When former Tuscola High School JROTC student Mackenzie Messer decided to enlist in the U.S. Army, her dad was proud she wanted to follow in his footsteps and serve her country. But it was her MOS — her chosen career path — that concerned him. Mackenzie wanted to become a combat medic.
“Honestly, I tried to talk her out of being a medic,” Steve Messer said. “I told her that being a combat medic in the Army, you’ll take a lot of blistered feet and sick call, and it’s not as exciting or romantic as you think it’ll be.”
Steve knew all too well. He spent years as an Army Combat Medic. It was his stories that ignited his daughter’s passion to help others, Mackenzie said.
“Getting to hear about the camaraderie and his experiences, the places he got to go to, that was something that I really wanted to do,” she said. “It sounded freaking awesome.”
Her dad’s warning of treating blisters and fevers was far from the case. Mackenzie, currently stationed at a base in Fairbanks, Alaska, was thrust into action just a few weeks ago when a devastating and tragic accident struck.
A routine patrol went haywire, resulting in the death of two soldiers and injuries to 17 more. Due to the remote Alaskan setting, Mackenzie was the only medic on site for nearly two hours until emergency vehicles arrived.
Mackenzie and her unit had been riding in a military truck with a crew of 15 in the back and two soldiers in the cab.
“The road conditions were horrible because of that very unsteady period of government shutdown, so the roads weren’t plowed properly,” she said.
The truck rolled over several times, and when it finally stopped, Mackenzie jumped into action.
“That wasn’t the first rollover I’ve responded to in the Army, so I told myself, ‘Don’t freeze up.’ That’s the absolute worst thing you can do,” she said.
Two soldiers were dead, but nearly every else was injured.
“I was focused on the muscle memory of triage care,” she said. “I did what I could for everyone.”
Mackenzie had been injured herself, though she didn’t realize it until later. As the only medic for miles around, she had work to do — and that came first.
“The range area we cover is very large,” she said. “While I absolutely love doing it, that is one of the shitty realities I have to deal with as a medic.”
When Mackenzie went to the doctor after the incident, it was revealed that she had torn her lat muscle and had six hairline fractures in her arm. She hadn’t felt any pain during the accident because of her adrenaline.
From 9/11 to Anthrax
Steve served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1992-97 as a tactical air traffic controller — directing fighter aircraft in air battles against the enemy — and as a primary marksmanship instructor — teaching soldiers how to shoot well.
“I got out, came home back to Western North Carolina, got a factory job, kind of hated it and realized I should’ve stayed in the military,” he said. “I tried to get back in the Marnie Corps, buy they were going to cut me two ranks after being out only a few months.”
An Army recruiter offered Steve his old rank back if he signed on to combat medical school. Steve excelled and was sent to Fort Detrick to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID).
“There was a special operations unit there called the Air Medical Operations Team. We became flight paramedics attached to that team,” he said.
Steve spent the next decade flying, serving during two monumental moments in U.S. history — the attacks on 9/11 and the Anthrax scare.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Steve was working in a lab at Fort Deitrich after physical training early that morning.
“Someone came in and said one of the towers had been hit by an airplane,” he said. “We went down to a conference room with a very large television screen, and then the second tower was hit. A few minutes later, our pagers started going off, and we were put on alert almost immediately.”
After the towers collapsed, Steve and his team were picked up by helicopters to fly to New York City to collect pieces of the aircraft that had struck the towers.
“There was concern that there could’ve been biological agents,” he said. “Fortunately, when we got there, the NYFD had collected several pieces for us. We did have to go into Ground Zero to collect, and it was pretty awful. To say it was surreal is an understatement.”
Steve and his team were tied up in the aftermath of the attacks.
“We got very busy. I didn’t go to bed again for three to four days,” he recounted. “There was worry that wasn’t the end of the attack. A unit of Marines showed up at Fort Detrick and posted fighting vehicles at every entrance. It was a high-value target.”
Thankfully, no further attacks came. But it wasn’t the end of Steve’s high-level missions at the Army Medical Research Institute, which he describes as the best job he ever had.
“Then the Anthrax thing started,” he said. “We got busy picking up pieces of mail that were covered with Anthrax. We had to pick up pieces of equipment where these letters had gone through.”
When the War in Iraq broke out, Steve wanted to go.
“I pulled some strings and managed to get to Iraq. I was over there for several months, and I was hurt. That ended my career,” he said.
Following in his footsteps
It was those amazing stories that ignited Mackenzie’s desire to become a combat medic like her father.
“I grew up in a small town and hadn’t gotten to experience the world other than the constant hiking or a Gatlinburg trip,” she said. “I never really left between Asheville and Raleigh, so I figured there’s no way better to learn about the world than to get out for a little bit.”
Mackenzie enlisted five-and-a-half years ago and since then has completed her MOS — a.k.a. military occupational specialty — in San Antonio, Texas, before being stationed first at Fort Drum in New York and Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her personality made her a natural for the career field.
“I’ve always wanted to be a helping hand of some sort,” she said. “I always wanted to help others, and I knew I wanted to be in the medical field.”
Steve said Mackenzie is likely one of the few female combat medics attached to an active-duty infantry unit. He admitted it was not an easy road for her, either.
“When she got to Fort Drum, there were senior NCOs (non-commissioned officers) who they felt like women shouldn’t be there. It wasn’t her decision to come there, and she had a hard time. One NCO drove her to the point of wanting to get out. I encouraged her to stick with it, and it’ll get better,” Steve said.
Mackenzie, however, has no qualms about her place in her unit.
“It’s definitely not been the easiest, but I’m definitely ‘one of the boys.’ I hang out with them every single day,” she said.
And when there are things that she can’t do because of her 5-foot, 4-inch frame, Mackenzie uses her intelligence and creativity to find a workaround.
“Because I’ve proven in other ways I can make it work, and it’s effective, and it has saved lives, they don’t really care that I’m a short female,” Mackenzie said.
Although the wounds — physical and emotional — are still raw from the accident, it hasn’t dampened Mackenzie’s love for her job or the place she works.
“Now that I’m in it for as long as I’ve been in it, I want to be in it for life,” she said. “Honestly, it is beautiful up here. One of my favorite things to do is go to the field. In most of our range areas, you can see the whole Denali Range. Not a bad office view at all.”
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