Beliefnet
Photo Credit: Mary Ellen Mark
Reprinted with permission from Best Life magazine, copyright June 2007.

Aaron Mankin, 25, is a Marine, a Purple Heart recipient, and the father of a baby girl. The following is his story.

 

Madeline has started to develop this crooked smile that says "I know something you don't." I had that same crooked smile before I was burned.

 

I was wounded two years ago. We were clearing houses and villages and pinching off the insurgency coming into Iraq from Syria when we rolled over an IED and our vehicle exploded literally 10 feet into the air. More fire came at us, and we thought we were under ambush, but it was our own munitions inside the vehicle cooking off—grenades, bullets, flares. I fell back inside the tank, and the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was fire. My initial reaction was to gasp, and in doing so, I inhaled flames and smoke and pieces of burned uniform. My goggles and flak jacket protected my eyes and chest, but the rest of my upper body was on fire. I jumped out of the vehicle and tried to put myself out by rolling in the grass, but it was dry grass and it caught fire as I rolled in it. Four Marines died, 11 others were wounded. I was certain I was going to be among the dead. People say your life passes before you. For me, I saw the people who meant the most to me. My mom. My dad. I was only semiconscious. Then, my girlfriend Diana's face popped into my head. I was thinking, These are my last thoughts. She is my last thought. And I focused on her face, because if I was going to die in war, I wanted to die with the thought of something worth fighting for, something worth dying for.

 

Instead, I woke up. The first time I saw Diana three months later, I asked her to marry me. I didn't know what I was capable of as a husband or as a dad. I didn't know what I could bring to the table besides a burned face and scarred arms. My ears, nose, and mouth were gone, as were the thumb and index finger of my right hand. When she said yes, it was a turning point for me. Even though I had a right to be bitter and curse the world, it wasn't what Diana deserved. It wasn't the man she fell in love with.

 

It was a month and a half before I was ready to look at myself in the mirror. Then one day, I got out of my hospital bed to go to physical therapy and I saw the mirror I'd passed countless times, refusing to see the truth about how hurt I was. I looked over my left shoulder, and there I was—this torn up, frail, thin individual with open wounds on his face that I barely recognized, and my worst imagination became my reality. I cried.

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