Sunday, May 25, 2008

'Miracle' Marine loses final battle

Terribly burned in Iraq blast, sergeant defied odds; 'he was unstoppable'

Sgt. Merlin German, 22.

The young Marine came back from the war, with his toughest fight ahead of him.

Merlin German waged that battle in the quiet of a Texas hospital, far from the dusty road in Iraq where a bomb exploded, leaving him with burns over 97 percent of his body.

No one expected him to survive.

But for more than three years, he would not surrender. He endured more than 100 surgeries and procedures. He learned to live with pain, to stare at a stranger's face in the mirror. He learned to smile again, to joke, to make others laugh.

He became known as the "Miracle Man."

But just when it seemed he would defy impossible odds, Sgt. Merlin German lost his last battle this spring — an unexpected final chapter in a story many imagined would have a happy ending.

"I think all of us had believed in some way, shape or form that he was invincible," says Lt. Col. Evan Renz, who was German's surgeon and his friend. "He had beaten so many other operations. ... It just reminded us, he, too, was human."

'I can do whatever I want'
It was near Ramadi, Iraq, on Feb. 21, 2005, that the roadside bomb detonated near German's Humvee, hurling him out of the turret and engulfing him in flames.

When Renz and other doctors at the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio first got word from Baghdad, they told his family he really didn't have a chance. The goal: Get him back to America so his loved ones could say goodbye.

But when German arrived four days later, doctors, amazed by how well he was doing, switched gears. "We were going to do everything known to science," Renz says. "He was showing us he can survive."

Doctors removed his burn wounds and covered him with artificial and cadaver skin. They also harvested small pieces of German's healthy skin, shipping them off to a lab where they were grown and sent back.

Doctors took skin from the few places he wasn't burned: the soles of his feet, the top of his head and small spots on his abdomen and left shoulder.

Once those areas healed, doctors repeated the task. Again and again.

"Sometimes I do think I can't do it," German said last year in an Associated Press interview. "Then I think: Why not? I can do whatever I want."

His patient's good and bad days
"Early on, he thought, 'This is ridiculous. Why am I doing this? Why am I working so hard?'" Renz recalls. "But every month or so, he'd say, 'I've licked it.' ... He was amazingly positive overall. ... He never complained. He'd just dig in and do it."

Slowly, his determination paid off. He made enormous progress.

From a ventilator to breathing on his own.

From communicating with his eyes or a nod to talking.

From being confined to a hospital isolation bed with his arms and legs suspended — so his skin grafts would take — to moving into his own house and sleeping in his own bed.

Sometimes his repeated surgeries laid him up for days and he'd lose ground in his rehabilitation. But he'd always rebound. Even when he was hurting, he'd return to therapy — as long as he had his morning Red Bull energy drink.

"I can't remember a time where he said, 'I can't do it. I'm not going to try,' " says Sgt. Shane Elder, a rehabilitation therapy assistant.

'He was unstoppable'
That despite the constant reminders that he'd never be the same. The physical fitness buff who could run miles and do dozens of push-ups struggled, at first, just to sit up on the edge of his bed. The one-time saxophone player had lost his fingers. The Marine with the lady-killer smile now had a raw, ripple-scarred face.

Lt. Col. Grant Olbrich recalls a day in 2006 when he stopped by German's room and noticed he was crying softly. Olbrich, who heads a Marine patient affairs team at Brooke, says he sat with him awhile and asked: "What are you scared of?' He said, 'I'm afraid there will never be a woman who loves me.' "

Olbrich says that was the lowest he ever saw German, but even then "he didn't give up. ... He was unstoppable."

His mother, Lourdes, remembers her son another way: "He was never really scared of anything."

That toughness, says his brother, Ariel, showed up even when they were kids growing up in New York. Playing football, Merlin would announce: "Give me the ball. Nobody can knock me down."

'I've been given a second chance'
In nearly 17 months in the hospital, Merlin German's "family" grew.

From the start, his parents, Lourdes and Hemery, were with him. They relocated to Texas. His mother helped feed and dress her son; they prayed together three, four times a day.

"She said she would never leave his side," Ariel says. "She was his eyes, his ears, his feet, his everything."

But many at the hospital also came to embrace German.

Norma Guerra, a public affairs spokeswoman who has a son in Iraq, became known as German's "Texas mom."

She read him action-packed stories at his bedside and arranged to have a DVD player in his room so he could watch his favorite gangster movies.

She sewed him pillows embroidered with the Marine insignia. She helped him collect New York Yankees memorabilia and made sure he met every celebrity who stopped by — magician David Blaine became a friend, and President Bush visited.

"He was a huge part of me," says Guerra, who had German and his parents over for Thanksgiving. "I remember him standing there talking to my older sister like he knew her forever."

Fighting back
German liked to gently tease everyone about fashion — his sense of style, and their lack of it.

Guerra says he once joked: "I've been given a second chance. I think I was left here to teach all you people how to dress."

Even at Brooke, he color-coordinated his caps and sneakers.

"If something did not match, if your blue jeans were the wrong shade of blue, he would definitely let you know. He loved his clothes," recalls Staff Sgt. Victor Dominguez, a burn patient who says German also inspired him with his positive outlook.

German also was something of an entrepreneur. Back in high school, he attended his senior prom, not with a date but a giant bag of disposable cameras to make some quick cash from those who didn't have the foresight to bring their own.

At Brooke, he designed a T-shirt that he sometimes sold, sometimes gave away. On the front it read: "Got 3 percent chance of survival, what ya gonna do?" The back read, "A) Fight Through, b) Stay Strong, c) Overcome Because I Am a Warrior, d) All Of The Above." D is circled.

Every time he cleared a hurdle, the staff at Brooke cheered him on.

Motivating others
When he first began walking, Guerra says, word spread in the hospital corridors. "People would say, 'Did you know Merlin took his first step? Did you know he took 10 steps?' " she recalls.

German, in turn, was asked by hospital staff to motivate other burn patients when they were down or just not interested in therapy.

"I'd say, 'Hey, can you talk to this patient?' ... Merlin would come in ... and it was: Problem solved," says Elder, the therapist. "The thing about him was there wasn't anything in the burn world that he hadn't been through. Nobody could say to him, 'You don't understand.'"

German understood, too, that burn patients deal with issues outside the hospital because of the way they look.

"When he saw a group of children in public, he was more concerned about what they might think," says Renz, his surgeon. "He would work to make them comfortable with him."

And kids adored him, including Elder's two young sons. German had a habit of buying them toys with the loudest, most obnoxious sounds — and presenting them with a mischievous smile.

He especially loved his nieces and nephews; the feelings were mutual. One niece remembered him on a Web site as being "real cool and funny" and advising her to "forget about having little boyfriends and buying hot phones" and instead, concentrate on her education.

But he was closest to his mother. When the hospital's Holiday Ball approached in 2006, German told Norma Guerra he wanted to surprise his mother by taking her for a twirl on the dance floor.

Merlin German, Norma Guerra
Eric Gay / AP file
German with Norma Guerra.

Guerra thought he was kidding. She knew it could be agony for him just to take a short walk or raise a scarred arm.

But she agreed to help, and they rehearsed for months, without his mother knowing. He chose a love song to be played for the dance: "Have I Told You Lately?" by Rod Stewart.

That night he donned his Marine dress blues and shiny black shoes — even though it hurt to wear them. When the time came, he took his mother in his arms and they glided across the dance floor.

Everyone stood and applauded. And everyone cried.

Clearly, it seemed, the courageous Marine was winning his long, hard battle.

"Some of the folks we lose — the fight to get better is too much," Elder says. "But Merlin always came back. He had been through so much, but it was automatic. ... Merlin will be fine tomorrow. He'll be back in the game. That's what we always thought."

A tragic turn
Merlin German died after routine surgery to add skin under his lower lip.

He was already planning his next operations — on his wrists and elbows. But Renz also says with all the stress German's body had been subjected to in recent years, "it was probably an unfair expectation that you can keep doing this over and over again and not have any problems."

The cause of his death has not yet been determined.

"I may no more understand why he left us when he did than why he survived when he did," Renz says. "I don't think I was meant to know."

As people learned of his death last month, they flocked to his hospital room to pay their last respects: Doctors, nurses, therapists and others, many arriving from home, kept coming as Friday night faded into Saturday morning.

German was just 22.

He had so many dreams that will go unrealized: Becoming an FBI agent (he liked the way they dressed). Going to college. Starting a business. Even writing comedy.

But he did accomplish one major goal: He set up a foundation for burned children called "Merlin's Miracles," to raise money so these kids could enjoy life, whether it was getting an air conditioner for their home or taking a trip to Disney World, a place he loved.

On a sunny April afternoon, German was buried among the giant oaks and Spanish moss of Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. The chaplain remembered German as an indomitable Marine who never gave in to the enemy — or to his pain.

One by one, friends and family placed roses and carnations on his casket.

His parents put down the first flowers, then stepped aside for mourners. They were the last ones to leave his grave, his mother clutching a folded American flag.

Memorial Day is a time to remember the fallen with parades, tributes and stories.

A favorite story about German
Sgt. Joe Gonzales, a Marine liaison at Brooke, has one to share about German.

Image: Merlin German, James F. Amos
Eric Gay / AP file
Merlin German with Lt. Gen. James F. Amos during German's promotion ceremony at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio in May 2007.

It was the day he and German's mother were walking in the hospital hallway. German was ahead, wearing an iPod, seemingly oblivious to everyone else.

Suddenly, he did a sidestep.

For a second, Gonzales worried German was about to fall. But no.

"He just started dancing out of nowhere. His mom looked at me. She shook her head. There he was with a big old smile. Regardless of his situation, he was still trying to enjoy life."

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Pirate attacks around the world rise by 20pc

They may no longer dress like characters from the Disney film Pirates of the Caribbean, but the buccaneers of the 21st century have lost none of their taste for a bloodthirsty boarding.

Looking for prey: pirates in the Philippines

Mariners are being warned of a growing threat from pirates around the world after attacks on shipping rose by 20 per cent over the last year.

Gone are the cannon and cutlass, to be replaced by rocket propelled grenades and automatic rifles, but according to new figures from the organisation that collates reports of global piracy, the spirit of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow is alive and terrorising the ocean waves.

The International Maritime Bureau’s latest report reveals the first rise in pirate attacks since their previous peak in the mid 1990s. In one particularly savage incident in the Philippines in March, pirates shot dead the captain of a passenger boat and two of his crew before tying them to their anchor and tossing it overboard. They then shot the two remaining crew members and escaped in a motor boat.

The sharp rise in pirate attacks is blamed in large part on the collapse of law and order in Somalia and political unrest in Nigeria. The seas around the two African countries are now regarded as some of the most dangerous in the world.

Cyrus Mody, the IMB’s manager, said the reality of piracy was far removed from the glamorous image portrayed in films. “People have a romantic illusion about pirates, but there is nothing romantic when they stand in front of you with a gun to your head,” he said.

The IMB recorded 49 attacks in the first quarter of this year, up from 41 in the same period last year. The murderous attack in the Philippines was the most serious but there were many other incidents in which ships were attacked by gangs of heavily armed men.

In January, five men armed with guns boarded a French yacht off Venezuela, shot one of the crew and demanded all their property. The same month, four armed men used grappling hooks to try to board a bulk carrier off the Nigerian coast.

The IMB’s records are a litany of brutality. Last year pirates who attacked a Danish tanker off the coast of Nigeria tied up the bosun and threatened to cut off his ears unless he told them the code for the locks on the cargo control room. In another attack off the Nigerian coast, a Panamanian tug boat was boarded by five men who approached in a small fast boat. The pirates rounded up the crew on the bridge, smashed a bottle over the master’s head and forced each crew member to hand over their belongings.

A cargo ship attacked off the coast of Somalia launched parachute flares at the pirates when the captain realised they were about to open fire with a rocket propelled grenade. And a gang of pirates who boarded a Canadian yacht at anchor off Madagascar slashed the skipper’s hand and legs, tried to strangle his wife and made off with everything the couple had.

Not that the pirates always have it their own way. The IMB’s report reveals that in February this year a Maltese tanker successfully fought off a pirate attack off the coast of Somalia by adopting a zig-zag course and turning its fire hoses on the pirate boat until the would be attackers, who were firing at the tanker, eventually gave up and sailed away.

Earlier this month Guy Grieve, who writes the Telegraph’s All at Sea column, reported having to outrun a suspected pirate pirogue off the caost of Trinidad.

Yesterday Adrian Flanagan, the lone round-the-world yachtsman who completed his two and a half year voyage last week, told The Sunday Telegraph how he nearly collided with a pirate ship 400 miles off the coast of Brazil.

Mr Flanagan, 46, the author of a novel about pirates, described how he kept watch for 48 hours with a loaded shotgun in his lap as the pirates tracked him across the ocean in a rusting 200-foot vessel, before finally turning their attention elsewhere.

“I thought, 'I’m in trouble here - these guys have got to be pirates’,” he said. “I broke out my pump action shotgun, loaded it with seven rounds and cocked it.”

For 48 hours, they followed his sloop Barrabas while he kept watch and used his satellite telephone to contact his former wife in Britain and raise the alarm. “I called Louise and told her the situation. She was OK about it but, I think she had an idea in her head of a guy with a wooden leg and eyepatch - I don’t think she really realised the level of threat.

“These people are very, very vicious. I am staggered by the number of attacks on small vessels, and the number of boats that disappear every year is stunning. They take what they want and scuttle the vessel with the bodies on board.”

Last week the IMB identified Nigeria as the world’s most dangerous piracy hotspot, and warned that the country was ill equipped to combat pirates who plied the seas in speed boats, modern machine guns and radios, targeting tankers, trawlers, barges and oil industry support vessels.

India and the Gulf of Aden rank second in the list of most dangerous places, and last week nine countries in the region launched a concerted effort to improve security. In response to the growing threat, the French and American governments have drafted a UN resolution to allow nations to pursue and arrest pirates.

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US residents in military brigs? Govt says it's war

WASHINGTON - If his cell were at Guantanamo Bay, the prisoner would be just one of hundreds of suspected terrorists detained offshore, where the U.S. says the Constitution does not apply.

But Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri is a U.S. resident being held in a South Carolina military brig; he is the only enemy combatant held on U.S. soil. That makes his case very different.

Al-Marri's capture six years ago might be the Bush administration's biggest domestic counterterrorism success story. Authorities say he was an al-Qaida sleeper agent living in middle America, researching poisonous gasses and plotting a cyberattack.

To justify holding him, the government claimed a broad interpretation of the president's wartime powers, one that goes beyond warrantless wiretapping or monitoring banking transactions. Government lawyers told federal judges that the president can send the military into any U.S. neighborhood, capture a citizen and hold him in prison without charge, indefinitely.

There is little middle ground between the two sides in al-Marri's case, which is before a federal appeals court in Virginia. The government says the president needs this power to keep the nation safe. Al-Marri's lawyers say that as long as the president can detain anyone he wants, nobody is safe.


A Qatari national, al-Marri came to the U.S. with his wife and five children on Sept. 10, 2001 — one day before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. He arrived on a student visa seeking a master's degree in computer science from Bradley University, a small private school in Peoria, Ill.

The government says he had other plans.

According to court documents citing multiple intelligence sources, al-Marri spent months in al-Qaida training camps during the late 1990s and was schooled in the science of poisons. The summer before al-Marri left for the United States, he allegedly met with Osama bin Laden and Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The two al-Qaida leaders decided al-Marri would make a perfect sleeper agent and rushed him into the U.S. before Sept. 11, the government says.

A computer specialist, al-Marri was ordered to wreak havoc on the U.S. banking system and serve as a liaison for other al-Qaida operatives entering this country, according to a court document filed by Jeffrey Rapp, a senior member of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

According to Rapp, al-Marri received up to $13,000 for his trip, plus money to buy a laptop, courtesy of Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, who is suspected of helping finance the Sept. 11 attacks.

A week after the attacks, Congress unanimously passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force. It gave President Bush the power to "use all necessary and appropriate force" against anyone involved in planning, aiding or carrying out the attacks.

The FBI interviewed al-Marri that October and arrested him in December as part of the Sept. 11 investigation. He rarely had been attending classes and was failing in school, the government said.

When investigators looked through his computer files, they found information on industrial chemical suppliers, sermons by bin Laden, how-to guides for making hydrogen cyanide and information about chemicals labeled "immediately dangerous to life or health," according to Rapp's court filing. Phone calls and e-mails linked al-Marri to senior al-Qaida leaders.

In early 2003, he was indicted on charges of credit card fraud and lying to the FBI. Like anyone else in the country, he had constitutional rights. He could question government witnesses, refuse to testify and retain a lawyer.

On June 23, 2003, Bush declared al-Marri an enemy combatant, which stripped him of those rights. Bush wrote that al-Marri possessed intelligence vital to protect national security. In his jail cell in Peoria, however, he could refuse to speak with investigators.

A military brig allowed more options. Free from the constraints of civilian law, the military could interrogate al-Marri without a lawyer, detain him without charge and hold him indefinitely. Courts have agreed the president has wide latitude to imprison people captured overseas or caught fighting against the U.S. That is what the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba is for.

But al-Marri was not in Guantanamo Bay.

"The president is not a king and cannot lock people up forever in the United States based on his say-so," said Jonathan Hafetz, a lawyer who represents al-Marri and other detainees. "Today it's Mr. al-Marri. Tomorrow it could be you, a member of your family, someone you know. Once you allow the president to lock people up for years or even life without trial, there's no going back."

Glenn Sulmasy, a national security fellow at Harvard, said the issue comes down to whether the nation is at war. Soldiers would not need warrants to launch a strike against invading troops. So would they need a warrant to raid an al-Qaida safe house in a U.S. suburb?

Sulmasy says no. That's how Congress wrote the bill and "if they feel concerned about civil liberties, they can tighten up the language," he said.

That would require the politically risky move of pushing legislation to make it harder for the president to detain suspected terrorists inside the U.S.

Al-Marri is not the first prisoner who did not fit neatly into the definition of enemy combatant.

Two U.S. citizens, Yaser Esam Hamdi and Jose Padilla, were held at the same brig as al-Marri. But there are differences. Hamdi was captured on an Afghanistan battlefield. Padilla, too, fought alongside the Taliban before his capture in the United States.

By comparison, al-Marri had not been on the battlefield. He was lawfully living in the United States. That raises new questions.

Did Congress really intend to give the president the authority to lock up suspected terrorists overseas but not those living here?

If another Sept. 11-like plot was discovered, could the military imprison the would-be hijackers before they stepped onto the planes?

Is a foreign battlefield really necessary in a conflict that turned downtown Manhattan into ground zero?

Also, if enemy combatants can be detained in the U.S., how long can they be held without charge? Without lawyers? Without access to the outside world? Forever?

These questions play to two of the biggest fears that have dominated public policy debate since Sept. 11: the fear of another terrorist attack and the fear the government will use that threat to crack down on civil liberties.

"If he is taken to a civilian court in the United States and it's been proved he is guilty and it's been proved there's evidence to show that he's guilty, you know, he deserves what he gets," his brother, Mohammed al-Marri, said in a telephone interview Friday from his home in Saudi Arabia. "But he's just been taken there with no court, no nothing. That's shame on the United States."

Courts have gone back and forth on al-Marri's case as it worked its way through the system. The last decision, a 2-1 ruling by a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel, found that the president had crossed the line and al-Marri must be returned to the civilian court system. Anything else would "alter the constitutional foundations of our Republic," the judges said.

The full appeals court is reviewing that decision and a ruling is expected soon. During arguments last year, government lawyers said the courts should give great deference to the president when the nation is at war.

"What you assert is the power of the military to seize a person in the United States, including an American citizen, on suspicion of being an enemy combatant?" Judge William B. Traxler asked.

"Yes, your honor," Justice Department lawyer Gregory Garre replied.

The court seemed torn.

One judge questioned why there was such anxiety over the policy. After all, there have been no mass roundups of citizens and no indications the White House is coming for innocent Americans next.

Another judge said the question is not whether the president was generous in his use of power; it is whether the power is constitutional.

Whatever the decision, the case seems destined for the Supreme Court. In the meantime, the first military trials are set to begin soon against detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Al-Marri may get one, too. Or he may get put back into the civilian court system. For now, he waits.

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