WASHINGTON -- David Kelso's trip to Iraq started out as an experiment to figure out how to broadcast radio live from the Middle East. But it turned into much more after the Oklahoma City disk jockey was introduced to a group of Marines from his area.
Among the Marines Kelso met was Lance Cpl. Aaron Mankin, a 23-year-old combat correspondent from Rogers, Ark., who enlisted in the Marines from Oklahoma. Kelso said he was impressed right away by Aaron's military bearing and by his striking blue eyes.
"He was incredibly well spoken," said Kelso, a DJ for 107.7 FM, KRXO. "A very, very well put together Marine."
Kelso visited with the group of Marines and let them talk live on the radio back in Oklahoma. He left impressed by the Marines' attitudes and with a better understanding of the realities of the war in Iraq, he said. But he was soon to face an even harsher reality of war.
Three days after Kelso got back to the United States, his boss called to tell him that one of the Marines he had interviewed had been injured. It was Aaron.
"It was like a punch in the face," Kelso said.
Aaron was injured May 11 when his vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb during Operation Matador, said Aaron's father, Steve Mankin. Six Marines were killed in the attack, and four of the injured, including Aaron, were taken to the United States for treatment.
Aaron suffered third-degree burns over 15 percent of his body, Steve said. The worst damage was done to his face and arms, and his lungs were damaged from smoke and dirt inhalation, Steve said. Since returning to the U.S., Aaron has been at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio undergoing treatment and rehabilitation.
When Kelso heard Aaron had been injured, he began looking for ways to help Aaron and his family, he said. He enlisted his radio station's help, and KRXO set up the Aaron Mankin Family Trust at MidFirst Bank locations in Oklahoma. The station's Web site has a link for people to get information about Aaron and how to donate to the trust.
Kelso stays in touch with the Mankin family, he said, and often refers them to aid organizations or volunteers who want to help. Kelso has heard from doctors and optometrists who want to help Aaron, mechanics who want to help keep the family car running well for the frequent trips to San Antonio, and travel agents who want to provide free lodging for the family while they are visiting Aaron. Oklahoma City has rallied behind the family because of the strong military ties in the community, Kelso said.
"We tend to stand up and take care of our own real well," he said. "We are supporters of our military, and we're going to get behind heroes like this."
Aaron's attitude has been nothing short of heroic during his long, painful rehabilitation process, Steve said. He has had numerous skin grafts and is doing limited physical therapy to work on flexibility. He gets up and walks, but it is uncomfortable for him, because the skin grafts were taken from his legs and his feet are used for IVs and blood drawing, Steve said. Despite his pain, Aaron continues to have one of the most positive attitudes in the ward, Steve said. Recently the staff asked Aaron to visit other patients in the ward, because although their wounds were less severe, their attitudes were less optimistic, he said.
"He connects with people," Steve said. "He has no pity for himself; he's concerned about other people."
Kelso said he saw that same attitude in Aaron during his visit to Iraq.
"This kid is an inspiration for people his age, people twice his age and people half his age," he said. "This kid is what America ought to be about."
Aaron is continuing his rehabilitation process and still has a long way to go, Steve said. Meanwhile, Kelso is dedicated to helping the family as much as he can, he said.
"Whatever the family needs is whatever they will get," Kelso said.
Kelso's experience in Iraq and with the Mankin family broadened his perception of the military and war, he said. Kelso grew up in a military family and has always been a supporter of the war, but this trip made him realize what servicemembers face every day in Iraq, he said.
Not joining the military is something Kelso said he regrets, but he realizes how important of a role he can play as a military supporter.
"As long as you guys do what you do, I'm going to tell people about what you do," he said. "When one of you gets hurt, my heart's going to break, and when one of you dies, I will find your family and say I'm sorry you died on my behalf."
Because of the success of the trip to Iraq, KRXO plans to travel to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Afghanistan, Kelso said. The station's intent is to counteract the flow of bad news coming from mainstream media by telling positive stories about servicemembers and the progress being made, he said.