When a man suffers a life-threatening and life-altering injury, he can easily go down a dark path. He might lash out at the world and grow bitter and angry at anyone or anything that contributed to the injury. He could easily wallow in self-pity and despair. And who could blame him?
Fortunately, when an accident during a 1992 combat training mission nearly cut U.S. Navy Gunner’s Mate Missile Technician Stacy Twiggs in half, he had a different reaction.
“I just felt like I was spared for a reason,” Twiggs said. “When I stopped breathing, I was praying – praying that I wouldn't be taken quite yet. But I knew the odds weren't good for me when I came to grips with my circumstances.
“I guess you could say I was pretty much driven to make the most of it, and that's how I've lived my life every single day since then. It hasn't come without its aches and pains and hasn't come without a lot of struggle and hardship. But I have embraced every single day and every moment, every joy that I could since Feb. 5, 1992.”
That attitude has served Twiggs well these past 28 years. During that span, the Mercury Pro Team angler has helped further the sport of bass fishing in myriad ways. He also became an officer serving the Federal Aviation Administration and built a successful guide business to boot.
Twiggs has led and is leading a remarkable life, but it very nearly ended tragically short that day in the Pacific Ocean. A native Texan, he was 22 years old then, having joined the Navy in October 1991.
“I was 22, living in Long Beach/Los Angeles, Calif., so the world was my oyster,” he said. “Ten feet tall and bulletproof.”
The Gulf War was in full swing at that time, and Twiggs was serving on the USS George Philip, a 445-foot guided missile fast frigate. He was working beneath a ready-to-fire Harpoon missile performing a routine task when a series of failures caused the missile launcher to unexpectedly traverse to the “Ready-Error” position. This is the most strategic position for the launcher to attain if a threat requires the launcher to fire a missile within a matter of seconds.
“There’s no getting out of its way when it decides it’s going to move,” he said.
The base of the launcher and one of the missile’s fins sliced deeply across Twiggs’ body, severing his torso nearly in two, then crushed him up against a 2-inch-thick steel bulkhead. With each attempted breath, the hydraulic power of the launcher clamped tighter, expelling the remaining air from his lungs. Twiggs’ injuries wouldn’t be considered life-threating, in all candor: Even a layman would have quickly and accurately determined that the wounds were almost certainly fatal.
And for approximately 66 seconds, that hypothetical observation would be correct as Twiggs flatlined. No heartbeat, no breath, well on his way to an inevitable demise.
His shipmates, fortunately, didn’t share that view. They immediately administered aid as they were trained to do and called for the emergency medical team. He woke up sometime later in a hospital, alive, but not by much. His pelvis had been crushed, hip flexors severed and multiple organs severely damaged. Essentially, the only part of Twiggs’ lower torso that was spared was his spinal cord.
But like countless other soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines before him, Twiggs refused to give up. He quickly started the painful recovery process, which included multiple reconstructive surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy. The accident ended his military career. His ominous retirement letter read, “The unfitting condition(s) were combat-related IAW 26 U.S.C. 104(b)(3). The disability was caused by an instrumentality of war and/or incurred as a direct result of armed conflict.” Yet, he refused to let the injuries end his life as he learned to walk and care for himself again.
“Only by God’s grace am I even here,” Twiggs said. “And, of course, some wonderful shipmates and corpsmen who brought me back to life. And then Saint Mary’s Medical Trauma Center and the Naval Hospital in Long Beach.”
On Jan. 1, 1994, he walked out of the hospital, still with injuries that will never fully heal, but with a whole new perspective on life.
“I distinctly remember the humble moment of walking out, turning to look back at the hospital entrance, saying a prayer of thanks and vowing a promise to make the most of this second chance – to live a life which always honors those who gave all and paid the ultimate price,” Twiggs said. “In some ways, I feel like I’m pretty fortunate to experience something so traumatic because it changes the way you look at things.
“You know, we don’t take things in life for granted on purpose, but we don’t know any better sometimes. Until then I didn’t think I ever took anything for granted, but, boy, I did. It wasn’t because I meant to. I just didn’t know any better until the accident.”
Twiggs was aided in his recovery by his family, which has strong faith and a proud military tradition. His father is a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient, and Twiggs’ brother served in the Air Force.
After he left the hospital and was discharged from the Navy, Twiggs started bass fishing again, as he’d been an avid angler growing up. He became a regular competitor in the Texas B.A.S.S. Nation and eventually worked his way up to president of the state association. He went on to work for the national B.A.S.S. organization in Montgomery, Ala., and then in Orlando, Fla., principally working in youth programs and growing the sport. It’s no exaggeration to say that many of the youth, high school and college programs that are flourishing today have Twiggs’ fingerprints all over them, and some exist due in large part to the work that he put in while at B.A.S.S. and ESPN Outdoors.
Twiggs left B.A.S.S. in 2011 during a restructuring and eventually moved back to Texas, making his home in Fort Worth. There he has built a successful guide business, putting clients on fish in lakes all over north Texas. He also returned to government service and today oversees land, space and air rights for the National Airspace System (NAS) and the NAS Defense Program for the Federal Aviation Administration.
One could forgive Twiggs if he looked back on his time in the Navy and at the military in general with something less than fondness, but that couldn’t be farther from reality.
“If anything, I just have more respect for our service members than I did before,” he said. “These people go voluntarily. Just today, we were playing golf at the Naval Air Station course, and there were F/A-18s taking off right across the fence from us. It’s just so awesome; you can feel it in your chest when they hit those afterburners. At one point I just let out a yell: ‘That’s freedom, baby!’ It was amazing.
“I've just got so much pride in the military. No one joins for any kind of recognition; they just do their job. I'm thankful for what they do, and I look at it with admiration and appreciation.”
If it sounds like Twiggs, now 50, is living like someone who is grateful beyond measure and savoring every moment of his second chance, it’s because he is. He said he’s as happy as he has ever been in his life and appreciates everyday things in a way that most of us don’t.
“I could never have imagined the lifetime I’ve enjoyed since 1992. I was spared for a reason,” he said. “I make the most of every day, and I mean that. You know when you wake up and you recognize just how amazing the world is around you? How green the grass is and how bright the sky is, and you see every blade of grass or every leaf on a tree? You enjoy catching a 12-inch fish as much as a 10-pound fish? That's a whole different perspective than when you were younger because you think life is going to go on forever.
“I should have never woken up. I shouldn’t even be here. Instead of being bitter, I’m thankful. And God’s given me a lot of opportunities to do some things that I never thought I’d do. I’m grateful.”