Soldier Disfigured in Blast Aims for Physical Recovery, Return to Army

Sgt. Darron Mikeworth's first glimpse in the mirror was largely a blur.

He'd just come out of a drug-induced coma three weeks after a bomber blew up his Humvee in Iraq.

Mikeworth awoke in a bed at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

He was relieved he still had his arms, legs and ears. But his face was in bad shape, and his left eye was useless. His nose was mostly gone. His top right lip was curled into a snarl, his right jaw was torn and his bottom teeth were wired together. His face 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."

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."

Mikeworth knew his wounds were so extensive there was no way doctors could turn back the clock. But he refused then — as he does now — 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, 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.

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

Mikeworth's road to recovery has been part medical marvel, part profile in courage — the stalwart soldier who rebuilds his confidence as doctors rebuild his face.

All along, as UCLA surgeons have tucked and trimmed, adding a bit of cartilage here, a flap of skin there.

"I was pretty gruesome in the beginning," he says. "I looked like I came out of some Halloween horror movie. I know that. Sometimes if I was having a bad day, I'd get mad at the situation I found myself in, but I would never get angry at the people."

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 his wife's parents in Illinois.

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.

His wife, 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."