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An ex-Marine can run for us

A young man who lost a limb in Iraq has found a new way to help his adopted country.

March 21, 2010|Steve Lopez
  • Mervin Roxas, who lost his arm in an IED attack in Iraq, trains for the marathon at a park in Anaheim.
Mervin Roxas, who lost his arm in an IED attack in Iraq, trains for the marathon… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

If you got up too late Sunday morning to run the Los Angeles Marathon, or if you're one of the many who couldn't jog two blocks without doubling over in agony, there's still a way for you to participate.

Fullerton resident Mervin Roxas is covering the 26 miles from Dodger Stadium to the beach to raise money for U.S. Vets Inc., which provides services to thousands of homeless vets, including job training and shelter.

I'll tell you in a minute how you can sponsor Roxas, but first, his story:

Roxas, pronounced like Rojas, lived in the Philippines, where his father was a merchant seaman and his mother an accountant. They lived well but moved to Orange County when he was 13 so that he, his brother and sister could have better opportunities.

Roxas, now 27, went to Rancho Alamitos High School and then Golden West College, where he was studying criminal justice and thinking of becoming a police officer or a teacher. But after Sept. 11, 2001, he wanted to serve his adopted country and so joined the Marines.

His first deployment with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, in 2003, went smoothly. But on his second tour in 2004, he and his unit were frequently attacked while training Iraqi forces and running patrols in Al Qaim, Iraq, an insurgent entry point near the Syrian border.

On July 5, Roxas was manning the machine gun atop a Humvee carrying nine Marines.

"All I remember is that we were hit and I blacked out for maybe a couple of minutes."

An improvised explosive device had wiped out the left side of the Humvee. Roxas, thinking they were still under attack, picked himself up and hurried to the machine gun to return fire.

"I didn't realize I'd lost my arm," he says.

He sensed something was wrong but felt no pain.

"I can't feel anything," he said to another shaken Marine. "Did I lose my arm?"

"He said, 'Yeah, you did.' "

And Roxas was one of the lucky ones. Two of the other Marines riding atop the Humvee were dead. A third, badly wounded, later died.

Roxas lost his entire arm and part of the shoulder. His jaw and cheekbone were shattered. Medics stabilized him and quickly sent him to Germany, where doctors fought to save him. He has no memory of having been in Germany. But he does remember being at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., still unaware of the extent of his injuries until he asked for a mirror.

"I did a lot of crying. I'm not going to lie," Roxas said.

He was in great pain and suffering emotionally, with multiple surgeries ahead of him and nearly a full year in the hospital. At 21, he was an amputee, and his dream of becoming a police officer was finished.

Those were low, low moments, he admits, but two things kept him going: His family was there for support, and one day, another soldier who was injured about the same time came to his room for a visit.

"He had lost both arms," Roxas said of Seattle-born Marine Sgt. Eddie Wright, whose limbs were severed below the elbow. "That guy was worse off than I was and he was handling it better."

Inspired, Roxas became determined to rebuild his life in California, and he has.

By day, he works as a life skills coach for the Easter Seals, counseling developmentally disabled adults. In the afternoon and evening, he studies at Cal State Fullerton and is on schedule to graduate a year from now. He wants to teach American and world history in high school.

He's been sneaking in workouts on weekends and whenever else he can and hopes to finish the marathon -- his second -- in four or five hours.

"He taught me you can't let yourself be a victim of circumstances," said Jessica Doverspike, his girlfriend, who has seen no self-pity or defeatism in Roxas. "To me, there's something really attractive about that."

Roxas still has dark moments. He hopes one day he'll be able to contact the families of the soldiers who died in the IED attack, but he feels guilty about having survived and doesn't yet know if he can find words to console the families or express his feelings.

The buddies he lost are Lance Cpl. John J. Van Gyzen IV of Massachusetts, Lance Cpl. Michael S. Torres of El Paso, and Cpl. Dallas L. Kerns of Missouri. All three were 21.

Sometimes Roxas gets what are called phantom pains. He'll feel as though he still has a left hand and it's being clubbed with a hammer. Or he'll want to rest his arm on a pillow, and then he will remember. He has found out there are many things we take for granted.

"Crossing your arms. I really miss that." But Roxas said he has no regrets about serving and would do so again if he could.

"A lot of good things have happened. I have a better perspective on life, and I wasn't the most mature person when this happened."

Nor was he a full-fledged citizen. His family came to the U.S. legally, but the bureaucracy had bottled up the last phase of their application process. Today, Roxas is both a citizen and a recipient of the Purple Heart.

A friend told him about U.S. Vets Inc. and its efforts to reach out to an estimated 130,000 homeless veterans in the country.

If you just open your eyes, Roxas told me, you'll see great need, and "you can take action to help out."

Sunday, he is helping out again, with all his sponsorship money going to U.S. Vets. If you'd like to get behind him, go to www.firstgiving.com/mervinroxas.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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