Terribly burned in Iraq blast, sergeant defied odds; 'he was unstoppable'
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."
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.
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.
Eric Gay / AP file
German with Norma Guerra.
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.
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.
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."