U.S. Air Force Major Mackenzie Johnson is the type of person we think of when we talk about giving thanks to service members.
An 11-year service member, Johnson has served in 30 combat missions as a flight nurse, ferrying wounded service members out of war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. She has logged more than 850 flight hours.
But on Monday, Johnson, a nursing student, was thanking others, presenting the staff at Winona State University-Rochester with a military flag flown on a recent rescue mission.
Johnson, an Alden, Minn., native, says that without the flexibility and understanding of WSU-Rochester staff, she never would have been able to pursue her nursing doctorate while on a recent deployment. Their compassion and support after her dad, Neil, died of cancer two years ago was also critical.
"They understand life and life events. They want you to succeed," Johnson said.
At the flag ceremony held in the Rochester Community and Technical College atrium Monday, Johnson told the audience that being a flight nurse was "one of the most humbling experiences."
"I'm able to look (wounded service members) in the eyes and tell them that they're safe and they're going home," Johnson said.
The presentation of a flag to others is a time-honored military tradition, an expression of gratitude for the support a service member has received in life. WSU-Rochester had never held such a ceremony before.
"It's a first for us, and we're delighted," said Jeanine Gangeness, dean of the WSU school of graduate studies.
Johnson's mom, Candy, said her daughter's gesture was in keeping with her personality.
"She doesn't take as much credit as she should," Candy Johnson said. "It's always somebody else. She is a very, very giving."
Johnson served five years on active duty before joining the reserves. She currently serves as a member of the 934th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Minneapolis Air Reserve Base. She works as a nurse practitioner at Mayo Clinic - Eau Claire in the critical are unit. She has a similar ceremony planned for the staff there.
On her deployment this summer, Johnson helped launch and coordinate rescue flights out of Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. The flag that Johnson presented Monday was flown on a Boeing C-17 Globemaster, a large military transport plane. Such planes serve as medical/surgical units in the air.
WSU-Rochester assistant professor Kimberly Langer said the college tries to be flexible and work around the schedules of its adult learners. In Johnson's case, it meant moving deadlines and due dates to accommodate her military schedule and duties.
Having seen Johnson in simulated critical care situations in class, Langer described her as a take-charge person.
"She will take control of the situation, but she is very poised and connected with her colleagues and student peers," Langer said.
Johnson said the ceremony was also intended to be a reminder to people that military members are "not home and still actively involved" in places like Afghanistan, which is America's longest war.
"Any support, any extra prayers, anything that our community can provide is super important," she said.