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.

Being a Marine, you want to tell yourself you're fine, just walk it off. But I couldn't walk this one off. I covered the bottom half of my face with my elbow, and looking at my eyes and my forehead, I didn't look any different. I knew inside I was still the same man. But not everyone would see that, and I was very concerned when Jake and Maggie, my little brother and sister, then 8 and 7, came to see me in the hospital. I was their big brother. I was in the Marine Corps. I was invincible. That's how they saw me, but I didn't know if they would see me that way anymore. So I asked Jake, "Do you still think Bubba (that's what they call me) is as strong and fast and tough as you used to?" Jake didn't think about it at all. He just said, "Yeah, I think so." And I looked at myself, and I was bandaged up and breathing hard, and I said, "What makes you think that?" And he said back to me, "Well, they tried to blow you up, and they couldn't." I would love it if my daughter would see me that way one day, as "superhuman" in my ability to take care of her, and if she's ever in harm's way, there's a cape to wrap her up and shield her. That cape is me.


My worst fear for her as she grows up is that she will be ridiculed or teased for the way I look. She had nothing to do with this. She can't do anything about my skin. It's not fair for her to carry any kind of burden for me or to feel guilty or bad or "less than" because my face is scarred. On the other hand, I feel lucky that she doesn't know the difference between Daddy now and Daddy then.

I see what happens when other officers come home wounded. Their kids are reluctant to hug them because Daddy looks different, and because Daddy has owies and the kids don't want to hurt them. Having a severely wounded father flips a kid's whole world upside down. They don't know what to expect or what's expected of them. In that way, Madeline has been spared.


I never want Madeline to think, If my daddy weren't hurt, I could…. I want her to see my scars as an advantage. I want her to see that they make me love her more because they make me try harder. And if I can't figure out a way to do something for her, if I can't, say, put together her bike because I'm missing some fingers and I can't manage the little parts, I am not proud, I will ask for help. I will get it done for her somehow. That's on me. That's on my shoulder. She will never go without because I was wounded. I can give you every excuse in my arsenal not to change diapers or do the tough stuff. But the fact that I don't use any of that stuff to my advantage is going to deepen our connection to each other. I can only hope that one day, when she's old enough, she's going to realize that this stuff wasn't easy for her dad, but he did it anyway, because he loved her.


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