Schofield Barracks Soldier reunited with his life-saving helmet

SGT Joshua McKenzie and helmet

Staff Sgt. Joseph McKenzie holds the Advanced Combat Helmet that saved his life in Afghanistan. Program Executive Office Soldier presented Sergeant McKenzie with his helmet during an Oct. 27, 2015, ceremony at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.

SCHOFIELD BARRACKS, Hawaii – Standing before his fellow Soldiers and with his wife and 17-month old son beside him, Staff Sgt. Joseph McKenzie was reunited with the battle-scarred combat veteran that saved his life four years ago in Afghanistan—his helmet.

McKenzie received his Advanced Combat Helmet in a ceremony hosted by his current unit, the “Wolfhounds” of the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division.

“I am glad to get this back,” McKenzie said. “It is a piece of history; my history, anyway. It is a piece of my life that it is pretty intense.”

He expressed his appreciation for the helmet saving his life.

“For some of you guys who have not been ‘down range’ yet, this is kind of a wakeup call,” said McKenzie. “Make sure you take this stuff serious because you never know what is going to happen,” he added.

“That helmet—it worked,” said McKenzie, who has a space on the wall where he will hang it. He hopes to pass it down to his son, Royce McKenzie.

Presenting the helmet was Col. Dean Hoffman IV, Project Manager Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment at Fort Belvoir, Va.,-based Program Executive Office Soldier. Hoffman and his senior enlisted adviser, Master Sgt. Corey Ingram presented the helmet. Additionally, they demonstrated new equipment and gear to Soldiers.

PEO Soldier is the Army organization responsible for developing the small arms, clothing, protective equipment, night vision equipment and other gear worn by Soldiers.

Hoffman commended McKenzie for leadership and sacrifice and noted the Ganjgal Valley of Afghanistan, where McKenzie was fighting when he was shot in the head, was renowned as a tough part of Afghanistan. “It is the no-joke zone,” he said.

Hoffman explained to the Soldiers the Army does all it can to provide them the best possible protective equipment so they can come home to family and friends. He added inspectors randomly select helmets and hard armor plates from each production lot to shoot them in order to ensure the equipment meets Army standards.

Also attending the ceremony was Candace McKenzie, the sergeant’s wife. The Blanchard, Okla., native said she noticed he still had a small scar by his eye when they first met. He explained that it was a wound caused by being shot in the head. She found the story incredible. “I thought it was a very crazy thing to have something like that happen to you and live,” Candace said. “But I am really glad he did because I was able to meet him.”

“It was very important to him that the Army chose to honor that moment in his life,” she said. “He is really excited about it. A really great thing that they held this ceremony for him.”

Helmet presentation

Staff Sgt. Joseph McKenzie receives the Advanced Combat Helmet that saved his life from Col. Dean Hoffman IV during a ceremony Oct. 27, 2015 at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. The colonel is Project Manager Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment for Program Executive Office Soldier at Fort Belvoir, Va. Looking on are Candace and Royce McKenzie.

McKenzie’s story began March 29, 2011, when he was serving as a team leader with the “No Slack” 2nd Battalion of the 327th Infantry. He credits two things with surviving that deadly bullet. First, he was wearing the ACH, which provides protection against fragmentation and ballistic threats. Second, he had dropped the lubricant and had to pick it up.

“The enemy had learned that we wear effective body armor and helmets, so they had started aiming at the lower part of our bodies,” McKenzie said. “I had asked my buddy to throw me some lubricant.” This meant that, unknown to the sergeant, his helmet was in the bullet’s path.

“When I bent down to pick it up, a bullet hit me right where the night vision goggles mount on the helmet,” added the Santa Monica, Calif., native who now calls Chicago home.

“My helmet slammed right into my face,” he said. “I went black for a second. I thought someone had just punched me in the eye, so I stood up and said some choice words, but my buddy yelled for me to jump back behind the sandbags. He told me I had been hit in the head, but at first I thought he was joking.” McKenzie took cover and removed his helmet and saw where it had struck. Though he was bleeding, McKenzie was able to stay in the fight for an additional 13 hours before he allowed himself to be evacuated for medical care.

Even after he received medical treatment, McKenzie remained with his unit. “My face was swelled up, but they did the scans and the tests and I was all right, so I said I was fine and went back to my unit. A week and a half after I got shot in the head, I was back in the gym, thanks to my helmet.”

About Debra Dawson