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October 28, 2009

Sgt. Merlin German: Miracle Marine

"Sometimes I do think I can't do it. Then I think: Why not? I can do whatever I want."

- Sergeant Merlin German

There is a side of war many Americans regard with pride. We've all seen the iconic images. They create a lump in our throats and a curious stinging sensation behind our eyelids. A lone gunner stands silhouetted against a brilliant desert sunset. Families, their faces literally glowing with joy, embrace on a tarmac. A child watches a platoon of smartly dressed Marines pass by, awe and hero worship writ plainly on his tiny face. You can almost hear him thinking, "That's what I want to be when I grow up."

helpinghand.jpgThese images represent the good side of war. There is inspiration to be found in the resilience of the human spirit; in our ability to respond to fear and pain with kindness and courage. In a world where scenes of unspeakable cruelty and horror beckon from every newspaper headline, we take solace in the satisfaction of a weary warrior performing a dangerous job with skill and dedication. There is comfort, also, in the promise of joy after months of loneliness and hardship. Reunions are a visible reminder of the thousand precious moments we take for granted each day.

There is even a bittersweet glimmer of solace in the gathering of loved ones around a flag draped coffin and the crisp report of a 21 gun salute. This feeling is captured by a line penned before Christ was even born:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country.

The visual juxtaposition of love and loss reminds just how fragile happiness can be. In an instant the predictable, orderly world we take for granted could so easily vanish, to be replaced by one in which nothing makes sense. Small wonder images like these evoke such strong emotions. Their silent reminders of fear, grief and loneliness are balanced by the knowledge of our good fortune. Our way of life is worth protecting, and though most of us drift off to sleep each night blissfully unaware of danger, we know that others watch over us.

And then there are the images we don't like so much. They frighten us; appeal to our deepest, darkest fears:

... I was watching television. A movie came on. It was a movie about the effects of war, specifically World War Two. The movie was The Best Years Of Our Lives. Perhaps you’ve seen it? It won many academy awards, and deservedly so. It was - and is - a tremendously moving portrait of three men returning to civilian life after having served in wartime.

One of the men - played by Harold Russell, who truly was a soldier afflicted as shown; no make-up needed - had returned home with hooks for his hands.

I sat in front of the TV and saw the same nightmare vision that had recently haunted me, but now come to life and moving. And it made me even further aware of the tragic possibilities. Not only was it possible to be BORN without important things, it was entirely possible to lose them, once born, through no fault of your own.

...Now, maybe I was somewhat sheltered to not know of these things before then, but that’s the way it was. I had successfully lived through six years of my life without knowing. Now that I knew, I was changed forever. Losing part of me - a limb or a hand or anything else - became my strongest fear. It still is. It is so strong a fear that I have trouble facing or meeting people who have had such misfortune befall them, whether via birth defect or accident. As I handle my fear of heights by avoiding bridges, I partially handle my fear of amputation by avoiding amputees. I don't run from the room screaming if someone is there who is less than the generally accepted notion of whole; I hope that I treat them in the same way I would anyone else. However, I'm afraid that my fear of finding myself in their situation may show through, and I would hate to have them see that. It would be so damned unfair. I also try to avoid photos, films, written accounts, and any other thing that will bring my fear to the forefront of my thoughts.

Stupid? Cowardly? Yes, pretty much. It’s what I do, though.

There is a moment every deployed military family faces.

It's a moment most of us dread. We joke about it, but that's only a way of keeping that sick feeling of fear at arm's length. Somehow, for me, it is easier to think of that flag draped coffin than to think of the alternative: that that long awaited homecoming will be more bittersweet than I can possibly imagine at this moment.

That my husband will come home, but not all in one piece. That I might not even know a man I've loved since I was 18 years old anymore. That this war, for us, will never really be over:

The young Marine came back from the war, with his toughest fight ahead of him.

Merlin German waged that battle in the quiet of a Texas hospital, far from the dusty road in Iraq where a bomb exploded, leaving him with burns over 97 percent of his body.

No one expected him to survive.

But for more than three years, he would not surrender. He endured more than 100 surgeries and procedures. He learned to live with pain, to stare at a stranger's face in the mirror. He learned to smile again, to joke, to make others laugh.

He became known as the "Miracle Man."

Most of us have heard of the Miracle Marine. But I wonder how many of us have stopped to think of what his life must have been like every day?

I cannot imagine the courage and strength required to get out of bed each morning knowing that just making it through the coming day would be a test of my will to survive? We hear of that surge of adrenaline that gets soldiers through a battle, but how does one summon up that strength when every day - every moment - is a battle?

The incredible thing is that through my association with projects like Operation Santa at the hospitals and Operation Fresh Air, I've seen countless recovering vets do exactly this. Amazingly, if you walk the grounds of Walter Reed AMC, you will see soldiers and Marines in wheelchairs but with smiles on their faces. There is little self pity on display, even in situations where most of us would have ample reason to feel sorry for ourselves. Most of the reason for that is that these young men and women are warriors. Faced with hardships that would daunt the bravest among us, they manage to rise above fear, above pain, above the temptation to give up.

And it's not just wounded vets who are affected by war - their families' lives are forever changed as well. Carren Ziegenfuss explains how something as simple as a voice activated laptop gave her some sense of normalcy again:

Not only was Chuck able to blog with his new laptop and voice-activated software, I was able to relax a little bit more. Instead of trying to figure how to get Chuck some sort of outlet, I knew he had one. Instead of going to the Mologne House every night, wondering how Chuck will manage throughout the night, I knew he had an outlet. Instead of feeling guilty as hell when I went somewhere without him (for ME time), I knew Chuck had his connection to the outside world.

The laptop and software were truly a gift that can not be put into words. Even after Chuck was initially discharged from Walter Reed, we returned MANY times for subsequent surgeries. His Valour-IT laptop and software were always there for him, especially when he couldn't type with his hand(s). I could go on all day about how amazing this program is...

This post is not a request for donations, although that would be wonderful. The intent of this post is to give you my perspective of how Valour-IT can be so healing to our wounded warriors and their families.

Watching a loved one struggle with pain or illness makes us wonder why bad things happen? I know I felt this way, watching my nephew's two year battle with leukemia. There were times when even I, watching him fight on from a comfortable remove, felt despair threaten to overwhelm me. It all seemed so unfair.

But good can come from misfortune. We may not have control over our circumstances, but we do control how we respond to misfortune. Chuck Ziegenfuss didn't marinate in self pity; instead he sought to help others. And Sergeant Merlin German, his body disfigured beyond belief and his days consumed by over 100 painful surgeries, still found the strength to reach out from his hospital bed and offer hope and encouragement to severely burned children.

These days we're bombarded with information and requests for help. It's easy to distance ourselves; to avert our eyes and go on with our lives when we're asked for help. But how often do we have the chance to literally change the course of someone else's life? How often do we have the chance to offer encouragement and hope to those who have placed their lives on the line for us?

Project Valour IT offers that kind of chance. The phrase "give 'til it hurts" is overused. It's too easy to ignore. But the truth of the matter is that few of us will ever experience one tenth of what wounded vets endure - and rise above - every single day.

Your donation is a tangible reminder of the enormous debt we owe these men and women fighting the longest of long wars. Giving them the tools to win that battle seems the least a grateful nation can do.

Posted by Cassandra at October 28, 2009 07:08 AM

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Comments

Sigh - It should read: Dulce et decorum est pro patria morire.

As it read now it says: It is sweet and fitting we will die for one's country.

Posted by: Latin Geek boquisucio at October 28, 2009 12:13 PM

That's what I get for Googling for the Latin. Durned Wikipedia :p

Posted by: Cassandra at October 28, 2009 12:39 PM

The dictionary has it as "mori":

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dulce%20et%20decorum%20est%20pro%20patria%20mori

Posted by: Cassandra at October 28, 2009 12:41 PM

+Pass the crow+

This shows my Latin-Latin bias instead of a Germanic-Latin one. I mean, I am more used to the Italian/Spanish/Late Latin usage of Latin than the acerbic Wheelock's Classical Latin.

Boq

Posted by: Latin Geek Boquisucio at October 28, 2009 01:57 PM

+Pass the crow+

I am glad you said something. I'd rather have someone correct me than allow a mistake to be up there - Lord knows I make enough on my own :)

Thanks, BOQ

Posted by: Cassandra at October 28, 2009 04:19 PM

May your generosity and care for your fellow human beings bring great favor upon you and yours forever. Amen. It takes so little to make a huge difference. The rest of us just need a reminder to get off our duff and do something, anything. These men and women signed a blank to their (our) country. Someone else filled it in with, "An arm" . . . "Two legs" . . . "a life of "productive sanity"

Posted by: Conrad Boterweg at November 14, 2010 07:25 AM

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