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November 03, 2009

Marines of the Day: Aaron and Diana Mankin

This is, perhaps, one of the oddest love stories you will ever read.

There is an old saying: "Handsome is, as handsome does." Had she done nothing else in her lifetime, Corporal Diana Kavanek, USMC would be, by any measure you care to name, a handsome woman.

A woman of substance.

“I found out I was going to be doing entry-control-point duty three days before I went out,” said Lance Cpl. Diana L. Kavanek, engineer, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Headquarters Group, II MEF (FWD). “It was a little shocking to me because I didn’t know I would ever be pulled for a duty like that. But I was ready to do my part.”

Headquarters and Service Company, II MHG, was chosen to fill spots on the ECP female search team after a vehicle-born improvised explosive device killed five Marines and a Sailor, three of whom were female, and injured several more on June 23.

Major Michael J. Corrado, company commander, H&S Company, II MHG, II MEF (FWD), knew of the empty billets only days before the females were scheduled to leave.

“My initial thought was to accomplish the mission by supporting Regimental Combat Team 8, 2nd Marine Division, and not let those bastards who bombed that seven-ton think they would weaken our resolve,” explained Corrado. “My next thought was ‘Where are we going to find the Marines to replace them’? Many of the H&S Company Marines are wearing two and three hats already.”

Headquarters companies companies traditionally concentrate on administrative and logistical support. But war has caused the Marines to invoke one of their oldest mottoes: "Every Marine a rifleman." Little did Cpl. Kavanek know how severely the qualities that got her through Marine boot camp were about to be tested.

The scene shifts. Miles away, Corporal Kavanek's boyfriend is clearing insurgents from an Iraqi village:

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.

...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."

What would Superman do in a case like this? We'll never know.

We can only know what Corporal Aaron Mankin did next. Aaron and Diana had not seen each other for 3 months. She knew he had been injured, but not the extent of his injuries nor even that he had been burned. "I knew that he was alive and that's about it," she said.

What he did, was fall to his knees at the bottom of an airport escalator and ask her to marry him:

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.

What Aaron could not know - what many men don't understand - is the way a woman thinks: what she sees when she gazes into the eyes of the man she loves. What the young Marine brought to the table was, quite simply, himself. Yes, the external wrapper was damaged. But through it, the courage and quality of the man inside shone brighter than ever.

And it was enough - and more than enough. How could you not love a man with the guts to drop to one knee in a busy airport and say to the woman he loves, "Here. Here I am. Take me as I am - if you are willing to take this step knowing the hard road we will have to travel together, I am yours. Always, and forever."

By mine honour, in true English,
I love thee, Kate: by which honour
I dare not swear thou lovest me;
yet my blood begins to flatter me that thou dost,
notwithstanding the poor and untempering effect of my visage.

Now, beshrew my father's ambition!
he was thinking of civil wars when he got me:
therefore was I created with a stubborn outside,
with an aspect of iron, that,
when I come to woo ladies, I fright them.

But, in faith, Kate, the elder I wax,
the better I shall appear:
my comfort is, that old age, that ill layer up of beauty,
can do no more, spoil upon my face:
thou hast me, if thou hast me, at the worst;
and thou shalt wear me, if thou wear me,
better and better.

Take me, take a soldier. Take a soldier, take a King.

Every little girl dreams of being a fairy princess: dreams of the handsome prince who will, one day, ride up to her on a white stallion and sweep her off her feet. Few of those dreams come true.

This is the rare story of a dream that did come true, if not (perhaps) in the way that little girl imagined it. We have so little control over the hard knocks life seems to deal out with daunting regularity and on the day they walk down the aisle, few women have cause to know whether the man they are marrying has the strength and courage to face down life's setbacks.

But Diana Mankin knows just how strong Aaron is. She knows how he will react to reversals of fortune.

She can see it in his face.

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.

MaryAnn has a video interview with Corporal Mankin.

Update: If you enjoyed this story, please consider donating to Valour IT. Every day wounded vets are fighting the battle of their lives and overcoming injuries that would leave most of us curled up into a little ball. With your support, Valour IT can continue to provide voice activated laptops and other adaptive technology that helps severely wounded vets recover faster and regain their independence.

This will truly be the best money you've ever spent. These young men and women have given a tremendous amount to defend us. Won't you let them know we haven't forgotten?

Read more about Valour IT and their mission here.

Posted by Cassandra at November 3, 2009 07:27 AM

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Oh. Oh, my. What a beautiful man. What a wonderful hero.

Posted by: Delta Whiskey at November 3, 2009 09:51 AM

Noble warriors, both. Wonderful, wonderful story. I've already hit the Marine Team's Valor-IT jar and posted it on my facebook page as well. Semper Fi.

Posted by: Marine Mom at November 3, 2009 05:39 PM

God bless our Marines, and especially Aaron and Diana Mankin. Semper fi.

Posted by: Steve at November 3, 2009 05:47 PM

Thank you :)

It is stories like this that remind us of how much we have... and how very much we have to lose.

I think that's a reminder Americans could use more often.

Posted by: Cassandra at November 3, 2009 06:03 PM

[Ed. note: in 7 years of blogging I've almost never deleted or edited a comment. After much reflection, I have decided to edit this comment and one subsequent to it.

I have no way of knowing what the facts are here, and I should not have published this comment. My decision to do so was motivated less by any consideration of fairness to individuals than by my sense that when bad things happen, covering them up is not the right tack.]

Posted by: Tracy Doiron at January 20, 2010 04:02 PM


I hesitated before publishing your comment.

I don't have any way to confirm what you say. I will say that while I obviously don't condone infidelity, it's tough making a marriage work even under the best circumstances. I've seen many marriages break up under the strain of dealing with serious wounds. That doesn't make me set aside my sense of right and wrong, but it does make me very aware of how lucky I am not to have to face those difficulties.

It is also humbling, as I am reminded how very far from perfect I am. Whatever the truth here, I hope they're able to work it out.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 20, 2010 04:43 PM

The people I will never forget and the brotherhood forever binding. Years have passed and I still think about both of you. I briefly seen you last Verteran's Day during a speech and a rush of emotions came over me. To know one of my Marines have gone through so much and overcame is a test of will that's heroic. God bless.

Posted by: Doc Montgomery at July 5, 2010 06:08 AM

[Ed. note: in 7 years of blogging I've almost never deleted or edited a comment. After much reflection, I have decided to edit this comment and one prior to it.

I have no way of knowing what the facts are here, and I should not have published this comment. My decision to do so was motivated less by any consideration of fairness to individuals than by my sense that when bad things happen, covering them up is not the right tack.]

Posted by: Jack Dowels at September 20, 2010 11:01 AM

Is there any way to remove these terrible comments? These posts will do nothing good for the people involved.

Posted by: Branden Doiron at September 21, 2010 10:02 AM

Is there any way to remove these terrible comments? These posts will do nothing good for the people involved.

Posted by: Branden at September 21, 2010 10:02 AM

Absolutely, Branden. I removed one yesterday but must have hit the wrong button when I tried to save my changes. Thanks for alerting me.

Posted by: Cassandra at September 21, 2010 10:06 AM