SAN ANTONIO (AP) – His first glimpse in the mirror was largely a blur.

Sgt. Darron Mikeworth had just come out of a drug-induced coma – his mind was still in a fog and he was so weak he could barely stand.

Three weeks before, in Iraq, a suicide bomber had raced up to the right side of his Humvee, igniting a barrel of explosives that tore into the machine gunner’s face. He nearly died.

Mikeworth awoke in a hospital bed, thousands of miles away.

He was relieved he still had his arms and legs. He was thrilled, too, his ears had survived. But he had wounds he could not see, life-changing wounds. His wife, Dea, helped break the news: His face was in bad shape. His left eye was useless.

And there was more.

At first, Mikeworth was too groggy to absorb it all. He was caught up in hallucinations of basketball players in the hospital, of cars on the highway floating in air. He didn’t know what was fantasy and what wasn’t – until he shuffled into the physical therapy room and stood before a full-length mirror.

“I just had to keep telling myself I’m NOT going to wake up out of this one,” he says. “THIS is not a dream. THIS is real.”

His head was one giant purple bruise, his eyelids were nearly swollen shut. His left eye had been removed (he’d given his OK from his hospital bed.) His eyelashes were singed off. His nose was mostly gone, just a sliver of cartilage remaining; skeletal-like bones revealed his sinuses. His top right lip was curled into a snarl, making it impossible to close his mouth. His right jaw was torn. His bottom teeth, loosened by the blast, were wired together.

His face – every bone has been shattered – was splattered with pinkish third-degree burns.

“I could have just flipped out,” he says. “But I looked in the mirror and said, all right, there’s no changing it. I just have to deal with it. This is me now.”

Darron Mikeworth’s face was his identity.

So, too, was his life as a soldier.

He was about to embark on a long journey to regain both.

Sgt. Mikeworth, the warrior, will tell you he is the same man he was Before The Bomb.

The 32-year-old soldier who served two stints in Iraq (and two more in Kosovo and the Sinai) still wants to take down the bad guys, still thrives on being a cog in the big Army machine.

But Sgt. Mikeworth, the survivor, also knows that no matter how much he heals, he’ll forever be defined, in some way, by what happened near Baghdad on April 29, 2005.

“I’m going to be “the blown-up guy’ wherever I go,” he says. “Anytime I walk into a room, I just know I’m going to be different looking and I’m going to be perceived differently.”

But he refuses to dwell on his losses.

“I have no reason to feel sorry for myself. I could be in a box underground somewhere,” he says. “Every day above ground is a GOOD day.”

But he needed to become himself again, so that he at least would recognize the face in the mirror and so that the people he encountered would see him as a man, not as a victim.

That’s where Operation Mend came in.

A one-of-kind partnership between the UCLA medical Center and Brooke Army Medical Center – the military’s main hospital for burn patients – the program provides reconstructive surgery to members of the military who’ve been severely disfigured in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, 24 men and women have been treated.

Dea knew instantly what would bother Darron most: Half his vision was gone. His features were mangled. People would stare.

She knew, too, how hard that would be for her husband, an introvert who preferred the sidelines to the spotlight.

“I used to like to be able to stand in the back of the crowd and not be noticed,” he explains. “I like to be anonymous.”

Suddenly, he was the center of attention, and often not in a good way.

Weeks after his release, Mikeworth and his family visited Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum. His legs were bandaged, his burned hands in gloves. He wore sunglasses, his nose was just a pair of slits.

As he stood, motionless, a young woman apparently thought he was a wax exhibit. When he moved, she was startled. Figuring he was an actor, she blurted: “What are you supposed to be?”‘

“I just looked at her and said, ‘I’m a blown-up soldier.”‘

Dea says they can laugh now but back then, she was filled with anger and pain, knowing how much that experience hurt her husband.

But his appearance didn’t faze his sons, Ryan, 7, and Connor, 6.

They brought laughter into the home when they returned from a two-month stay with Dea’s parents in Illinois.

When Mikeworth had to wear round plastic devices called nasal trumpets – they act like fake nostrils – the boys dubbed it his Pig Nose.

The funny moments, though, were just a temporary distraction.

“When you’re without a nose, with burns on your skin, without an eye, it’s a hard thing to swallow,” says Lisa Gustafson, his former case manager and Operation Mend coordinator at Brooke. “You don’t know if you have a future, if you have a paycheck. That’s pretty scary.”

Dea has helped tremendously, Gustafson says, remaining at her husband’s side from the start.

“We were kids together,” Dea explains. “One eye, two eyes, one hand, two hands. It doesn’t matter what he looks like. He’s Darron.”

They met at age 15 when Mikeworth’s father retired from the Army, settling in the tiny farming town of Robinson, Ill. From high school to life partners, they are a study in contrasts.

Dea is animated and talkative; Darron is shy and sparing with his words. And yet, this ordeal has, not surprisingly, unified them.

“We’re both pretty pragmatic people,” she says. “Yeah, this sucks. But we need to deal with it and move forward.”

At Brooke, Mikeworth endured about 16 surgeries, many on the lower right arm that he almost lost in the blast.

He had skin and bone grafts and titanium pins inserted around his eyes and cheekbones.

Within three months, he had asked to return to his unit, the 603rd Transportation Co., even though he could barely walk. “I think that was kind of denial,” Dea says. “He wanted to be a regular soldier again.”

The Army later recommended he retire – he’s classified having an 80 percent disability – but Mikeworth was insistent. His attitude, Gustafson says, was “I’m staying in the military with or without a nose, with or without an eye.”

But reconstructive facial surgery at Brooke proved to be slow going.

Gustafson tried to boost his spirits with daily phone calls.

“You are a soldier,” she’d tell him. “You are NOT going to give up. You’re going to continue to fight.”

In the fall of 2007, Gustafson heard about a pilot program at UCLA called Operation Mend. Mikeworth flew to California to be evaluated.

“They said they were going to fix me up,” he says. “It was a golden opportunity and I knew it.”

One of the first people Mikeworth met was Dr. Timothy Miller, UCLA’s chief of reconstructive and plastic surgery. Miller knows about war firsthand.

He earned a Bronze Star in Vietnam and has been known to wear a camouflage hat from those days in the operating room.

When talking about Operation Mend, Miller often recalls a quotation he saw etched above a church door, decades ago, when he was teaching in Italy. It said: “It is the divine right of man to look human.”

Once when Miller was giving a speech about the UCLA program, Darron Mikeworth heard him use that phrase – and something just clicked.

“It’s a lesson so plain no one thinks about it,” the sergeant says. “You don’t know what it is to have your nose there, then it’s gone and you have two slits in your face. Complete strangers are wondering things … about you and you haven’t even gotten to a handshake.”

Starting in January 2008, doctors began operating about once a month.

For his nose, they used a small piece of cartilage grafted from his ear, then tucked it under a flap of skin on the right side of his forehead above his eyebrow. They stored it there for about four weeks.

Doctors partially elevated the flap before pivoting it clockwise down to his nose. It remained attached so it looked like an elephant trunk for a time while they made sure there was proper blood flow. Then they shaped and thinned it.

The lower left side of his nose that had been worked on at Brooke was a bulbous mass (Mikeworth’s boys dubbed it his Bubble Gum Nose). Surgeons removed thick cartilage that made it hard to breathe, inserted new cartilage and thinned it out.

For his left eye, they created a new lower dam-like eyelid (he lost his in the blast), using forehead skin and a piece of tissue from the roof of Mikeworth’s mouth. It’s strong enough to hold a prosthetic eye, which will come later.

For his mouth, they removed scarred skin on his upper lip that had exposed his teeth and created a snarl – Dea jokingly called it his Elvis snarl. A skin graft made the lip full again. Doctors still plan a tattooed line to mask the scars and make the lip look more balanced.

“Getting him to look like he did before is totally unrealistic,” says Dr. Christopher Crisera, his chief surgeon. “My goal is to try and get them to a point where they’re happy the way they look.”

He already is.

Each time Mikeworth returned from a major surgery, friends noticed progress. “I was seeing it, too,” he says, “and smiling about it the whole time.”

Sgt. Mikeworth hopes to join an Army unit by summer.

He’s on medical hold while he looks for a suitable slot. He’s thinking about military intelligence or becoming an instructor.

“I don’t want to be put on a shelf or a back burner, or left in a corner anywhere,” he says.

Dea is elated to see Darron’s transformation. He goes on errands alone and last year attended a parent-teacher conference – an unimaginable thought, not long ago.

“I used to be afraid to go pick up the kids at the bus stop because I was afraid I looked like a monster,” he says. “Now I pop on my sunglasses and just walk down the street and unless somebody walks up and gets into my face and starts talking to me, they have no clue.

“It is,” he says, “a pretty good feeling.”

AP-ES-04-25-09 1216EDT

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