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It was April 12, 2004, in Iraq. The battlefield was hot, and our missions became more challenging each day. We were headed into Fallujah to re-supply a Special Operations team in the city. This was no ordinary mission. We needed to get to a location with heavy enemy presence to recover a U.S. Special Forces soldier who had been killed earlier that day.
We never made it.
As we departed the city, a rocket-propelled grenade penetrated the nose of my helicopter and exploded three feet from my face. I felt the most severe pain of my life. It felt like my world was gone.
Nine years later, I stood in a ballroom at the Four Seasons Hotel Washington, D.C., where 21 Medal of Honor recipients were being honored. They were our nation’s finest heroes, all gathered to celebrate the upcoming National Medal of Honor Day. This was a profound moment; an opportunity of a lifetime. Most military personnel will never meet even one Medal of Honor recipient. I was going to meet 21 at the same time. I could not imagine a moment any better.
After some amazing people had spoken, Jim Palmersheim, managing director of Military and Veterans Initiatives for American Airlines, whispered to me, “How are you with two to three minutes?” I was honored to be asked — primarily, of course, because of the incredible stature of the audience — but also because of what American Airlines does for my fellow airmen, soldiers, sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen. From Snowball Express, which serves Gold Star families, to Air Compassion for Veterans, which has flown more than 3,000 military service members and their families over the past five years, to its support for the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation and the Gary Sinise Foundation, American Airlines has answered the call to serve our nation.
So when Palmersheim offered me a chance to speak, I didn’t miss a beat. “I can do it,” I said, even though I had no speech or notes prepared. But I was OK. My plan was simply to speak from the heart.
I talked about being attacked and about what happened afterward — about the courage and heroism of those who helped save my life. There were so many people who helped me that day. They did not know who I was. They expected nothing in return. They were simply the finest military in the world doing the jobs they had been trained to do. Every bit of skill they had went into saving my life.
But the story didn’t end, even after I was rescued and began recovering from my wounds. I could have left the Air Force, but I did not want to do that. I had served honorably, and I had nearly been killed, but I was not done. I had to get permission, however. And I did. The leadership of Air Force Special Operations, and ultimately the top leadership from the Air Force, honored my request. They allowed me to continue to serve.
I returned to flying but realized I could do more. In February 2007, I was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where I was assisting a friend and fellow crew member who had been shot in the face in Iraq. Sgt. Maj. Dan Thompson, then the chief casualty-assistance liaison for the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Care Coalition approached me and asked if I would be interested in being reassigned to his unit. Of course, I agreed.
The Care Coalition is a military group within USSOCOM that is dedicated solely to assisting Special Operations wounded, ill and injured warriors and their families. An organization like this did not exist while I was recovering from my wounds. I had to navigate the military medical system on my own. With this offer, I would have the chance to assist those who were in the position- I had once been in. This was my opportunity to pay it forward; my chance to say thank you.
By the time I related this to the special group of heroes, I was reminded that I was there for only “two to three minutes.” So I kicked into another gear and talked about the heroes who help our heroes. We are surrounded by people who make our country great. There are the wounded heroes, but they are supported by their families, the doctors and, heck, even the TSA agents who escort severely wounded warriors and their families through security to catch their flights. Those people go to work every day simply to do the right thing. And when there are challenges, they step up and do their parts. For that, we should all be thankful.
As I regained consciousness on April 12, 2004, I realized I was alive. I was critically wounded, bleeding and broken, but I knew it was not over. The enemy troops were close, and I could not even see — let alone defend against — them. But we didn’t have to. Another crew landed next to us and recovered all of us from the helicopter wreckage. Today, we would not die.
That day was the start of a new life, thanks to the men and women who, in my greatest time of need, were there for me. They were the finest this country has to offer. They were my heroes.
Master Sgt. Christian "Mack" Mackenzie