Beauty Is Who You Are

I had never heard of Aaron Mankin when they handed him the microphone. He only spoke for a few minutes, but I was inspired to learn more. I found out he was a wounded Marine, his opinion on beauty, and the amazing story behind it.

Aaron Mankin

Cpl. Aaron Mankin addressing IAVA marchers before the NYC Veterans Day Parade 11.11.13

What I heard him say

I was standing with IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) marchers this past Veterans Day in NYC as they waited to join the parade on 5th Avenue. Aaron Mankin was introduced as a leading voice of this generation of veterans. Since November 11th is about expressing gratitude, he spoke of that.

He said that when people would come up and thank him, he always felt awkward and uncomfortable. “What do I say? Hey…you’re welcome!” The semi-cheesy way he delivered the line “you’re welcome” made everyone laugh. He said that after a while he realized what his response should be. “What do I say now? Thank you for your support. Because all this…right here with each other, in our hometowns…all across the country, if we have this, we have all we need.”

As I stood in the cold, I found the warmth of his words uplifting and comforting. I loved his sense of humor. And I feel strongly that supporting each other, even with the smallest kindness, has tremendous power. So I was looking forward to finding out who he is and why he was a “leading voice.”

Marine Corporal Aaron P. Mankin

“On May 11th, 2005, Cpl. Mankin was wounded when the 26-ton amphibious assault vehicle he was traveling in rolled over an improvised explosive device and was propelled 10 feet in the air.

Four Marines died in the attack and 11 others were injured. In addition to the damage sustained to his throat and lungs from smoke inhalation, Cpl. Mankin suffered intense burns on over 25 percent of his body. His ears, nose and mouth were essentially gone and he lost two fingers on his right hand.”

This is the information about Cpl. Mankin at Operation Mend. He was their first patient two years after the attack. Operation Mend is a program at UCLA Medical Center where top plastic surgeons and reconstructive surgeons donate the their time and talents to vets with severe facial injuries and other medical issues.

After almost nine years, he’s had over 60 surgeries. When I found images of when he first got hurt, I was absolutely shocked. I did not recognize the man I saw speaking that day. I have to admit that looking at them made my eyes fill with tears. I’m not sure what surgery # the photos below are, but even the “before” photos are incredible progress. I am so grateful for Operation Mend and the work they do.

Part of the journey for Cpl. Mankin. (photo credit: UCLA Health and UCLA Operation Mend)

Part of the journey. for Cpl. Mankin. (photo credit: UCLA Health and UCLA Operation Mend)

Through it all Cpl. Mankin has continued to serve by helping other injured veterans to heal, to be a voice for them, and to inspire everyone around him to find their own ways to serve. He also helps spread the word about Operation Mend.

If you know of a veteran that could be helped by Operation Mend, please tell them about this organization. If you live in the LA area, you have the opportunity to be a Buddy Family. This program helps patients and their families spend some time beyond the hospital and hotel walls by joining host families for a home-cooked meal or an activity. If you wish to make a donation, you can do so at their site as well.

A beautiful truth

Cpl. Mankin actively avoided the mirror in this hospital room. When he finally did look, he didn’t recognize the man staring back and he says plainly, “I cried for a long time.” But then he made a choice. He said he didn’t want a stranger who dug a hole and planted a bomb to dictate who he was. He was still the same man inside. And that man chose to continue giving and serving with courage, kindness, and humor. He doesn’t avoid the mirror now. Because, “beauty is who you are, not how you look.”

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Finding My Place In The Healing Process

Jessica Allen was at her desk working when she got the call. It was January 22, 2011 and the voice on the other end was telling her what happened to her husband Chaz. While on a dismounted patrol in the Zhari district of Afghanistan, he stepped on an IED, instantly lost both legs and broke his elbow. Nothing would be the same.

The Allen Family at Ground Zero.

The Allen Family at Ground Zero. (photo credit, Team Allen)

When I hear about something like this, my heart aches and then I hope and pray the family does well in their recovery. That’s generally the extent of it. I mean, I’ve never met them in person. I don’t live in their town. I’m not a doctor. I can’t build them a wheelchair-friendly house. I don’t have a place in the healing process. Or do I?

The movie and more

When I found out about the documentary Comedy Warriors, (famous comics teach wounded warriors how to do stand-up to help them heal) I thought that was something special. I wrote about it. Jessica saw the post and emailed me. She said in part, “I wish you could meet all the Heroes I have been blessed to meet. They are so inspiring…. Rob Jones, the double amputee featured in the film, was at Walter Reed when my husband was. We were able to see him run for the first time.” Jessica also shared the links below about her family:

www.facebook.com/GoTeamAllen

AdventuresOfTeamAllen

I’ve been following along since July and I’ve learned a few things. I’ve seen Jessica and crew cheering Chaz and others on. I’ve seen an, “off-road” wheelchair that looks pretty amazing. I’ve read some of the hard parts too in her blog. Then there’s a whole separate category of stuff I just never thought of, like body temperature. You lose both your legs, that’s a lot of biological real estate. Your body is used to maintaining 98.7 for a bigger area. It takes years to adjust. In the meantime, Chaz feels like he’s burning up.

I found it inspiring that Jessica did more than just try to heal her own husband and family. She tries to help as many families as she can through her work at Yellow Ribbon Fund (YRF.) So after reading, learning, and cheering them on, I wanted to know more.

My questions

ME: What 3 things do you wish people knew or understood?

JESSICA:

-Just because someone is missing limbs, they are still quiet capable of living a great life. Do not pity them for what they’ve lost. Instead celebrate them for what they have overcome.

-Caregivers are the silent heroes of our war. They sacrifice so much and so often go unnoticed.

-There is so much left to be done. It takes a nation to heal a hero. We must find our place in the healing process and help them heal.

ME: What is your biggest challenge now?

JESSICA: Balancing everything. I work full-time for YRF. YRF alone is a lot. We help so many people. As soon as one project is complete we are hopping to the next one. In addition, I still run my tax business. We homeschool our girls. I am a Girl Scout leader. And I still try to volunteer where ever I can. It’s a lot to juggle.

ME: What is the best thing to come out of this?

JESSICA: We are finally a family. Chaz missed our oldest daughter being born. Then he was gone for over half of her life. She never really had a chance to get to know him and threw up walls every time he came around. Our youngest daughter accepted him from the beginning. But the oldest was just a little different. Now we are together all the time. We have truly been able to get to know each other. We have had more fun that I ever knew you could have. We’ve gone on so many adventures together. The gift of time together has just been amazing!

Chaz playing with the girls in the park.

Chaz playing with the girls in the park. (photo credit, Team Allen)

Team Allen reaching the top

Reaching the top! (photo credit, Team Allen)

My place

Jessica’s response about all of us healing a hero struck me. I never thought of having a place in this process. So I tried to imagine what that could be.

I believe strongly that awareness and empathy matter. No one wants to feel misunderstood or alone. For our wounded warriors and families, this is especially true. So maybe I could try to help increase that kind of healing by sharing their story. Maybe this is the place I could serve.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

When Should You Tell A Missing Limb Joke?

How about when you’re a wounded warrior doing stand-up “therapy” with comics like Lewis Black, Zach Galifianakis, B.J. Novak, and Bob Saget? When I’ve written to wounded warriors in hospitals, I’ve secretly worried and wondered what was next for them. Would they have all they need to face the challenges ahead? Feel forgotten? Have a VA-delay nightmare? What about their families? I never thought to ask if trauma could be treated with laughter, even though every troop I’ve met has had a great (and often dark) sense of humor.

But I found out that an amazing group of comics did ask. They wondered about “healing through humor” and the result is a project and documentary called Comedy Warriors. It features five vets like Bobby Henline, the sole survivor of a roadside bomb who was burned over 38% of his body and lost his left hand. This man will make you laugh. And touch your heart. Meet him and the other incredible vets in this trailer:

Comedy Warriors

A slight divide

1% of the population serves in active duty. If you add all vets, the number goes up to around 6%. With that kind of math, many of us don’t know what our troops and their families endure. The military experience is unique. For the wounded, that becomes even more true when they get back to the civilian world. Wounded Warrior Project, a group that “honors and empowers wounded warriors,” has these recent battlefield figures: 6,717 deaths, 50,897 wounded, 320,000 estimated TBIs (Traumatic Brain Injury) and 400,000 estimated with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.) For perspective, the current U.S. population is about 322 million.

So if you’ve been wounded, how do you explain, express or connect with those around you who may have little understanding of what you’ve been through? If you hold everything in, how do you heal? I once asked a soldier I know who has PTSD and other combat injuries, to help me understand PTSD better. I didn’t realize how hard it would be for him to respond. But in the end, sharing eased his pain a little. When I tried to picture him doing a project like this, I laughed out loud. He’s a piece of work without a microphone. I bet he’d excel at comedy therapy.

Sharing (and healing) through humor is both disarming and empowering. Fear and pain are pushed aside to create a space where military and civilian can come together. And when we’re in something together, we are all strengthened. These wounded warriors are resilient, inspiring and yeah, pretty damn funny. I would love to see the whole documentary. But I have to ask. Actually, a lot of us have to ask. In order for the film to get wider distribution, our local PBS, cable providers, and movie houses need to hear that we’re interested. I’m going to send a few emails. I hope you do too.

Did you hear the one about the wounded warrior who got the last laugh?

Imagine if we could all say, “yes!”

*Update: Bernadette Luckett, a Co-Producer on the film, told me that this was a labor of love for all involved. She also told me how they’re trying to bring Comedy Warriors to a larger audience by entering film festivals to get attention and secure a distribution deal. They’ve won top prizes in the ones they’ve been able to enter. If anyone would like to support their participation at major film festivals through a tax-deductible donation, this is their help page. 

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Can A Song Heal The Invisible Wounds Of War?

Richard Casper, a Marine veteran, took a disabled Marine named Jesse to some “experts” to help him heal. Not doctors, musicians. You see, when Richard himself was dealing with the effects of TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) he discovered that writing his story down helped. Turning those stories into songs helped even more. He decided he wanted other vets to experience the tremendous difference this could make. So Richard brought Jesse to Nashville and with the help of the band, Blackjack Billy, Jesse was able to put to music things that were hard to say. It was a life-changing experience for him.

I first became aware of this from Richard’s friend and my fellow blogger, Mother Goose. When I listened to the song I was very moved because some of the lyrics were words I’ve heard before from different troops. It was beautiful and painful at the same time.


Their next goal is to raise $5,000 to produce a music video. If you’d like to be an honorary Producer in this, click here.  If you’d like to help share Jesse’s song, “Til It Feels Like Home,” I know they’d greatly appreciate that.

More voices

I think for vets, and for anyone who loves them, sharing their story can be incredibly healing. While not everyone may know Richard, anyone can access StoryCorps. I found out about them when I attended an IAVA (Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America) event.

StoryCorps says: Over the last ten years, 2.4 million men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and millions of families have stood behind them at home. The military community knows well the challenges of multiple deployments, combat injuries, and long-awaited homecomings. Yet few civilians truly understand the complex realities of our troops’ service and sacrifice.

The Military Voices Initiative (MVI) amplifies their important stories and lets them know that we–as a nation–are listening.

Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to share, and is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, and millions listen to our weekly broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition.

The stories are short, powerful, and cover so many perspectives. I listened to a soldier who had sent his wife (also a soldier) on the mission that took her life. I listened to curious kids interview their mom about what she felt like when she had to deploy. And how they felt about her being gone for a year. I listened to a man talk about one of the best days of his life- welcoming his brother home from Iraq. I listened to a father who traveled to Iraq wanting to kneel on the ground where his son had died.

Sometimes, all you need to do is listen. I think Richard and Jesse would agree.

© Gina left the mall, 2013