When the new Grand Marshal for the Seminole Hard Rock Gasparilla Pirate Fest Parade of Pirates sits on the back of the ceremonial 2014 Camaro convertible Saturday, it will mark his first time at Tampa’s signature bacchanal honoring the city’s faux surrender to fake swashbucklers.
That’s because Christian “Mack” MacKenzie, a decorated, war-wounded Air Force master sergeant, hasn’t felt comfortable in crowds since his helicopter was shot down over Fallujah, Iraq on April 12, 2004.
“I have always thought the event was really neat,” says MacKenzie, 44. “The irony is because of my injuries, dealing with crowds in general is difficult. I have only seen the Gasparilla parade on TV. I usually stay as far away from the mayhem as possible. It’s too much for me.”
But, atop the ceremonial car, it’ll be “an honor,” says MacKenzie, who won’t be in the midst of the scrum that takes place on the other side of the temporary parade barriers.
MacKenzie was aboard a MH-53 Pave Low helicopter, flying south out of Fallujah, about 100 feet off the ground, when it flew into an “unknown ambush site,” he says.
MacKenzie, assigned to the 20th Special Operations Squadron out of Hurlburt Field, was the flight engineer, sitting in the center seat between the two pilots.
An insurgent on the ground fired a rocket-propelled grenade.
“It hit directly into the nose of the helicopter and blew up inside,” MacKenzie says. “It broke my head and face in about three places. Shrapnel tore through my left eye, tore my left eyelid half off.”
The helicopter nearly crashed, but amazingly one of the pilots was able to land it safely, though just 700 yards from the insurgents. By the time it hit the ground, the pilot thought MacKenzie was dead, an observation — as it turns out, that was incorrect.
The shoot-down left MacKenzie blind in the left eye and still suffering spinal cord injuries as well as the aftermath of traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder.
“I only have half a visual field,” says MacKenzie, who is the process of medically retiring from the Air Force because of ongoing health problems from the shoot-down. “Being in crowds for the sake of having fun, with people coming at you from all directions, is not something I just jump at. It’s not fun to just hang out.”
Fortunately for MacKenzie, he won’t just be hanging out.
That’s because the Care Coalition, which was selected by the Seminole Hard Rock to be the Grand Marshal organization, named MacKenzie, who has worked with the organization since 2007 and here in Tampa since 2010, to be the face of Care Coalition in his dress blue uniform atop the burgundy Camaro.
“He is a local combat wounded warrior and staff member of the Care Coalition who is a great representative of our force,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Li Cohen, a Socom spokeswoman, explains about why MacKenzie was selected. “He is also the first SOF wounded warrior to be selected for an American Airlines/US Airways Internship program.”
There was more than a little trepidation about taking part, says MacKenzie, especially the upcoming onslaught of media engagements.
“Coming into this I was really concerned about it all,” says MacKenzie. “Many times when they do this, they make it about an individual or the wounded warrior. What is really good about Seminole Hard Rock is that this is about the entire community and the wounded, ill and injured. I am representing Care Coalition. It’s not about me.”
Still, MacKenzie “is the perfect choice” says Gina Morales, public relations manager for the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, which is sponsoring the parade, which kicks off at 2 p.m. Saturday.
“We were thinking about the types of people who make things like the parade possible,” says Morales. “I could not have thought of a better person to honor and highlight on the day of the parade and bring to light all the sacrifices he has made to give us the freedom to rock.”