whistle on what he saw as systemic discrimination in the Missouri National Guard.
His friends and family also described a man who lived a life of service, not only to his country but also to those he loved. As a patient and caring father, he unified a blended family.
Fayette was born Feb. 1, 1962, in Paris, Tennessee, and died Nov. 2 at the age of 57. He spent more than 30 of his years in service to his country and 15 of them with the family he and his wife, Libby, made together.
In a military career spanning more than 30 years, Fayette established a reputation among his friends and colleagues for opposing discrimination. In 2012, he filed a request for whistle-blower protection, leading to an investigation into the Missouri National Guard’s top general and chief of staff, according to previous reporting from the Columbia Tribune.
The inquiry looked into whether his superiors had engaged in a campaign against Fayette for speaking out about discrimination in the guard’s ranks. He had previously testified in support of a subordinate who he felt was treated unfairly because of her sexual orientation.
“Mike was obviously one who fought for justice knowing the possible retaliation he could face,” said Kevin McGhee, a retired and former chaplain with the Army National Guard who knew Fayette. McGhee also officiated at Fayette’s wedding to his wife, Libby, 15 years ago.
Tony Messenger, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist who worked with Fayette as a source over the years, remembered his dedication.
“He just seemed to have a commitment to doing the right thing,” Messenger said. “He just believed in the American military system, standing up for all the men and women who were willing to serve and making sure that they were all treated fairly.”
Fayette publicly supported other members of the military community whom he believed had been subjected to bias. He testified in support of Pat Kerr, who in 2009 alleged age and gender discrimination by a general in the guard.
But the official record doesn’t tell the whole story.
Army National Guard Sgt. Maj. Rich Grant, one of Fayette’s colleagues in the guard, remembers Fayette’s indignation at attacks on the identities of his fellow soldiers.
“He was not gonna stand for homophobes, misogynists” and others directing their hate at his fellow troops, Grant said. “He’d call ’em out,” often with a splash of pointed humor to drive it home.
“He had a rapier-like wit, but it was often (with) a joke stuck on the end of it,” Grant said.
Grant recalled a quote from an Army text. “‘Never walk past a mistake. If you do, you just set the new standard.’ Mike was that kind of guy, too.”
His fierce opposition to discrimination was consistent with his love for the underdog. Though he retired as a lieutenant colonel, he began his military career as an enlisted man.
“I think (that) always makes officers a little bit more empathetic toward enlisted people,” Grant said. “Some colonels might get real upset if some (enlisted personnel) didn’t call him ‘sir,’” but that wasn’t in Mike’s nature.
“He never became his rank,” Grant said.
Along with the informal honors his colleagues bestowed upon him, Fayette was a decorated veteran. He was awarded a Purple Heart for injuries sustained when his vehicle was hit by an explosive device in Iraq.
His military service led to a terminal condition that slowly degraded his health, said stepdaughter Kala Wagner.
He also received the Meritorious Service Medal three times, the Army Commendation Medal three times, the Army Achievement Medal five times and 14 other badges, ribbons and awards in recognition of his contributions, including his service in both Iraq and Kuwait on separate deployments.
He was also trained in jungle warfare, air assault and HALO jumps, to name just a few of the combat programs he completed through the armed forces.
“He was probably the sharpest military mind I ever met,” McGhee said.
“He was a soldier’s soldier.”
But he was also the cornerstone of his family.
“I felt he was the glue to our blended family,” said Wagner.
Fayette married Kala’s mother, Libby, in 2004. Soon after, his and Libby’s families moved in together, uniting two separate trios — Mike with his sons Zach and Harrison, and Libby with her daughters Kala and Katie.
Caring for four children demands time and energy. And patience. Wagner laughed as she recalled what that many kids can do to a parent.
“I’m pretty sure we put a few of those gray hairs on him growing up,” she said.
But Wagner remembers her stepfather’s even keel, including in times of turmoil. He maintained a healthy separation between his work and family life. The National Guard investigation into his superiors and the ramifications it could have for him weren’t dinner table conversation.
“Mike was a very calm-natured person,” Wagner said. “If Mike was stressed out, then, honestly, I couldn’t tell you if he was.”
Instead, he focused his energy on creating memories with his family.
While living in Virginia, Fayette led family excursions to the nation’s capital. They toured the monuments with Fayette as amateur historian and storyteller. His knowledge was likely drawn from the library he’d built for himself over the years. His friends and family remember a voracious reader with an appetite for history and current events — “a fount of information,” as Grant puts it.
Outside of the capital, Fayette spent many hours with his family outside of the capital. At night, they played board games, sometimes making up the rules as they went along, the rule book be damned.
Fayette loved an underdog, but he adored his canines. Over the years, he cared for his dogs Max, Lucy, Ranger and Chloe. In 2014, he was matched with his service dog, Whiskey, who cared for him.
“He’s kinda like me; he’s a lot of a little of everything,” Fayette said in a KBIA interview.
Fayette explained the “symbiosis” between a veteran and their service animal in the same interview. Whiskey helped him cope with PTSD and was trained to assist him with stability issues stemming from his physical trauma. Fayette also said it gave Libby comfort knowing that Whiskey was with him. The pooch was a member of the family, he said.
For their 15th anniversary, Libby gave Fayette was given a portrait of Whiskey.
Libby had approached Grant, who studied art at MU, and asked him to draw it as a gift. It was one of the moments when Fayette’s lives as soldier and family man overlapped.
Someone snapped a picture of him holding the portrait. In it, Fayette is beaming.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.