TULARE -- Army Staff Sgt. Kenneth Mitchell's favorite holiday is the Fourth of July, because it's devoted to freedom and those who fight for it: "the fallen soldiers, the ones still overseas, the ones at home."
Independence Day soon will take on even more meaning for Mitchell, 25, an Exeter High School graduate who is home on leave.
Today, Mitchell will marry his sweetheart, Malori Williamson, 23, of Visalia, in a backyard ceremony in Tulare.
But the ceremony may not look like what either of them had imagined. Mitchell will be in a wheelchair when he meets his bride at the altar. He was severely injured April 3 in Afghanistan when a roadside bomb exploded while he was on night patrol, shattering his left leg from the knee down and damaging his right ankle and right forearm.
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Williamson said she doesn't mind sharing her wedding day with America's birthday celebration.
"He won't ever forget," she said. "I can always count on him to remember."
Mitchell said military service came naturally to him. His grandfather, Claude Kyle, served in World War II and was awarded a Purple Heart.
"I just looked up to him," Mitchell said. "When I got out of high school, nothing was really for me except the military. I love it."
Mitchell joined the Army in February 2004, eight months after graduation. A few months later, he learned that high school friend Daniel Unger, an Army specialist, had been killed in Iraq. Mitchell said it spurred his desire to serve there in 2005 and 2006.
Williamson was working as a bartender at an Applebee's restaurant in Visalia in January last year when Mitchell walked in. It was his last day in town before heading to Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert for 30 days of nonstop infantry training, preparing for another tour overseas.
They struck up a conversation and never stopped talking.
"I reeled him in," Williamson said. "I told the other girls, 'Don't even think about it.' I was stuck on him."
Before leaving for Afghanistan in June as part of the "Obama surge," they bought engagement rings -- his titanium, hers white gold.
Mitchell was promoted to staff sergeant in-country; his superiors wanted him to be a squad leader in combat.
He got a 10-day leave in February so he could make it home for the birth of the couple's baby girl, Skyree.
Twenty-six days before he was due to come home again, Mitchell was injured when the Stryker armored troop vehicle he was riding in hit a roadside bomb.
"I thought I'd lost my legs," he said. "I couldn't see them, there was so much smoke."
Luckily, no one died.
The worst part of being injured: "Knowing my fiancée was about to get the phone call," he said.
Titanium in his leg
Mitchell was taken by helicopter to Kandahar Air Base, then was airlifted to Germany and arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center a week later. Williamson and Skyree flew there to be by his side in Ward 57, the amputee and limb injuries ward.
Surgeons put 26 pins and two titanium plates in his leg to try to save it. But there's still a chance he could lose it below the knee. He got skin grafts on his arm and left leg.
First lady Michelle Obama stopped in one day to chat and held their baby girl, Mitchell said.
When Mitchell and Williamson found out two weeks ago that he was getting a 30-day convalescent leave, they started planning their wedding. The Fourth of July was the obvious choice.
"I'm a very patriotic person," Mitchell said. "The anthem they play before a baseball game -- I get teary-eyed."
They flew into Fresno on Saturday. Mitchell had arranged for Williamson's sister to meet them with "Will You Marry Me?" signs. He proposed formally in the airport.
They called the Vintage Press Restaurante in Visalia for a catering quote, but were told the restaurant would cater the wedding for free out of respect for Mitchell's service.
"I do appreciate everyone calling me the 'hometown hero' and everything, but I don't feel like a hero," Mitchell said. "I was just doing my job and an IED (improvised explosive device) went off."
Williamson, however, said Mitchell is too modest.
"I've told you since Day One you're my hero," she said, watching as Mitchell raised his feet onto the sofa arm to relieve the pain. He's been staying with her in her parents' home.
In the living room, Mitchell gazed at the $700 dress uniform he will wear on his wedding day. On it are 12 ribbons, three pins, one shoulder cord, sergeant stripes, four combat stripes and his name tag.
The couple is putting off their honeymoon because of his injuries.
But Mitchell plans to re-enlist July 22 at Fort Lewis, Wash. He hopes to stay in the military, and his prospects are surprisingly good.
After a soldier recovers from injuries, medical and physical evaluation boards must give the OK for a return to duty. Yet even those who don't pass the physical can still apply for permission to remain in the Army.
Someday, Mitchell said, he wants to be assigned as an Army recruiter in Tulare County.
But for right now, he said, "we want for me to be able to walk."