May 22, 2008
As you head out for the Memorial Day holiday weekend, Pajamadeen thought she’d share the story of Sgt. Merlin German. Sgt. German, only 19, had been in Iraq for nine months and was due home in two weeks, when a roadside bomb exploded under his Humvee in Al Anbar province near Ramadi in February 2005. German was blown out of the Humvee’s turret, but he was on fire. Having sustained burns to 97 percent of his body, he was quickly transported to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Landstuhl doctors gave him no chance of survival. Every part of his body save for the soles of his feet and the top of his scalp was burned. The former saxophone player’s hands were gone, melted and welded into nubs.
Merlin, the youngest of eight children, grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. He and his siblings weren’t allowed to play with toy guns, so Merlin decided at age 11 that he wanted to join the military so he could have a real gun. By 17, he’d enlisted in the Marine Corps and was deployed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He hoped to become an FBI agent some day.
Flown from Landstuhl to the Brooke Army Medical Center’s (BAMC) burn unit in San Antonio, Texas, he remained there for 17 months — nine of them in the intensive care unit. His family lost count of how many operations he endured: the total was between 120 and 150. He learned to walk again. He was dubbed the “Miracle Man,” for beating the odds and surviving. After the longest stay on record at BAMC, he ultimately moved into his own home in the Windcrest subdivision of San Antonio, between Battle Pass and Ceremony Love streets.
Sgt. German became a symbol of hope at BAMC, which houses the military’s only burn unit. More than 3,700 troops have been treated there after being wounded in the Middle East, and many of Sgt. German’s fellow patients were themselves burn victims. Merlin’s indomitable spirit made him many friends. His voice was faint, due to a damaged throat and lungs, but his heart was large. Although this type of war injury isn’t often covered by the media, the Purple Heart recipient met President Bush, Chuck Norris, Dennis Miller and magician David Blane. His family says he “had a vision to help burned children and their families”; the Merlin’s Miracles website raised money for Make-a-Wish type requests from children and their families. “He looked at it as he had received a second chance, and he wanted to make a difference,” said Norma Guerra, the hospital’s deputy chief of public affairs.
By Christmas 2006 and after months of dance practice with Guerra, the Marine could lift his arms, pivot and turn. Merlin’s mother, Lourdes, saw him in his dress blues for the first time, when he asked her to dance to Rod Stewart’s “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?” at BAMC’s Holiday Ball. Merlin had requested the song for her. Later, his mother would recall in a Newsday interview how handsome her son looked that evening. “He used to say, ‘I’m going to look good every day because I don’t know if I’m going to be here tomorrow,” she said.
Artist Thomas Kinkade heard Merlin’s story and presented him with a signed, limited edition of “Heading Home,” a painting showing a soldier walking toward a light. It hung in Sgt. German’s San Antonio home. In a reflective moment last year, he said: “Sometimes I do think I can’t do it. Then I think: Why not? I can do whatever I want…Nobody has ever been 97 percent dead and survived, and lived to walk.”
But, in the end, the Landstuhl doctors were right, and Sgt. Berlin died unexpectedly last month at the age of 22, during routine surgery to replace skin under his nose. “Love is the only word strong and powerful enough to describe how we all felt about Merlin,” said Brig. Gen. James K. Gilman, BAMC commander. Sgt. German was buried a month ago today, at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, FL.
Read Mark Twain’s War Prayer.
Photo credits: merlinsmiracles.com
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