By Sgt. Lindsey M. BradfordSeptember 25, 2008
FORT LEWIS, Wash - Spc. Wesley Hixon never set out to get a Purple Heart or to be a hero when he left for Iraq. But on Sept. 18, hundreds of his family members, friends, fellow Soldiers and medical staff packed into the Letterman Auditorium at Fort Lewis' Madigan Army Medical Center to hear the story of how he ended up fighting for his life while fighting for his country.
On Feb. 8, 2008, Hixon, a Soldier with 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division from Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, was driving his Stryker through streets in Iraq when it was struck by a 500-pound improvised explosive device.
The IED ripped through the cab of the vehicle, killing four of the five Soldiers riding inside. Hixon, left dangling upside down in the twisted remains of the Stryker, was the only one left alive.
Two hours later, he was freed and on his way to Balad.
In Baghdad, a medical team went right to work to assess his injures. Hixon had a lacerated kidney, a hemorrhaging liver, 10 broken ribs, his badly bruised lungs had been ripped from his chest lining, he had more than 50 fractures, from his neck down his spinal column - three of his vertebrae were completely missing.
Paralyzed but still alive, doctors performed emergency surgery to repair his liver and kidneys.
Now stabilized, he still needed to be transported more than a thousand miles to a hospital in Germany.
When the plane took off for the flight to Germany, his lungs couldn't withstand the change in pressure and he died.
Not giving up, doctors resuscitated the young Soldier and made an emergency landing in Balad. Six hours later, he was back on an airplane headed for Germany when he died again.
After a second resuscitation, the plane was forced to land in Kuwait, where they were able to stabilize him again and continue on to Germany.
Believing he would benefit from having his family present, doctors called his parents. By the time they arrived in Germany, Hixon was more stable but doctors said he needed to be transported to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to receive more aggressive medical care.
When Hixon arrived at WRAMC, he was suffering from pneumonia. To treat the pneumonia, doctors had to put Hixon on a ventilator and have him sit upright. But the injuries to his neck and spine, made this impossible unless they could operate and stabilize his spinal column. So back into surgery he went.
Eight hours later, surgeons had successfully inserted a titanium cage connecting each portion of his spinal column. They also ran titanium rods down each side of his spine and fused the entire column.
Although weak from his injuries, Hixon's will to live continued to stay strong. Two days later, after the ventilator that had been supporting his breathing was removed, he said his first words.
"Mama, they brought me back to life!"
Now, more than six months after his accident, Hixon sat at attention in front of hundreds of family, friends, Soldiers and Madigan Army Medical Center staff as he received the Purple Heart from the hands of Lt. Gen Charles H. Jacoby Jr., I Corps and Fort Lewis commanding general.
"Specialist Hixon, your will and fight to live is inspiring. It is my greatest privilege to present this medal to you today," Jacoby said.
Throughout the history of the Army, the Purple Heart has symbolized the very essence of Soldiering, Jacoby said.
"The Purple Heart is a statement and recognition that it is the Soldier, and only the Soldier, in our society who has willingly and deliberately accepted the risk that their tasks, by their very nature and purpose, can result in their being wounded or even killed," Jacoby said.
As Jacoby spoke of the great character Hixon possessed, smiles and tears spread throughout the crowd.
"You are our hero," he said before pinning a Purple Heart onto Hixon's chest.
As the applause died down, Hixon addressed the crowd, letting them know that they were all heroes to him.
"I am honored ... I don't know what to say, but I will wear this proudly no matter what," he said.
Hixon is currently receiving care in Seattle, at the Puget Sound Veterans Administration Hospital.
Sgt. Lindsey M. Bradford is assigned to I Corps Public Affairs. Her story appeared in Fort Lewis' Northwest Guardian.