"I want him to look as normal as possible," said Dr. Timothy Miller, the chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at UCLA Medical Center, who will be leading the surgery. "There's always going to be some scarring. There's always going to be some evidence that it was a very serious injury, but I believe it's going to look considerably better in the long run."
Miller is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and in a way, Operation Mend is a kind of homecoming — Miller performed his surgical internship in Brooke's Burn Center.
Like Katz, he believes that the private sector should step in when it has the ability to help, so he is donating his surgical services for the duration of Mankin's operations.
"The Army resources are thin and these cases take a long time to get to the point where you're finished," he said. "In Cpl. Mankin's case we're looking at a good six months, if not seven or eight."
Miller hopes that Mankin will be the first of many burned soldiers that Operation Mend can help. "I sincerely believe that they have given a great sacrifice to our country, and I feel it is my obligation if I can, to help them in any way I possibly can," he said. "I feel privileged to be able to help them, and to the extent that I can, I am very grateful."
Mankin is grateful, too. Even though he has become accustomed to his face in the last two years, he says the chance to have it repaired has given him a newfound hope, and his mission now is to give other soldiers who have suffered similar burn injuries the hope that they too can recover.
"That means more to me than me looking better tomorrow," he said.
While he still has a long road of recovery ahead, Mankin will not be going through it alone. By his side is Diana Kavanec, the woman whose face he pictured as he lay injured in Iraq.
She is now his wife — just three months after his injury, Mankin proposed to her at the bottom of an airport escalator as she returned from Iraq where she had been serving in the Marines.
At the time, Kavanec had not seen him since his injury and did not know the extent of his wounds or even that he had been burned. "I knew that he was alive and that's about it," she said.
At first, Mankin's badly disfigured face shocked her, and she says she did not recognize him. That didn't stop Mankin from getting down on one knee and asking her to marry him. "She hadn't seen me for more than 15 seconds and I popped the question," he said with a laugh.
Despite her initial surprise at seeing Mankin so badly injured, Kavanec had no doubt that she wanted to marry him. "I knew that I wanted to be with him still, and that's what got us through it," she said. The couple married last year and have an 8-month-old daughter named Madeline.
If anything, says Kavanec, she loves him more now than she did before. "This was almost like [a] second chance," she said. "I almost lost him once, and I'm not going to lose him again."
For details about Operation Mend: http://www.uclahealth.org/body.cfm?id=403&action=detail&ref=161
To contribute to the program: https://giving.ucla.edu/plasticsurgery or contact Adrienne Walt, director of development, UCLA Medical Sciences, email@example.com, (310) 267-1835.