SAN ANTONIO — Sgt. Darron Mikeworth's first glimpse in the mirror was largely a blur. He'd just come out of a drug-induced coma three weeks after a bomber blew up his Humvee in Iraq.
Mikeworth awoke in a bed at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. He was relieved he still had his arms, legs and ears. But his face was in bad shape, and his left eye was useless. His nose was mostly gone. His top right lip was curled into a snarl, his right jaw was torn and his bottom teeth were wired together. His face was splattered with pinkish third-degree burns.
"I could have just flipped out," he says. "But I looked in the mirror and said, all right, there's no changing it. I just have to deal with it. This is me now."
Mikeworth, the warrior, will tell you he is the same man he was Before The Bomb. The 32-year-old soldier who served two stints in Iraq (and two more in Kosovo and the Sinai) still wants to take down the bad guys, still thrives on being a cog in the big Army machine.
But Sgt. Mikeworth, the survivor, also knows that no matter how much he heals, he'll forever be defined, in some way, by what happened near Baghdad on April 29, 2005.
Mikeworth knew his wounds were so extensive there was no way doctors could turn back the clock. But he refused then — as he does now — to dwell on his losses.
That's where "Operation Mend" came in. A one-of-kind partnership between the UCLA Medical Center and Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. The program provides reconstructive surgery to members of the military who've been severely disfigured in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, 24 men and women have been treated.
At Brooke, Mikeworth endured about 16 surgeries, many on the lower right arm that he almost lost in the blast.
Mikeworth's road to recovery has been part medical marvel, part profile in courage — the stalwart soldier who rebuilds his confidence as doctors rebuild his face. All along, as UCLA surgeons have tucked and trimmed, adding a bit of cartilage here, a flap of skin there.
"I was pretty gruesome in the beginning," he says. "I looked like I came out of some Halloween horror movie. I know that. Sometimes if I was having a bad day, I'd get mad at the situation I found myself in, but I would never get angry at the people."
But his appearance didn't faze his sons, Ryan, 7, and Connor, 6. They brought laughter into the home when they returned from a two-month stay with his wife's parents in Illinois.
"I used to be afraid to go pick up the kids at the bus stop because I was afraid I looked like a monster," he says. "Now I pop on my sunglasses and just walk down the street and unless somebody walks up and gets into my face and starts talking to me, they have no clue.
Sgt. Mikeworth hopes to join an Army unit by summer. He's on medical hold while he looks for a suitable slot. He's thinking about military intelligence or becoming an instructor.
We are rightfully proud of people like Sgt. Mikeworth and his family but, we must be even more "thankful" that our country is served by people like this.
When you get particularly tired of the whiners wanting more unearned support from their country or the bleeding-hearts telling us we have to understand the harsh background of criminals and sociopaths, just think about the men and women of the Armed Forces ... volunteers all, offering their very being in order to serve.
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