Dedicated to the Wounded Warriors Sportsman Fund, Monday’s guest speaker at the annual Hometown Heroes ceremony said the organization saved him.
Caitlin Mixson, an army sergeant who lost both legs in a firefight in Iraq in 2007, credits the 4-year-old organization with being instrumental in turning his life as close to normal as it will be and to the organization he is inspirational.
“Three things have helped me,” Mixson told about 400 people who attended the Veterans Day ceremony at the Bartow Civic Center. “My mother. She stood by me.”
She always told him everything was going to be all right and she helped raise his morale.
“My trip back to Iraq,” he added. After he lost his legs he returned to Iraq on prosthetics.
“And the hunts. It got me to be outgoing again. I didn’t want to get up out of bed,” he said.
Mixson was traveling with five other people when his vehicle was hit by small arms fire. Three were killed.
“It blew me out of the vehicle,” he said. “One guy in the back lived but he was burned over 83 percent of his body.”
He was sent to a VA hospital in Fort Worth and after more than a year there he got out, suffering the loss of both his legs and having a skull fracture.
“It tore me up mentally,” he said. “One day I went hunting and I killed a buck. That helped me some in knowing what I can accomplish, but it didn’t come close to fixing me mentally.”
Growing up in a rural town in Florida — Williston — Mixson got a lot of education in his experience in the military. He said after about a year of “learning how to kill” he discovered a lot more than he expected in his service in Iraq.
“After being there it’s not all about killing,” he said. People were living without water, electricity and the basic necessities of what we take for granted, both the children and the adults.
“It’s amazing to see how they live,” he said.
Then there was the firefight that seemed to take the smile away from his face forever. But through the Wounded Warriors he was able to get that back and that was evident from the first thing he said when he spoke Monday.
In his wheelchair, sitting beside the screen in which he showed scenes from Iraq, he said, “I want to apologize for the beard. I have a bet with a friend and I can’t shave until I kill a deer and I’m not winning.”
Essentially what really started to bring him back was his first experience on a turkey hunt with the Wounded Warriors. He was with 10 other people and most of them served in the same area of Iraq at the same time. He said talking with those about their experiences he realized he was not alone.
“What he does and how he gets around in that wheelchair … he climbs on a table, works on a farm, drives a tractor … it’s amazing,” said Wounded Warriors Sportsman Fund President Lamar Collins.
“What he went through was a real comeback. What an inspiration to me.”
Collins said when he first met Mixson, Collins was scared and hesitant, but to see Mixson come back to life has further sparked his interest in what the organization can and does do.
Mixson was the first veteran confined to a wheelchair who hunted with them. He is well aware of what a veteran has gone through. Though the injuries show the physical pain of what a veteran has suffered, the mental pain can be worse.
Collins recalls a veteran from Vietnam who he said took years to get over the mental anguish and he still may not be totally over it.
“He’d wake up at midnight from a nightmare and his wife would have to chase him down the street.”
And, living with those kinds of memories stands out to Collins regarding Mixson.
“When you get a guy who got some shrapnel on them, maybe not coming out of their shell, and you see a guy like Caitlin, he’s an inspiration to the other guys.”
That’s what makes the Wounded Warriors so valuable.
“We have fun, but this is work,” Collins said. “We all have a good time and that may have been what did it for Caitlin.”
At least Caitlin said, he realizes he isn’t alone. He knows that at least from the ovation he got after he spoke, but he expressed that too. Many in attendance were wounded veterans.
“I just want to tell the veterans, thank you for what you have done. I want to thank you for those we lost and for those we have coming.”