TODAY   |  November 11, 2013

Disfigured Marine corporal inspires with his story

Kicking off a week-long TODAY series called “Inspired By,” Willie Geist presents the story of a Marine corporal who was badly injured while serving in Iraq, and shares the veteran’s uplifting road to recovery.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> is trending today.

>> meantime, today, we're kicking off a fitting series on this veteran's day dedicated to the people that brought inspiration to our lives. first up, the man who inspires willie . willie is outside with more on that. willie good morning.

>> matt, good morning. i'm excited to bring everybody this story. a few years ago with help from my wife i got involved way group called operation mend. it helped heal some of our most severely wounded veterans. he was the first patient there and as become the face of this organization. i think you'll see why i'm so inspired by aaron .

>> accepting my fate and saying this is it. this is how my story ends. i thought i was going today.

>> on may 11th , 2005 aaron and his brothers were driving an assault vehicle through iraq when they rolled over a device.

>> i was on my feet a few minutes before we rolled over the mine. the explosion just swept up.

>> the vehicle was thrown ten feet into the air. four marines died that day. 11 more were injured including aaron .

>> my sleeves caught fire. my face was on fire. i just stopped drop and roll trying to put myself out.

>> his nose, his ears, part of his mouth disappeared.

>> he grabbed me by the collar and said you're hurt. you need to come with me. and that's really where the story of my recovery began.

>> first time i ever saw him was in a photograph projected up on a screen and your heart sank and there was a feeling of horror almost.

>> i woke up in the icu and there was a mirror in my room that i ignored for weeks. 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 just -- it was a stranger staring back at me. it was a lot to deal with.

>> in 2007 , aaron becomes the very first patient for operation mend at the ucla medical center where they take the most severely wounded warriors from overseas, bring them home, and repair them.

>> aaron had a lot of unique challenges because of previous injuries and how badly he was burned.

>> now nearly 60 or 65 surgeries and 8 1/2 years of recovery i have come a long way.

>> he looks fantastic today if you look at the pictures from five years ago or the first day when he checked into this program at operation mend, you wouldn't recognize him.

>> but i never thought i'd look this good.

>> he's a handsome son of a gun .

>> you're looking at a multimillion dollar mug.

>> a lot of what i have to tell other veterans, they already know. and that's that there's so much in life you can't control. you're re-signed to the fact that you can choose how you respond to that.

>> because i make a choice and my choice is to allow no one to dictate who i am.

>> he's charming, he's funny, he's a great public speaker. he's confident the way he carries himself is so impressive.

>> i cuss like a sailor, but i'm a marine. i'm better than that, so.

>> when we saw each other, it wasn't a handshake, it was a hug right away. that's the kind of guy he snchis.

>> there he is.

>> beauty is who you are. it's not the way you look. that's important for my kids to learn and just the way they look at me makes me feel special.

>> he's a great dad. i've been around him with his kids. his kids and my kids marched last year together in the veterans day parade and it was like they had known each other their whole lives. i wish i could see some of myself in aaron . he is more courageous and brave than i'll ever be. he lives his life in a way that is so impressive and he has so dedicated himself now to helping other veterans.

>> it's a great responsibility to try and feel their day with some type of positive experience.

>> and sometimes when i think i'm having a hard day , whether it's with family or work, i will stop literally and think about aaron and it pushes me through the day.

>> people who have been a part of our lives up until this point, they have made me who i am. so i try and be a reflection of that. i'm blessed.

>> marine corporal aaron is here along with willie 's wife kristi kristina. nice to see you.

>> hey.

>> what does it mean to know you have inspired willie and christina so much?

>> the fact that that's part of my life now, that i get to be myself. people want to say thank you and however that manifests itself. shaking my hand or hugging my neck or buying me a beer. they just want to serve or volunteer like i did. so it's a feeling that you can't -- it's hard to express.

>> it is such an honor to meet you. we already saw how your beautiful children are around you. how inspired are they by you?

>> i'm lucky that my children don't know me any differently. i've always been this way and they see me getting better through the years. i feel like i had a misunderstanding of what doctors do because every time i go see them i come back looking a lot worse than i did. and seeing that healing process and people reaching out to me, they're a part of that.

>> you picked up the phone and got involved. what do you want viewers to do? how can they get involved?

>> there's a few ways. first of all, you can obviously donate financial support to operation mend at ucla hospital. if you know anyone out there that might be an eligible patient for this program, they're absolutely looking for patients like aaron and joey and all the guys behind us. and i think that's pretty much the best way. if you live in l.a. , you can be a buddy family. when patients come to ucla for treatment, which often times is many, many trips to the hospital. you can be a buddy family and host someone in your home.

>> by the way, i'm getting too much credit here. kristina initiated all of this for us. she was in a nail salon reading people magazine and read a story about aaron and some of the other guys at operation mend. she was so moved by it. she kept coming back to it and i said well let's do something about it. so she picked up the phone and called out to ucla medical center and we're honored and thrilled just to know these guys and help in some small way because of the sacrifice they have given to this country. this is literally the very least we can do and there's more help needed and there are people out there, veterans that need this help and don't know about the service, it's there and it's free of charge to you. look it up. operation mend. it can help you out.

>> thank you very much. thank you so much for letting us know your story this morning. i agree with them. you're an inspiring young man. thank you so much and to all of you, thank you so much for being here.

>> and for more on operation mend, you can check out our website coming up