Wounded But Proud, Unbowed

Susan Page
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Wednesday - August 10, 2011
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Brian Mancini with Romeo. Susan Page photo

As he strokes his devoted black Lab service dog Romeo, a partially visible tattoo under his shirt sleeve reveals an angel hovering over a medic tending a wounded soldier. It is a constant visual reminder: I’m alive, and that is a precious gift.

But for Sgt. 1st Class Brian Mancini, 32, Army medic, after three years at Walter Reed Medical Center and countless surgeries for traumatic brain injury, there are other reminders that living itself can be an overwhelming challenge: endless pain, sleepless nights, nerve numbness, headaches, an eyeless socket, the anxiety of traumatic stress and an end to his 13-year career.

His wife also left.

But today, here in Sun Valley, Idaho, Brian finds relief at least temporarily in the peace and tranquility of the sunny outdoors and glistening waters. A rod, a reel, some line and an artificial fly on a tiny hook in hand, he’s fly fishing, a new passion. Brian’s second-nature hyper vigilance born from combat, where threat lurks in every shadow, window, doorway and vehicle, gradually calms in the soft mountain breeze, the sun-sparkled eddies and the inherent quiet of nature.

“When I’m out in nature, a peace comes over me,” Brian explains in a meeting with him in Idaho. During his hospital stay, he sometimes ventured out to area museums in Washington, D.C., where noise and crowds triggered anxiety. Thankfully, the ongoing war in his head is being slowly won by, as he says, both his faith in God, and caring people, who, through programs like Sun Valley Adaptive Sports (asvap.org), Higher Ground (hgvets.org) and Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (projecthealingwaters.org) give hope for a bright future.


“surge,” a roadside bomb in Baghdad brought cataclysmic change.

“I lost my right eye, my whole forehead, my whole frontal bone had to be rebuilt it’s all titanium. My whole mouth was blasted out,” Brian says of his devastating injuries. He is grateful for the talented docs who artfully pieced his head together. Just months out of his threeyear hospital ordeal, Brian’s faint scars belie the patchwork of injury beneath. (More than 1,600 men and women are being treated for traumatic brain injury under the VA medical system.)

Brian, 32, is handsome, talented and articulate an old soul with a huge heart. His years as an infantry combat medic thrust him into situations of leadership, teaching, danger and survival, which allow him a credibility few have. His input regarding wounded Iraq/Afghanistan veterans is invaluable to organizations (there are more than 60) seeking to help them.

“It’s important as we go forward that we identify the nonprofits that are the most beneficial,” explains Brian. “The VA is inundated with injuries that go untreated because of a lack of resources.”

Programs are supported “to fill in that gap.” (The ratio of wounded to killed is far higher than in past wars thanks to swift medical intervention and modern lifesaving techniques.)

Throughout history, poetry has comforted. Sgt. Brian Mancini wrote poems long before his injury in Iraq, and now writes them to document his feelings as he heals. Some poems are raw and angry, some evoke gratitude, others try to explain. He gave permission to share this one to help us understand the combat wounded who have sacrificed for us. It is our sacred responsibility:


Pity

Don’t you dare pity me for I live pity free.

I would do it all over again If need be, for this great nation tis of thee.

I stand tall and proud so don’t you dare pity me, for I live and will die pity free.

No matter how mangled my body it may be, the scars and pain are simple reminders you see, the sacrifices made for the land of the free.

There are many more who have given more than me,

So I honor them by living pity free.

I truly have lived better living pity free.

So I have one request, can you do it for me?

Please don’t you dare pity me, for I live proud

and pity free.

Google Brian Mancini for more on him.

Hawaii, by the way, recently formed a Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing chapter, based at Tripler, and had its first fly fishing event at Hickam Air Force Base pond, where last month 10 American Samoan wounded warriors caught their share of bonefish and had a grand time.

 

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