When you look in the mirror, who do you see'" On May 20, 2005, a 31-year-old Army scout sniper named Pfc. Robert Bartlett glanced at the mirror placed before him with his right eye, his left eye blinded. Burns covered his face and hands; his bottom lip, an eyelid, five teeth, the front of his nose and part of his jaw-all missing.
An explosive-formed projectile tore through the Humvee Bartlett was riding in three weeks earlier during a sector-clearing mission in Iraq and cut his face in half, from his temple through his jaw.
"I was a man without a face. It's like the left side didn't exist anymore. And the drooling every day just grates on you, not to mention (it's) embarrassing. With every drop of drool it takes away your dignity. It's almost like the left side of my face melted away. Not being able to blink my eye...every breeze that should've been for comfort was painful," Bartlett said.
After more than 40 surgeries over the next three and a half years as a patient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Bartlett, now a sergeant, reflected on his recovery while awaiting completion of his medical board process.
The 35-year-old Soldier believes there is healing in being honest-first with yourself, then others. You must surrender your pride, false realities (past dreams or hopes no longer attainable) and any distorted image of yourself-then there is freedom. You have to love who you see in the mirror.
"You just can't let it beat ya. You got what you got. You know' That's how a lot of us end up...it's a humbling thing that we all have to learn," Bartlett said.
The curious stares of strangers no longer bother him like they did in the beginning.
"Oh, it was brutal. They would just stare and they couldn't figure it out. I would smile at them and they would smile back or they would get surprised or just continue to stare. That's our biggest thing: just smiling and saying, 'Hi,' and letting them know we're still human," Bartlett said. "It's just one of those things, you know. My wife has a harder time with it than I do. She wants to go over and slap people. She's very protective of me," he laughed.
Bartlett said he wanted to continue his military career prior to his injuries. "I was single when I went in. I was looking forward to a career in the military. Obviously things have changed (since the explosion). I met my wife and I can't do what I was going to do anymore," said the former sniper, who called his wife Jordan the love of his life.
"I was always so focused on being strong," Bartlett said. Jordan showed him how to be sensitive and still be strong. "Like the river that smoothes the roughest stone. That's my wife."
"I prayed so long that I could meet someone like her. When I got blown up, I didn't think I'd date again. Half your face is gone and you go, 'Who's going to want me anymore' Look at me!' And the truth is that we get a better quality person than we ever thought we would," Bartlett said.
His message for other injured Soldiers is clear: yes, it happened, but good can come from it.
Bartlett said being blown up was the best thing that ever happened to him. It has given him the opportunity to meet people he never would have the opportunity to meet, and to be a spokesperson for Soldiers down range.
In addition to speaking engagements, Bartlett joins his wife in volunteer work with their church and community when he's home in Gilbert, Ariz.
"You know it's the best joy ever. Call me selfish. I love it. I absolutely love it...giving back is the biggest reward ever," Bartlett said.
"His healing process is helping other Soldiers get back on their feet," said Jordan. She added that it's a reciprocal healing process. "I don't think the other Soldiers know what they're doing for him."
"Being a part of something bigger than you is a reward. Even though you lost a leg and your buddy died, now you have to be twice as positive, twice as good for them. You can't be self-absorbed in pity. We all signed up. We knew what we were getting into. There's fulfillment (in serving others). From the beginning it's never been our plan. God kept us alive for a reason," Bartlett said.
And there's clearly a purpose for Bartlett. The Soldier said he died three times after the explosion in Iraq: once on the battlefield, once at the combat support hospital and a third time at Walter Reed.
Bartlett received an American Society of Plastic Surgeons' Patients of Courage: Triumph Over Adversity Award in November. His plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, nominated the sergeant for his ability to overcome a tremendous adversity, turn it into something positive and motivate other patients, nationally.
Rodriguez cited Bartlett's optimism and explained that a positive state of mind helps patients like Bartlett heal physically and mentally.
Bartlett tells his fellow Soldiers recovering at Walter Reed, "You can't complain about what you don't have. You just have to be content with what you do have-just being alive." He said relationships and ups and downs are not always fun but it keeps it exciting. "Life is just a beautiful thing. And we'll be so much better off and happy if we just let ourselves recognize and overcome the difficulties we encounter along the way.
"If we could just be 100 percent with ourselves then we can be 100 percent with that woman or man, and it's as simple as that. God has a plan for all of us," Bartlett said.
Sharon Renee Taylor writes for The Stripe at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.