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'Miracle' Marine loses final battle
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," said 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."
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 said. "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 interview. "Then I think: Why not? I can do whatever I want."
Renz witnessed 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 recalled. "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.
"I can't remember a time where he said, 'I can't do it. I'm not going to try,' " said Sgt. Shane Elder, a rehabilitation therapy assistant.
He kept going 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, 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, said 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 said that was the lowest he ever saw German, but even then "he didn't give up. ... He was unstoppable."
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," German's brother Ariel said. "She was his eyes, his ears, his feet, his everything."
German 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," said 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.
He was close to his mother. When the hospital's Holiday Ball approached in 2006, German wanted to surprise his mother by taking her for a twirl on the dance floor. He 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 said. "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."
Merlin German died after routine surgery to add skin under his lower lip.
Renz said 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.
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.
Merlin 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 children could enjoy life.
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.
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