U.S. Army infantry SCOUT sniper Stuart McKenzie was riding in an armored vehicle on March 30, 2004, when an IED detonated beneath him.
The next thing he remembers is staring at a “blooming onion,” what used to be his hand, through waves of shock and adrenaline.
It was by sheer providence that the 22-year-old survived the blast.
“I should be goo” he told Eliana Sheriff.
Making matters worse, the rookie medic who came to help accidentally injected himself with his last syringe of painkiller instead of McKenzie. The injured infantry SCOUT sniper bore down through the pain as he was transported to the nearest hospital.
McKenzie was scheduled to get out of the military later that August, but his injuries required multiple surgeries and rehabilitation for another year and a half.
After receiving his discharge from the military in January 2006, McKenzie began looking for a career that offered the same camaraderie and brotherhood he experienced in the service.
“One of my buddies suggested being a firefighter,” McKenzie tells the Veterans Site.
He found a Fire Science program at Bates Technical College and earned a two-year degree, while in the meantime working with Riverside Fire and Rescue as an intern.
“I would be on the fire trucks for eight hours a day and then going to school for seven, Monday through Friday,” he says.
With the little free time he had, McKenzie also attended and graduated from EMT school and accomplished a number of other goals.
You might recognize his face as one of the miners on Discovery’s “Gold Rush.”
Getting knocked down
McKenzie has pressed forward despite incredible adversity. His discipline and dedication are inspiring, especially considering the challenges he has faced since becoming a civilian.
Being in the military becomes an identity, McKenzie explains. Once enlisted, service members are placed in a category of honor and pride.
“Your father, your mom, they brag about you, ‘My son’s military,'” McKenzie says.
That all changes when you become a civilian again. McKenzie found purpose in working with Riverside Fire and Rescue and later Blackwater and Triple Canopy as a security contractor. Even with a growing list of accomplishments, a career and a loving fiancée, life outside of those positions was growing difficult.
“When I first came home I went from guarding presidents and dignitaries, just a slew of people that are very influential in this world and I guarded them. It was another one of those jobs where you just took pride in, and afterwards I thought everything was going to kind of settle down,” he says. “I was getting older and it just kind of spiraled out of control. That’s really where my drug addiction took a really drastic turn. ”
During two years of getting cut open, the veteran says, constant access to painkillers can make it easy to fall into opioid addiction.
It was two months before McKenzie and his fiancée Jamie planned to get married when the veteran was arrested for pulling a gun out on a federal officer. He was looking at time in prison, possibly losing everything he had already worked so hard for.
It’s not like I wanted to do drugs,” he says. “I just could not get off the ride. I just could not find the stability.”
McKenzie’s fiancée found help from a lawyer recommended by two of the motorcycle mechanics she worked with. The lawyer had McKenzie’s sentence deferred, removing it from his criminal record.
That’s when McKenzie sought treatment to fight his own demons. He spent 30 days in a treatment facility, cleaned himself up, and has remained drug-free ever since.
The wedding went through as planned.
After nearly losing his hand, many doctors told McKenzie he’d be limited for the rest of his life.
“It gave me the the will to prove them wrong,” he says. “I tell people every day that having my hand blown off and going through that was one of the best things that could possibly ever happen. I wouldn’t be nearly as successful or done as many things if that had not happened.”
McKenzie says he “took a couple years to reinvent myself.” He got into bodybuilding and spent more time on his mental health. He concentrated on his family–he and his wife now have a baby girl named Halo. He developed clarity and focus, which is now paying off as he pursues an engineering technology degree and hunts for riches on Discovery’s “Gold Rush.”
Now in its 11th season, this is McKenzie’s first year on the mining crew but he’s worked closely with crew leader Fred Lewis before. Over the last decade, McKenzie and Lewis have started two nonprofit organizations and hosted a number of outdoor hikes and other events to raise money for injured veterans. Coincidentally, everyone on Lewis’ Gold Rush crew is an injured veteran, too.
Many have chosen the easier way out when faced with less adversity than Stuart McKenzie has overcome in the last 15 years. Many would have given up.
McKenzie is living proof of what determination and spirit can help someone accomplish. Living proof that the battle is worth fighting, even in life’s darkest moments.
Watch McKenzie’s interview with Eliana Sheriff below to learn more about this veteran.Whizzco