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Warrior wounded in Iraq has unlikely reunion at USF

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Published:   |   Updated: April 22, 2013 at 06:36 PM

The MH-53 Pave Low helicopter was flying south out of Fallujah, about 100 feet off the ground, when it flew into an “unknown ambush site,” says Christian “Mack” MacKenzie.

They were on the way to pick up a fallen commando.

But they never made it.

MacKenzie, 44, was recounting the story last week as one of the speakers at “The Boots on the Homefront: Introduction to Military and Veteran Health Program” put on by the University of South Florida College of Nursing. I wasn’t there, but he filled me in.

The story of that flight and its aftermath is fascinating. But it was what happened after Mack was done talking to the 350 students and faculty from the College of Nursing, and nurses from the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital, that makes the retelling sweet.

It was April 12, 2004. 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 40 places. Shrapnel tore through my left eye, tore my left eye half off.”

The chopper 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, thankfully so — that was incorrect.

Eventually MacKenzie, his crew and passengers were rescued and doctors in Baghdad were able to stabilize him enough so that he could be sent back to Germany for further treatment.

But before getting there, he had to stop at Balad Air Base. When he arrived, in severe pain, the base came under its usual mortar attack, but the Air Force medics ignored their own safety and made sure that MacKenzie and the other wounded were OK.

Fast forward to April 15, almost nine years to the day after MacKenzie was wounded.

Now an Air Force master sergeant serving with U.S. Special Operations Command’s Care Coalition, MacKenzie had become “the first enlisted aircrew member returned to flying status with only one eye,” helping shuttle top military and congressional leaders aboard C-40 jets.

But after helping a fellow injured aircrew member during his recovery, MacKenzie eventually signed on full time with Care Coalition, dedicated to caring for wounded, ill and injured members of the special operations forces.

Which brought him to the conference, where he was recounting his experiences to a group of nurses and nursing students to help them better understand what wounded warriors experience.

Sitting in the audience, Andrew Armstrong, now 29 and a College of Nursing student, thought MacKenzie looked familiar, but didn’t know why.

Then he heard MacKenzie talk. And after hearing him tell about the mortar attack, he knew.

Armstrong was in the Air Force as a medic, serving with MacDill Air Force Base’s 6th Medical Group at Balad when the badly injured MacKenzie was flown in.

After MacKenzie was done talking, Armstrong introduced himself.

MacKenzie says he was ecstatic.

“It sent a chill down my spine,” he says. “I had no idea he was in the audience and I never had the opportunity to meet or say thank you to the individuals who were at Balad when I was there. The fact that he was in the room was amazing.”

Armstrong was thrilled with the impromptu reunion as well.

“He is the first patient I have been able to talk with after deployment,” he says. “It was a special treat for me to be able to lay eyes on one of these guys and see they are doing well and functioning in society. It was very gratifying.”

Unlike MacKenzie, the Tampa Bay Rays have done little inspiring so far this year. But tonight, inspiration is guaranteed at Tropicana Field.

At least before the Rays take on the N.Y. Yankees.

That’s because Mike Nicholson will be throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.

Nicholson, a Marine sergeant who was recently medically retired, lost both legs and his right arm in an improvised explosive device attack on July 6, 2011, while serving in Afghanistan. And now, after a long convalescence, he will guarantee there will be cheers from the stands.

For Nicholson, 23, there will soon be more cheers.

At 7 p.m. May 10, actor Gary Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band will play a fundraising concert at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, the opening gig of concert series to raise money to build “smart” homes for Nicholson and 11 other severely wounded combat veterans.

When Sinise came to Tampa earlier this year, he said the homes will cost about $500,000 each. Organizers hope to finish a dozen homes by the end of the year. One of them, on a treed half-acre South Tampa lot at 6231 Interbay Blvd., will be built for Nicholson.

Tickets are $35 and $70 for VIP seating. For information, or to purchase tickets, go to supportmikenicholson.com.

The Pentagon announced the deaths of two soldiers last week in Afghanistan.

Chief Warrant Officer Matthew P. Ruffner, 34, of Tafford, Pa., and Chief Warrant Officer Jarett M. Yoder, 26, of Mohnton, Pa., died April 9, in Pachir Wa Agam District, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. They were assigned to the1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 104th Aviation Regiment, 28th Combat Aviation Brigade, 28th Infantry Division, Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa.

There have now been 2,184 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.


haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

Twitter: @haltman

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