UCLA Gives Severely Burned Soldiers New F - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

'A Life Worth Living': UCLA Gives Severely Burned Soldiers New Faces

HUFFINGTONPOST.COM - It was Aaron Mankin's first chance at combat in Iraq. As a part of Operation Matador, he was going door-to-door looking for traces of weapons or explosives in an effort to sweep the insurgency towards the Syrian border. On May 11, 2005, the seventh day of the mission, Mankin and 16 other marines riding inside a 26-ton tracked vehicle drove over a roadside bomb.

"It threw us 10 feet in the air," he said. "Seconds later, I realized I was on fire. I dove out of the back of the vehicle and dropped and rolled and rolled -- so much so that I exhausted myself and just lay there burning. Thoughts of my family and friends went through my head as I laid there, waiting to die."

6 of Mankin's fellow marines were killed instantly by the roadside bomb. Everyone else in the vehicle was burned or otherwise wounded. Within 48 hours, Mankin had been transported to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, and was surrounded by family and friends.

"I had second and third-degree burns on both arms from my finger tips to shoulder blades. Every feature on my face was burned away," he said. "Ears gone. Nose gone. My mouth detracted so far back that my mother had to feed me through a funnel for weeks ... I wasn't ready to look at myself for weeks. I would hold my arm up in front of my face so I could only see my eyes."

But after nearly 40 life-saving surgeries in San Antonio, Mankin was grateful to be alive and began to resign himself to looking the way that he did. And yet, he felt like he had "more to do, more to give back" -- so he began speaking out about his experience.

In November 2006, philanthropist Ron Katz, a board member at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, and his late wife saw Mankin on CNN.

"Aaron's face was extraordinarily devastated; it was in shambles," Katz recalled. "From all of that, which would be catastrophic to most people, there was this immense wonderful personality. He told CNN that he had gone through dozens of surgeries. When asked what he was going to do next, Aaron, with his facial skin to the bone, looked up and said, 'I have to fix the beautiful part!'"

Katz called it a "fortuitous" moment. Inspired by Mankin, Katz began to lay the groundwork for Operation Mend, a partnership program that flies patients from all over the country to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center to undergo face and hand reconstructive surgeries.

"My wife and I soon realized that there were dozens of Aarons out there," Katz said. "These men and women deserve not only the best that the Defense sector has to offer; they deserve the best that the private sector has to offer as well." Click here to read more and to look at more photos

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