Hometown Hero: 10 years later, wounded warrior still has fellow Americans’ backs
October 18, 2014
When Cory Hixson was injured during combat in Iraq 10 years ago, he lost more than just his eye. He lost the career of his dreams.
"Since I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a Marine," Hixson said.
A fan of guns and movies like "Rambo," Hixson enlisted in the United States Marine Corps shortly after graduating from Moffat County High School in 2002. His father was also in the Marines and served in Vietnam.
Hixson and his fellow infantrymen in the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines India Company — which he noted is the most decorated battalion in the Marines — were deployed in 2004 to capture the city of Fallujah from insurgents. They participated in Operation Phantom Fury, considered to be one of the biggest and bloodiest battles of the Iraq War.
But it wasn't so much his eye or his life that he was most concerned about after being struck by shrapnel from a mortar round that went off in front of him. It was his ability to continue doing what he'd wanted to do his whole life: serve in the Marines.
"I just knew I was out of the fight," Hixson said. "It'd be another thing if I got shot in the arm or something and they stitched me up and I could go back and fight with my friends. … Once you lose peripheral vision … you can't do that stuff anymore."
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Ten years later, Hixson's injuries have healed, leaving him without his left eye. Though he still feels the loss of his dream as a career Marine, he embraced a new life in which his young family and his community are at the center.
"The thing is, I'm pretty fortunate because I have my wife and my kids, and I wouldn't trade that now," Hixson said. "But back then, that's all you wanted to do with the rest of your life."
Since returning to Craig in 2006, Cory met his wife, Shala, and began working as an equipment operator at Colowyo Mine in 2007. The couple has a daughter, Haizlett, 3, and a son, Cru, almost 2 years old.
Hixson explained that Haizlett thinks a monster took his eye, and asks him when he leaves for his night shift at the mine if he's going off to kill monsters.
"He's a wonderful dad," said friend Candi Kawcak-Miller. "Cory is probably one of the most caring, in-tune people that I know. He pays attention to what's going on here."
Even though Hixson was officially retired from the Marines in 2011 and will receive retirement pay and benefits for the rest of his life, he prefers to keep working to support his family and to keep dreaming about the future.
"He's always working overtime to provide for his family," co-worker Jamie Martinez said. "He's an awesome provider and a great dad. You just can't find somebody as nice, and … wherever you see him, he's always got a smile on his face."
Hixson's impulse to take care of the people around him extends far beyond his family. He's been known to lend a hand wherever one is needed, such as to friends like Kawcak-Miller and even to strangers.
Shala Hixson recounted the time a man in a wheelchair was stuck with a dead battery under a blazing-hot sun near City Market in Craig. Shala wasn't able to move him, and when Cory showed up, he pushed the man all the way to his destination at the library. It turns out the man was a Vietnam veteran who lost his leg in the war.
"Americans need to have each other's backs, especially with what's going on nowadays," Cory said. "They need to help each other out more."
And it's not just neighbors or fellow Americans Hixson is concerned about. He remembers what it was like in a war zone and what local Iraqi families had to endure both then and now.
"You're sleeping well at night," he said. "There are people that don't get to do that."
The local people that Hixson met in Iraq — both the children that hung around him and his fellow Marines, and the adults who would cling to them and cry when it was time for them to move on — impressed upon him the difficult conditions that many people in the world must endure.
His experience also left him with strong feelings about the devastation that is now being wrought in the Middle East by the Islamic State.
"What's going on in the Middle East right now, it just makes me so mad. I don't like people bullying people," Hixson said. "That's my biggest pet peeve is bullies. I can't stand it."
While Hixson does his part to look after the people he cares about, his wife has been on her own mission to show her support to her husband —who received the Purple Heart for being wounded in battle — and other wounded veterans in the area.
Her work with the Wounded Warrior Project will soon lead to special, reserved parking spaces in local business' parking lots for Purple Heart recipients. Walmart was the first to agree to placing one of the signs.
"We're a community," Shala Hixson said. "We should be a small, tight-knit community that helps each other."
Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1794 or lblair@CraigDailyPress.com.