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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. Geist shared Mankin’s story on Monday as part of TODAY’s “Inspired By’’ series where the anchors reveal their own inspirations — and invite viewers to share theirs, via #InspiredBy.
“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.
“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.
Geist recalled the emotional day when they first met face-to-face.
“When we saw each other, it wasn't a handshake,’’ Geist said. “It was a hug right away. And that's the kind of guy he is.”
Mankin is also a dedicated father who looks to impress upon his children that what you are inside is what counts the most.
“Beauty is who you are,’’ Mankin said. “It's not the way you look. That's important for my kids to learn. Just the way they look at me makes me feel special.
“My children don’t know me any differently,’’ Mankin told Matt Lauer. “I’ve always been this way and they see me getting better through the years. I feel like they had a misunderstanding what doctors do because every time I go see them I come back looking a lot worse than I did. Just seeing that healing process and people reaching out to me, they’re a part of that.”
Mankin has since become a compelling public speaker for Operation Mend, sharing his inspiring journey with others.
“The fact that that’s part of my life now, that I just get to be myself and people want to say thank you, and however that manifests itself, shaking my hand or hugging my neck or buying me a beer or fixing my face, they just want to serve or volunteer like I did,’’ he told Lauer. “It’s a feeling that you can’t…it’s hard to express.”
“We are so honored just to know these guys and to help in some small way because of the sacrifice they’ve given to this country,’’ Geist said. “This is literally the very least we can do, and there is more help needed.’’
Mankin regularly works to help other injured veterans.
“It's a great responsibility,’’ he said. “I try and fill their day with some type of positive experience.”