TAMPA — Christian "Mack" MacKenzie, a special operations flight engineer on an MH-53 Pave Low helicopter, bent his head down to enter coordinates in a navigation system during a 2004 mission in Iraq.
That's something he rarely did in flight. But a last-minute change in destination meant MacKenzie had to take a few seconds to enter the coordinates as the Sikorsky MH-53 left the insurgent hotbed of Fallujah.
So the Air Force master sergeant did not see the rocket-propelled grenade rise out of a field that April night and slam into the helicopter's nose and cockpit. The blast tore into the left side of MacKenzie's face, severely wounding him.
If the blast had hit his head square, he would not have made it home.
"The fact that I had my head down literally saved my life," MacKenzie said.
MacKenzie, 44, will be the grand marshal at Saturday's Seminole Hard Rock Gasparilla Parade of Pirates, representing U.S. Special Operations Command's Care Coalition. Based at MacDill Air Force Base, the Care Coalition supports severely wounded or injured special operations troops and their families.
MacKenzie is still on active duty, working as a coalition liaison supporting wounded troops at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa. He expects to be medically discharged in the next year due to lingering issues from his injuries, ending about 24 years of active service for the father of two.
MacKenzie calls it a "great honor" to represent the coalition at Gasparilla. With no sight in his left eye, Mackenzie said he has never felt comfortable navigating the big, jostling crowds of Gasparilla since being assigned to MacDill in 2010.
"It's a great celebration," MacKenzie said, "but let's be honest, it's mayhem."
He will be riding in a car, waving to the mad multitudes in an event that will mark one of the highlights of an already remarkable career.
A New England native, MacKenzie joined the Air Force in 1991. He had always loved the idea of flying and realized that ambition by becoming a special operations helicopter flight engineer.
"I was good at it," he said. "It was what I was meant to do."
He had logged 2,300 hours in the MH-53 when a mission took him to Fallujah during some of the most intense fighting in Iraq. The helicopter and its crew of six flew at about 100 feet as it left Fallujah after delivering supplies.
MacKenzie had just started entering the navigation coordinates when the RPG hit. The initial blast knocked him out. But in a second or two, he regained consciousness and could feel the helicopter falling tail down.
"I thought, 'Wow. I'm alive,' " MacKenzie said. "Then it was, 'Wow. I still have to crash.' "
He had just enough time to brace himself for impact.
Somehow, one of the two pilots managed to execute what was essentially a controlled crash landing. One of them looked back at the bloodied MacKenzie and thought he was dead.
MacKenzie's face and head were broken in three places. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and flash burns. To this day, pieces of shrapnel remain in his arm and head. But MacKenzie survived — all because he was looking down, not up. His crewmates also survived the attack and crash.
Remarkably, MacKenzie remained on active duty, and has worked since 2007 helping wounded warriors.
MacKenzie said he was saddened when he heard that insurgents this month had retaken Fallujah. Troops fought a bloody battle to take the city in 2004 with nearly 100 U.S. servicemen killed. But MacKenzie is still optimistic and said every nation has growing pains.
"Just because they moved back in doesn't mean they are staying," MacKenzie said. "We did what we could. We did what we had to do. Now it's up to the Iraqis."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.