A few years ago, Christina Geist was thumbing through a People magazine in a nail salon when she came across a story about an organization helping wounded veterans.
Moved to tears, she rushed home to tell her husband, Willie, about what she had read.
It was the TODAY anchor's first exposure to Operation Mend at UCLA Medical Center, which provides returning military personnel with severe facial and other medical injuries access to top plastic and reconstructive surgeons. The Geists became active in their support of the organization, beginning an inspiring friendship with U.S. Marine corporal Aaron Mankin, whose life has been transformed by the program.
In 2005, Mankin's face was badly damaged when his amphibious assault vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device in Iraq. His nose, ears and part of his mouth were badly burned in the blast, which killed four marines and wounded 11 others. In 2007, Mankin became the first patient at Operation Mend, whose surgeons have helped remarkably restore his face.
U.S. Marine corporal Aaron Mankin's face has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last eight years thanks to more than 60 surgeries by the surgeons in Operation Mend at UCLA Medical Center.
“A lot of what I have to tell other veterans, and that's that there's so much in life you can't control,’’ Mankin told TODAY. “Life happens to you. But your power resides in the fact that you can choose how you respond to that.”
“He looks fantastic today,’’ Geist said on TODAY Monday. “If you look at the pictures from five years ago or from the very first day when he checked into this program at Operation Mend, you wouldn't recognize him.”
Mankin has come a long way since seeing the damage to his face for the first time. Aaron Mankin, before his accident, couldn't look in the mirror after his first surgery.
Aaron Mankin, before his accident, couldn't look in the mirror after his first surgery.
“I woke up in the ICU, and there was a mirror in my room that I willingly ignored for weeks,’’ Mankin said. “When I finally got the courage, I cried for the longest time. It’s such a disconnect looking at yourself and you expect to see someone that resembles you, and it was a stranger staring back at me, and it was a lot to deal with.”
“The first time I ever saw Aaron Mankin was in a photograph projected up on a screen, and your heart sank and there was a feeling of horror, almost,’’ Geist said.
Mankin has undergone more than 60 surgeries in nearly nine years of recovery.
“Aaron had a lot of unique challenges because of the nature of his injuries, (and) how badly he was burned,’’ Dr. Chris Crisera, Mankin’s surgeon, told TODAY.
In 2012, Mankin visited shared his story during a Veterans Day event at a Rogers elementary school: Wounded Vet Shares Story with Rogers Elementary School Students