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Mending Heroes



HE’S ONLY 21, but Douglas Hayenga has twice been sent to fight a war.


Hayenga joined the Marines at 18, right out of high school in Minnesota.

A serious young man with intense blue eyes, he sits in a wheelchair, his legs bandaged, a tiny plastic tube curving out from a vein in his forearm.

This past March, Hayenga, a sergeant, was in Fallujah defending a building on the outskirts of the city when a mortar round exploded 10 feet from him.

“We knew they were prepping for an attack the whole day,” he says, “but we got mortared pretty much every day we were there, so we didn’t know when it would be coming.                      

“I was conscious the whole time.

My tibia was shattered. I had a lot of nerve damage in my leg, and the radial nerve in my arm was cut. I felt really lucky I survived, considering how close I was to being killed. I was in the kill zone. My best friend died, and another two Marines were killed in that same attack; all [came] from Camp Pendleton. My leg was so injured it met the guidelines for amputation, but the doctor at Camp Pendleton sent me to a specialist here. They are uncertain about me running again because of the nerve damage, but I’ll walk.

“I want to go back; I feel the need to be over there. I’m working on getting my bachelor’s degree, so I can be an officer.”

At the Naval Medical Center in Balboa Park, injured Marines like Douglas Hayenga still report for duty each day to Medical Hold Platoon M.C.R.D., or MedHold, as they call it. The job description has changed —— they no longer search door-to-door for insurgents, protect buildings or operate complicated weaponry. Their job, for the foreseeable future, is to recover from wounds, seen and unseen.

Many of these young men’s lives were saved at hospitals in Baghdad and Fallujah and at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

When they got to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, they had parts of arms and legs missing, eyes gone, legs and fingers that could feel nothing.

Captain Amy G. Wandel, the department head for plastic surgery at the Naval Medical Center, is part of the surgical team that reconstructs those limbs in an effort to return soldiers to normal form and function.

“We connect nerves and blood vessels,” she says, “attaching muscles where they need it.”

Corporal Nicholas Beberniss is 25.

He grew up in Colorado and joined the Marines at 22. In Fallujah last August, the high-back Humvee he was riding in hit a double-stacked antitank mine, which Beberniss describes as “a lot like a homemade pipe bomb.” They found him 180 feet from the vehicle.

“Both my legs were shattered from the mid-ankle on down,” says Beberniss.

“I broke four vertebrae in my back, fractured my right ribcage and punctured my lung. I came here to Balboa on August 4. I had plastic surgery for my arm and my right foot, and got a steel plate and six pins put Gunnery Sergeant Michael James Mella has been in the Marines 13 years; he’s 35 and lives with his wife and four children in San Clemente. In June, he was sent to Iraq.

“We started getting hit the moment we got there,” he says. On July 19, he was in the back of a Humvee that was blasted by three IEDs at the same time. “It blew out three-quarters of my right wrist and my forearm. Blew the top off my left hand. I can move the majority of my fingers now.

“When you are deployed, regardless if it’s combat, you always plan for the worst case, but you don’t plan for this, for coming back injured. But the staff here is great, and the community support we get really makes a difference.”


Lance Corporal Aaron Johnson* is 20; he grew up in Ohio and joined the Marines at 18. In April 2004 he was sent to Fallujah.


“I was a rifleman and would go out on patrols and could work on the Humvees. I grew up fixing cars. I lost my right eye and got shrapnel in my face.

“I can’t really talk about what happened. It’s frightening to think about it, but I’m seeing a psychiatrist now, and that helps. The flashbacks are the worst, and the insomnia. But this is war. I knew this could happen. I’m not bitter.”

*Johnson’s parents stayed at the Fisher House, a “comfort home” donated by the Fisher House Foundation for the families of military being treated at the hospital. Families can stay for free for up to 90 days. For more information on the Fisher House, call 619-532-9055 or visit fisherhouse.org.

© 2006 San Diego Magazine
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