MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Christian S. MacKenzie, a wounded warrior assigned to Headquarters, United States Special Operations Command, retired from federal service Friday, Aug. 28, after serving 24 years on active duty.
MacKenzie’s duties throughout his career included working with air-launched nuclear weapons, conducting missions as a flight engineer, and assisting fellow Special Operations wounded warriors while working in USSOCOM’s Care Coalition office.
MacKenzie was injured in 2004 when a rocket propelled grenade struck the cockpit of the tactical helicopter he was flying in Fallujah, Iraq. Both he and his crew were en route to recover the remains of a fallen Special Forces warrior when the lights and fires of the Fallujah night sky highlighted their aircraft long enough for it to be seen. A local insurgent, one of many who had previously sworn to shoot down any coalition aircraft in that area, picked that moment to strike.
“I had no idea what was going on at first,” said MacKenzie, a native of Waltham, Massachusetts. “All of a sudden, I came to and was just in severe pain. It was all kinds of crazy and there was something all over my face that I later found out was blood. One whole side of my face had been caved in. After that, all I remember is the aircraft being completely nose-up, I’m trying to stabilize it, blacking out, and the rough approach before landing.”
MacKenzie was told after the fact, that a couple of the other members of the crew were then able to stabilize the aircraft enough to land it. After removing MacKenzie from the wreckage of the aircraft, they were forced to move him to a subsequent plane due to insurgents moving in on their position. Once both he and his crew were onboard, the Airmen were safely flown into Baghdad.
MacKenzie suffered facial trauma, a traumatic brain injury, and severe injury to one eye as a result of the attack. After being redeployed home, however, MacKenzie learned that the real struggle was only just beginning. Getting the right medical care for his extensive injuries proved to be a big challenge upon his return to the United States.
“I was in the hospital in San Antonio,” said MacKenzie. “Even though they were able to put my face back together, the doctors wanted to remove my eye. I told them not to tell me I was going to lose something when they couldn’t explain to me why it was being lost. I told everyone that I wanted to fly again knowing full well that no one with a damaged eye would be allowed to fly an aircraft, let alone stay on active duty.”
He said after his eye sight began failing and the military system couldn’t fix it; he was put in contact with someone at Columbia University.
“There, I met Dr. Stanley Chang, the premiere retinal surgeon in the country. Dr. Chang did pro bono retinal surgeries for military personnel injured in combat. He told me that the least that he could do for his country would be to fix my eye.”
MacKenzie spent the next 16 months in and out of the hospital, fighting to keep his eye, and enduring numerous surgeries and painful rehabilitation before returning to full active duty. He became one of a few Airmen to be legally blind in one eye and return to flight status after being assigned to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
A couple of years later, in late December of 2006, MacKenzie received a call from his former unit commander. He was told that a friend of his had been shot in the face and was on his way to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. MacKenzie was told that he was the only one who would know what his friend was going through, and automatically began making calls to find out when his wounded friend would be arriving at Walter Reed.
MacKenzie stayed with his friend throughout the entire duration of his stay in the hospital. This resulted in not only helping his friend’s recovery but also befriending USSOCOM’s Casualty Assistance Liaison Chief.
MacKenzie was then invited to work for the Care Coalition at USSOCOM in 2007. The news was a double edged sword…the assignment would cost him his flight status. MacKenzie said that there was never any question regarding what his choice would be. He made the easy decision and accepted the opportunity to care for wounded, injured and ill Special Operations warriors like himself from around the country.
Given his professionalism and vast amount of experience, MacKenzie was later selected to be a member of the Department of Defense’s Recovering Warrior Task Force, helping evaluate and improve Wounded Warrior Programs throughout the Department of Defense.
“After the last nearly eight years of being at the bedside of Special Operations warriors who are wounded, ill or injured, and of fighting the bureaucracy of our system,” said MacKenzie, “and after everything else I have accomplished in my career, there’s nothing left for me to do. It’s kind of bittersweet but the reason I have a grin from ear to ear is because I’m done. I am proud to look myself in the mirror. I’m going to take some time for myself, share some experiences with my wife and kids, and then I’ll be back in some way or another. I’m not going to squander my gift.”