V.I. soldier back on his feet after losing his leg during a training camp accident

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ST. CROIX - It was a lovely spring day, just more than two years ago, when V.I. National Guard Col. Benedict Mitchell was in the middle of weapons training at Camp McCain in Mississippi.

He said the training was going well, he was looking over the other soldiers, conscious of maintaining a safe area, when out of nowhere he was hit by a high-caliber bullet in the back of his knee, sending him crashing to the ground in agony.

Mitchell, who had been engaged in an Army Warrior Tasks field exercise with the unit, was airlifted to a Tennessee hospital, where he underwent multiple surgeries and was told he would never walk again.

Though Mitchell admits the road was long and hard, he is looking forward to returning to St. Croix - his home - today and is bringing two additional wounded soldiers home with him.

"I am really excited about coming home," Mitchell said, chuckling between his words. "It's been a hard road, but God is good and now I am more than ready to come home to my family and friends and even strangers who have helped me through this."

NBA superstar Tim Duncan, primary sponsor of the Caribbean Education Initiative, has sponsored the travel for Mitchell, Sgt. Ian Parkenson of Arizona and Sgt. Ricardo Perez-Ramos of Puerto Rico and their wives to come to St. Croix and enjoy the beauty of the island as a way to show appreciation and support for their bravery, commitment and strength.

Mitchell said he has begun writing a book about his journey and had been waiting to add testimony from Perez-Ramos and Parkenson to the book. He said as recipients of the Purple Heart and being much younger than he is, the men have a real story to tell about their journey of falling and healing and overcoming odds.

"They were both injured by IEDs in the desert," he said.

Perez-Ramos had one leg amputated above the knee, while Parkinson is a double amputee.

The visiting soldiers are scheduled to arrive around 8:30 tonight and will attend the Sun Stroke VI Hoop Classic Basketball Tournament on Saturday. They will also take in sights and sounds around the island through Tuesday; Mitchell is staying through the end of next week.

"We are going boating to Buck Island, visiting the Dominoe Club to see the pigs, and going to local restaurants, botanical gardens and Point Udall and wherever else we have time," he said.

The investigation into Mitchell's accident has been completed and a determination was made that he had been injured by friendly fire. Mitchell said another V.I. National Guard soldier was firing about 10 feet to his left when her firearm overheated and she dropped the weapon. He said three shots were discharged as the weapon fell - two of those shots struck him in the leg, causing irreparable damage.

"Even in that incident, I consider myself blessed, because the bullet could have struck me in my chest or my head, and instead of losing a leg, I could have lost my life and I'm grateful for my second chance to live and make a difference," he said.

Sun Stroke President Rashidi Clenance said Mitchell's wife, Grisselle Soto-Mitchell, reached out to him while her husband was hospitalized at the Brooke Army Medical Center, and they shared the vision of bringing soldiers to St. Croix to enjoy the natural beauty and tranquility of the island. Clenance said he visited Mitchell at the hospital with Duncan, and they promised to make the trip a reality, knowing the sacrifices the soldiers have made to protect the freedom and liberties enjoyed here in the territory and across the nation.

Mitchell said he spent 11 months in the hospital following the accident and feared the worst, that he really would never walk again.

"I was comatose for two days after the shooting, I had lost 20 pints of blood, and days later when I woke up, I had a stump," he said. "I went out of my mind at that point. I could not believe it."

Mitchell, who had been a martial arts instructor, member of the band Code-9, triathlete and softball player, said to think that he would never be able to do any of those things again, crushed him for a while. Then he dug deep within himself to find the determination and will to do better that was laying dormant inside him.

"I decided that this wouldn't work for me," he said. "I rallied with other wounded soldiers and prayed. It was the grace of God and some good fish and fungi that really got me back up and mobile."

Mitchell said many of the other wounded soldiers that he came across were significantly younger than he is, and he believes he was put among them to be a motivator and keep them from committing suicide.

"So many of them were in that dark place, when you realize that your life would never be the same again. I was there, but I found peace and the will to live. It was not that easy for some of those guys," he said. "I had to look at my children and my family and know I wanted to live for them and know that I had a bigger purpose in life."

The long journey of surgeries and physical therapy was one Mitchell said he could not make without his wife and family.

"I had to relearn everything. I had to learn the sensation of standing up, learn to walk, learn to climb stairs, learn to run and even just to get into a car," he said. "I walk with a limp now with the prosthetic leg, but if someone just sees me, they may think I just have a sprained ankle or something. They would never know my story."

Soto-Mitchell is proud of his story, saying that her husband has faith and that got him through the ordeal.

"I came home last summer, but he wasn't ready, he just wasn't ready emotionally," she said. "But now I am grateful to Tim and Rashidi for making this opportunity available to us, because now Ben is ready to come and be around his friends and family, and we are so grateful."

She said she was also able to learn from the experience and was able to share her strength with other family members of wounded soldiers at Fisher House while her husband's rehabilitation progressed.

"It's not easy, because some of these soldiers are young. They have their lives ahead of them and being blown up and having your life changed in the blink of an eye is rough," she said. "To be able to come home with two of these soldiers and their wives is a Godsend because our home is so beautiful, and they will be able to take it all in and realize how much they really have to be thankful for, because it is a beautiful place to reflect and see God's work."

Soto-Mitchell said before the accident their family had planned to relocate to Tennessee. Her husband had accepted a job offer and was a few months away from the move. Following the shooting, she said the job contacted them and said they would wait for him until he made a full recovery and his position was still available.

Mitchell said now that he is recovered mentally, spiritually and physically he is ready to come back to the islands and is excited about showing off his home. "I'm ready to jump off the boat out at Buck Island and show these other soldiers that there is more to life than sitting in that wheelchair," he said. "Home is paradise, and I'm excited to let them experience it all."

- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email fstokes@dailynews.vi.

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