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Heroes of the Year

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On a gray afternoon in December 2005, Marine Staff Sergeant Octavio Sanchez stirred anxiously in his bed at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. His wife, Vanette, was bringing their then-5-year-old son Octavio to see his father for the first time since Sanchez’s Humvee had hit a homemade bomb in Ramadi, Iraq, blasting off his right hand, burning 70 percent of his body and melting his once ruggedly handsome face. A few moments later, his wife and son entered the room and little Octavio ran out in tears. “You’re not my daddy,” the boy cried. In the years that followed, Sanchez would have to restrain his son Jacob, now 12, from lashing out at strangers who would stare at them at the mall or amusement park. “My face was scarred, my nose was gone, it wasn’t me,” says Sanchez, 30, now a contractor in Fontana, Calif. “It pained me to see my kids suffer.”

Then, in October 2007, Sanchez went to see Dr. Timothy Miller of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. A plastic surgeon to the stars who had also worked on severely burned firefighters, since 2007 Miller, 71, has been reshaping the faces of disfigured servicemen and women from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through the nonprofit Operation Mend (operationmend.ucla.edu). To date, Miller and his team have performed 150 surgeries on 31 wounded warriors, restoring their features and rekindling their sense of self. “This is the most significant work of my life,” says Miller, a former Army surgeon in Vietnam who has taken a pay cut to perform the surgeries, which are paid for by military insurance and donations, many raised by philanthropist and Operation Mend founder Ronald Katz. “These men and women were injured serving our country,” Miller says. “I’m lucky to be able to help them.”

The son of a former Navy officer, Miller first treated burn patients in the mid-1960s at Brooke. “There are few things worse in the world than a major burn,” says Miller, who is the divorced father of a grown son and lives in L.A. with his fiancee, Mia Benedict. His skill and empathy made him a natural as chief surgeon for Operation Mend, says Brig. Gen. Joseph Caravalho, commanding general of Brooke Army Medical Center, which does much of the initial surgery on soldiers before referring them to Miller. “Tim,” says Caravalho, “is a superior plastic surgeon, and he’s using those skills to serve our nation.”

And give veterans like Sanchez the confidence to restart their lives. After 28 operations at Brooke, where he got a prosthetic hand and underwent life-saving burn surgery, the father of four went to Miller for nine facial reconstructive surgeries. His new nose, sturdy and a bit broader than his old one, draws affectionate teasing from his boys, not fear or tears. These days, he’s eager to meet with clients to drum up business and is even considering law school. “Because of Dr. Miller,” Sanchez says, “I feel like a human being again.