As a young child living in the comforts of Los Angeles, the concept of the Iraq War was just that – a concept. There was no reason for me to take time out of my schedule filled with important tasks like watching American Idol to dwell on the brave men and women who were putting their lives on the line every day to keep everyone around me safe.
My step grandparents had a vastly different attitude toward the war and service members in it. When they visited Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, which provides care for the most severely wounded soldiers, they met Marine Core journalist Corporal Aaron Mankin who had been severely injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) that his vehicle ran over during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005. He was one of the few marines to survive the attack, and his survival came at a large price: his nose, lips, ears, and two fingers essentially burned completely off, and second and third degree burns covering over 25% of his body. His ability to keep living and remaining outwardly positive and charismatic inspired my step-grandparents to found the charity Operation Mend, a collaboration between Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and Brooke Army Medical Center. It provides wounded service members with reconstructive plastic surgery and help with the mental repercussions of war, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Aaron was Operation Mend’s first patient. He came to Los Angeles in September of 2007, when I was just ten years old, and my family was to become his “buddy family,” meaning that we act as his family and give him all of the help he needs while in LA. In all honesty, I was scared to meet him. Not only is he a Corporal, which is an intimidating title in the mind of a young girl, but I knew that he would be severely disfigured, which is something I had not been exposed to before. I had no idea what his personality would be like, or how just seeing his scars would impact me. I was not by any means sheltered from physical differences that people may have, but there were no circumstances before meeting Aaron that would cause me to meet someone who had been severly disfigured.
The praise that my step grandparents had for Aaron was, to my relief, very quickly justified upon meeting him. He dispensed all formalities with a warm smile and handshake and told us calling him Colonel was unnecessary. He soon became a part of my family. At first his scars shocked me. It was hard to even think about the unbelievable pain that they must have caused him, both physically and emotionally, and seeing someone so disfigured at such a young age really can be a little scary, especially when you aren’t used to such a degree of physical differences. But despite his incident in Iraq, he spoke with quick wit and had a gentle kindness that was pleasantly shocking from a veteran who had been to hell and back because of the IED. After only ten to fifteen minutes with him, I told my mom that in talking to him, I didn’t really see his scars anymore. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Aaron had such a unique effect on me that anything superficial stopped mattering and I became utterly engrossed in our conversations.
In time, Aaron became like an adopted big brother to my siblings and me. He helped us with our homework, talked with us about our friends, sports, and hobbies, and his visits to LA with his young daughter and later infant son were always excitedly anticipated.
Aaron’s positive and selfless outlook on life still stuns me. When we first met him, he explained his willingness to be the first Operation Mend patient did not only come from his desire to be able to walk around the street without the frightened stares of the people he passed, but also from his desire to make sure that when his daughter (his son was not born yet) Maddie would never be teased in school or isolated because of how he looked.
This past May, Aaron was spending the seventh anniversary of the incident that forever altered his life with my family. I was sitting talking with him, just catching up on what we did for the past couple of months, when we started talking about the significance of the date (which my parents had reminded me of earlier): it was, as he simply put it, his “alive day.”
I was confused by what he meant. I knew that he was injured exactly seven years prior, but I did not understand what he meant. So I asked him, “what do you mean by ‘alive day?’ I thought this was the anniversary of the incident?”
Staying true to his incredible character, Aaron replied, “Today is the anniversary of the day that I survived an attack that many of my close friends did not,” and went on to explain how amazing the day is to him. There was no bitterness in his voice, no anger at his unfair circumstances, how he fought for our country and ended up with a life that most other people would considered ruined and not worth living. Aaron was given the opportunity to keep living, and that’s exactly what he did.
The unique outlook on life that Aaron has changed me from the time I met him. He managed to put my very fortunate life into perspective in a way that no one else had ever been able to do, and made me realize just how fortunate I am to have people like him fighting for my freedom. Even though he is nearly done with his surgeries and his visits to Los Angeles are much less frequent, I still see him the same way I did when we first met, as another human being, and a truly inspiring one at that. Getting to meet him and have him become a part as my family is an experience that is invaluable and I will never forget the incredible bond that we share.
By Sara Evall