T.J. SIMERS

Marine veteran keeps a smile on his face, which is a medical miracle

Octavio Sanchez of Fontana was badly burned and lost one hand and his nose seven years ago in Iraq, but he's happy to be alive and with his family.

So much bellyaching in sports today, so many athletes talking about the adversity they overcome, and Octavio Sanchez loses his right hand, two fingers on his left, his nose burns off and he says, "I've been blessed."

It's a lump-in-your throat UCLA Saturday night in the Rose Bowl, Fontana's very own Sanchez on the field between the first and second quarters, victory already his.

"It'd be a beautiful thing if I could throw a football to my kids," he says, but he's just fine with the prosthesis prongs working now as his right hand; painting the house, working on cars and waving to UCLA football fans.

He's lucky too, he says, and although the three remaining fingers on his other hand are fused together, swelling sometimes and looking like sausages, there's sensation.

"It's something special," he says, "to touch your children and feel their faces."

Maybe you noticed the smile on his face as he waved. Maybe he was too far away, or it was time to go to the bathroom and he went unnoticed.

Too bad. It's a wonderful face, rebuilt with a combination of great medical expertise and personal pain atop remarkable character.

Almost 30 operations on his body, maybe more, but it's not like home runs hit, so who's counting?

He dies, several times, before being brought back, 68% of his body suffers third-degree burns and Sanchez says, he knows of only one way to react.

"Move forward."

And some people think they're having a bad day when their team loses.

There are others here tonight to write about victory or defeat. We do that daily, and no worries, UCLA will get the attention it deserves.

But as hard as today's athletes tell you they work to get better, Sanchez has been doing so for seven years. Every day, no breaks, no complaints.

"What's my other choice," he says, "crying over spilt milk?"

He's 32 now, hugging his daughter before she sits in his lap, his three boys nearby. But he's just a youngster himself as a soldier, Sanchez stopping the chat to insist on accuracy. "A Marine," he says.

He's 25, serving in Iraq, a bomb tossing his Humvee and life into the air. Sanchez is doused in diesel fuel. He becomes a fireball; a fellow Marine uses a fire extinguisher to put him out.

He notices an M-16 at his feet. It's his duty to engage the enemy, but he cannot find the strength in either burned hand to pull the trigger.

He throws down the weapon. "I must have been in shock because a Marine doesn't throw down his weapon," he says.

The fight continues, help arrives, but he won't leave without his fellow Marines. He's told they are behind a wall. It's a lie so he'll leave; his captain and the Humvee's gunner are dead.

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