The year was 2004.
Craig resident Cory Hixson sat in a German hospital, nursing an eye injury he suffered while fighting in Iraq. One thought kept coming back to him while talking to other injured U.S. troops.
The Marine Corps lance corporal wanted to go back.
"I wanted to be (in Iraq) more than anything," the 23-year-old Hixson said on Thursday. "I didn't want to be here in the U.S. My platoon was like my brothers. ... I just wanted to be there fighting with them, to watch their backs."
His left eye, which was hit by shrapnel, didn't heal. It had to be removed.
Hixson could have stayed in the Marines, but strictly in an administrative capacity. It was not an option for the "grunt," not if he couldn't be with his infantry brothers.
That dedication to his fellow soldiers is why Greg Merschel, spokesman for the Veterans Committee of the Western Slope, nominated Hixson for an all-expense-paid hunting trip to RecordBuck Ranch in Utopia, Texas.
A surprised Hixson was awarded the trip to a standing ovation from the 1,000 people in attendance at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's annual regional banquet in Grand Junction on Saturday.
The trip is worth an estimated $5,000 and includes three days of hunting trophy whitetail deer and wild boar across 35,000 acres of Texas land.
"His humility, his care," Merschel said. "When he got off the plane, he started asking people individually to pray for those guys who were still there. His conviction that he wanted to go right straight back. He didn't want to let anybody down. He couldn't rest until everybody was home. He couldn't rest until his brother was home."
If that's the case, Hixson will be able to rest a little easier as his brother, Greg, is scheduled to return to Craig this weekend as his enlistment in the Marine Corps will come to unofficial end. Greg's official last day is April 20, but he is using time off to come home earlier.
Both brothers served two tours in Iraq, and met each other while serving.
Cory plans to be in the field again with Greg sometime between September and February. This time, the field will be in the hills of Texas as Cory's guest on the hunting trip.
"I get to kill my first animal with my brother," Cory said. "That will be nice. ... It's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing to get on that land, to get reservations and stuff. It's probably the only time we'll be able to get on it without having to pay an arm and a leg."
Hixson had just received his hunter safety license before receiving the award, and he plans to "save the trip" for his first hunt.
Cory recently purchased a rifle for the occasion, a Kimber Montana .300 Mag.
After all, he cited his love of guns as one of the reasons he joined the Marines after graduating from Moffat County High School in 2002.
While in the service, Cory came to love the structure of military life. Now that it's over, he said it's "different," but that it was a nice feeling to be honored with the hunting trip and the standing ovation at the banquet.
"It was nice to see that all of those people appreciated what all of us do," he said. "To me, it was just a job. I liked it. ... It made you feel important, like you were getting something done. It was a cool job."
A job he would still have today if he could.
"I would still be in the infantry and training and training -- non-stop training," he said. "And I would be perfectly happy with that."
As for the United State's "wounded warriors" like Cory, Merschel said America should take pride in them.
"These guys don't want people to feel sorry for them," he said. "They went there and protected America, and they were willing to do what they had to do. They accomplished the mission as long as their buddies got home. ... That is what is most important to them."
For the Hixson brothers, mission accomplished.
Note: Craig's Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation fundraising dinner and auction starts at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at the Holiday Inn, 300 S. Colorado Highway. For more information, call 824-4724.
Jerry Raehal can be reached at 970-824-7031, ext. 204, or at email@example.com