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Saving Grace

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By David Geffner, Photos by David Miezal

Published Jan 1, 2008 9:00 AM


Exhausted, Marine Cpl. Aaron Mankin stopped rolling in the dirt to put out the fire that had consumed his upper body. He became very still and closed his eyes. Images of family and friends flashed through his mind. "I thought about this girl I was dating," Mankin says quietly, gazing over at his wife, a fellow Marine. "I lay down to die and fixated on her face."

Diana Mankin stares back at her husband's face, grossly disfigured with burns from the improvised explosive device (IED) that nearly took his life in Iraq. Her hand twines around his like a ship tethered in a storm.

The Marine Lance Cpl. says she has a hard time even remembering what he looked like before his injuries on May 11, 2005. "Aaron was all I thought about when I came back from Iraq," she says slowly. "I was scared because he looked like a stranger. But now, I don't even see the scars. Not anymore."

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Making the scars go away, in the most literal sense, is why the Mankins have come to UCLA. The injured Marine is the first patient in Operation Mend, a one-of-a-kind partnership launched by UCLA Medical Center board member and noted philanthropist Ronald A. Katz, which unites wounded soldiers from Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio, Texas, with UCLA doctors.

"Irrespective of your political position on the war, these are our soldiers," says Katz. "These are our countrymen, our neighbors. If they're injured, whether you approve of the war or don't, it's our responsibility to take care of them."

He is not alone in that mission. On campus and in the desert, in ways large and small, Bruins in and out of uniform are helping to heal the wounds of war.

Taking Down the Red Tape

In Fort Bragg, N.C., Army Captain Arturo Murguia '99 is the company commander for a unit that helps wounded soldiers, whom the Army calls Warriors in Transition (WTs), deal with the perilous military bureaucracy to ensure they get the care they need when they return home. Although Murguia is a field artillery officer with zero background in medicine, he knows something about the cost of war #8212; on one of his last combat patrols in Baghdad, the captain's vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade that slammed him up against the inner hull, and he was later diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.

"I know exactly what it is like to navigate that bureaucracy, deal with revolving doctors and nurses while they deploy, and endure the long waits in between appointments," he says. "Is it tough? Absolutely. Is it relentless? Yes. It is also by far the most rewarding job I have ever had."

Indeed, it is a long, tough road for all who strive to repair the ravages of war. No one knows that better than the first patient of Operation Mend.

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