Merlin German: A Profile in Courage, Perseverance
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News & Notes. On February 22nd, 2005, Merlin German's life changed forever. He was a Marine Sergeant in Iraq, and a roadside bomb exploded, burning him over 97 percent of his body. That would kill most people, but Sergeant German survived and kept his sense of humor through multiple surgeries.
People at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas started calling him the miracle man. Sergeant German even went on to found his own nonprofit to help burn survivors. But last month, he had what was supposed to be a simple follow-up surgery, and passed away.
Sergeant Merlin German was just 22 years old. To tell us more about his life and legacy, we have his brother, Ariel German, plus a dear friend of his, Norma Guerra, department chief of public affairs at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Welcome to you both.
Ms. NORMA GUERRA (Department Chief of Public Affairs, Brooke Army Medical Center, San Antonio, Texas): Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Let's start with you, Ariel. When and how did you first learn that your brother was injured?
Mr. ARIEL GERMAN (Brother of Marine Sergeant Merlin German): I can actually remember that exact day. It was about 1 a.m. in the morning, three Marines came knocking on my door. They were actually looking for my mother, but she was living in the Dominican Republic at the time. And they were able to tell me what was wrong.
And while I waited for them to get clearance from Washington, I kept asking one of the Marines to give me a flag, because he had said if he passed away, they would give me a flag. So I kept saying, where's my flag, where's my flag? But then they came back and was like, well, we can only tell you he's been burned. He's OK. He's alive. But at first they had said he was only burned about 70 percent. And every time I kept in contact with them, the percentage went up.
CHIDEYA: What was it like when you first got to see him?
Mr. GERMAN: It was stunning. I was shocked because the nurse kept talking to me, telling me about the procedures, that I have to put on scrubs, and I had to wash my hands. But I was, like, in space, just staring at his toes because that's the only thing that weren't covered. And when she was done talking, I asked her, that's Merlin, right? That's my brother? And she's like, yes, that's him. So, I was really, really, really scared.
CHIDEYA: I've seen pictures of him as a sergeant, a very handsome young man. And then, afterwards, the understandable amount of scar tissue, the change in his complexion, which was modeled by the skin grafts.
Norma, a lot of people would look at themselves in the mirror and say, what's happened here? He lost most of his fingers, from what I understand, as well. What kind of person was he in his spirit and his attitude towards life?
Ms. GUERRA: Oh, God, I mean, he was amazing. At first, he used to say, I've been burned 97 percent. You know, I'm not going to be able to do nothing, and, you know, why didn't the good Lord just take me away and things like that. But after he started getting stronger and stronger, then he kind of switched his tune, and he said, wait a minute, I was burned 97 percent. I only had a 3 percent chance of living. I can do whatever I want to.
And his attitude just completely turned around, and he just became an inspiration to everyone here, to all the guys that were getting here after he did and, of course, after he was up and able to get around. And, I mean, he would get up out of his room and go around and motivate all the other guys that were here and walk with them and say, look, I could hardly walk a few months ago and look where I am now. And so, he was just inspiring.
CHIDEYA: To even be able to walk must have been something that, at least some doctors and nurses thought would be impossible given what had gone on. I mean, how exceptional was he in terms of the recovery he was able to make?
Ms. GUERRA: The docs couldn't believe it. Everybody was baffled. They started calling him, of course, the miracle man, because here was a kid that was not expected to live. And I remember sitting in meetings every morning and hearing about his condition, you know, getting either worse or maybe - you know, he would kind of take three steps backwards and then one up and two - you know, back and forth, back and forth.
And everyone expected him to not make it. And all of a sudden, he proved everyone wrong. I mean, people were in awe. And you know, his age had a lot to do with it, he was young. His strength, he worked out immensely, and he was in good physical condition. So those were all pluses for him. But mostly, the doctors said it was his spirit - his spirit of wanting to live because a lot of people won't, and he decided that he did.
CHIDEYA: Ariel, it sounds like he made not just the best of a horrible situation, but he was able to change other people's lives. But I wonder what he was like when he was younger. What was he like when you were growing up?
Mr. GERMAN: Wow. He was a character. He was very, very tough. Very tough, always. At times, you could say he was a bully to kids that were smaller than him. Because he was always kind of stocky, but he also defended a lot of people. So I can say he was always very tough. He had a big sense of humor also.
CHIDEYA: The sense of humor that got him through some of this?
Mr. GERMAN: Yeah. It helped us, also, because he would laugh while we were like, you know, all scared and wanting to cry. He would be like, I'm burned. I'm like a fried chicken. I'm like, don't say that. He would be cracking up, and then I had no choice but to laugh.
CHIDEYA: How did your mom - how did she deal with this?
Mr. GERMAN: She was - at first, she cried a lot. She cried a lot. I mean, as any mother would, but then she said that she would never leave his side again. And she never did.
CHIDEYA: Norma, he was having what should have been a very routine surgery. What went wrong, do we know?
Ms. GUERRA: No. He made it through the surgery fine. And he was doing well. They did an autopsy, and it showed that it was respiratory, probably. That's all I really know, that it had something to do with his respiratory.
And you know, you have to remember that there has been probably no other like him, and to survive that percentage of burns. So it was almost like, everybody was going from one day to the next, saying, wow, he's made it again. And look what he's doing now, and so it was a shock to everyone. You know, it was just a shock because he was doing great just a few days prior. But like I said, no one else had ever gone on like that, so he kind of was setting the standard for surviving those type burns.
CHIDEYA: Ariel, tell us about the work that he did with Merlin's Miracles. You know, to think about his journey into the military and then through these surgeries and then to help other people, what did he set out to do, and what was he able to accomplish with his group?
Mr. GERMAN: He always wanted to help kids. He always loved being around kids and playing with kids. By the way he looked, a lot of kids a lot of times would be scared of him, but then he would joke around with them, and they'd start getting comfortable with him. That was his passion, to always help kids.
CHIDEYA: Norma, how do you see the work that he did?
Ms. GUERRA: It's amazing. He had started it, and it's going to live on, you know, through his friends and his family and the people that loved him. And I think a lot of burned children and their families are going to benefit from it. And I hope it does live on because it will be him living on for the rest of the children that are going through the same thing.
Merlin loved to travel and go places, and he would always tell me, he's like, Norma, I want to do something so that burned kids can have an easy time getting places and doing things. And they need AC for their house because he knew how miserable it was not to have it. Or if he was sitting outside for a minute, how bad it was. Or he'd have to sit in the vehicle with an air condition. Can you imagine a child that didn't have air condition because, you know, the family simply couldn't afford it? Or things like that. And don't you think, Ariel, that's kind of where he was going?
Mr. GERMAN: Yeah, yeah.
CHIDEYA: Ariel, you know, on Memorial Day, we think about people who've passed away. When you think of your brother, do you think of him as he was before he was burned, after he was burned or now, perhaps, his spirit, you know, beyond life?
Mr. GERMAN: When he got hurt, I always treated him the same way he was before he got hurt. I never, you know, was sorry for him or pitied him. I always was tough with him, as I was when we were young, growing up. So now, as I think of him and think about what's happened, I'm very, very proud of being his brother, because I can say my brother made a difference in this world and he touched a lot of people, especially my life. I see things - a lot of things different now because of him.
CHIDEYA: Ariel, Norma, thank you for sharing your story.
Ms. GUERRA: Oh, you're welcome.
CHIDEYA: Ariel German is Sergeant Merlin German's brother, and he spoke to us from the studios of WMFE in Orlando, Florida. And Norma Guerra is the department chief of public affairs at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
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