The young Marine came back from the war, with his toughest fight ahead of him.

Merlin German waged that battle in the quiet of a Texas hospital, far from the dusty road in Iraq where a bomb exploded, leaving him with burns over 97 percent of his body.

No one expected him to survive.

But for more than three years, he would not surrender. He endured more than 100 operations and procedures. He learned to live with pain, to stare at a stranger's face in the mirror. He learned to smile again, to joke, to make others laugh.

He became known as the "Miracle Man."

But just when it seemed he would defy impossible odds, Sgt. Merlin German lost his last battle this spring - an unexpected final chapter in a story many imagined would have a happy ending.

"I think all of us had believed in some way, shape or form that he was invincible," said Lt. Col. Evan Renz, who was German's surgeon and his friend. "He had beaten so many other operations. . . . It just reminded us, he, too, was human."

It was near Ramadi, Iraq, on Feb. 21, 2005, that the roadside bomb detonated near German's humvee, hurling him out of the turret and engulfing him in flames.

When Renz and other doctors at the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio first got word from Baghdad, they told his family that he really didn't have a chance. The goal: Get him back to America so his loved ones could say goodbye.

But when German arrived four days later, doctors, amazed by how well he was doing, switched gears. "We were going to do everything known to science," Renz said. "He was showing us he can survive."

Doctors removed his burn wounds and covered him with artificial and cadaver skin. They also harvested pieces of German's healthy skin, shipping them to a lab where they were grown and sent back.

"Sometimes I do think I can't do it," German said last year. "Then I think: Why not? I can do whatever I want."

Slowly, his determination paid off. He made enormous progress.

From a ventilator to breathing on his own.

From communicating with his eyes or a nod to talking.

From being confined to a hospital isolation bed with his arms and legs suspended - so his skin grafts would take - to moving into his own house and sleeping in his own bed.

Sometimes his repeated operations laid him up for days, and he'd lose ground in his rehabilitation. But he would always rebound. Even when he was hurting, he would return to therapy - as long as he had his morning Red Bull energy drink.

"I can't remember a time where he said, 'I can't do it. I'm not going to try,' " said Sgt. Shane Elder, a rehabilitation therapy assistant.

That despite the constant reminders that he'd never be the same. The fitness buff who could run miles and do dozens of push-ups struggled, at first, just to sit up on the edge of his bed. The onetime saxophone player had lost his fingers. The Marine with the lady-killer smile now had a raw, scarred face.

His mother, Lourdes, remembered her son: "He was never really scared of anything."

That toughness, said his brother, Ariel, showed up even when they were children growing up in New York. Playing football, Merlin would announce: "Give me the ball. Nobody can knock me down."

In nearly 17 months in the hospital, Merlin German's "family" grew.

From the start, his parents, Lourdes and Hemery, were with him. They moved to Texas. His mother helped feed and dress her son; they prayed together three, four times a day.

Norma Guerra, a public affairs spokeswoman who has a son in Iraq, became known as German's "Texas mom."

She read him action-packed stories at his bedside and arranged to have a DVD player in his room so he could watch his favorite gangster movies.

She sewed him pillows embroidered with the Marine insignia. She helped him collect New York Yankees memorabilia and made sure he met every celebrity who stopped by - magician David Blaine became a friend, and President Bush visited.

Every time he cleared a hurdle, the staff at Brooke cheered him on.

When he first began walking, Guerra said, word spread in the hospital corridors. "People would say, 'Did you know Merlin took his first step? Did you know he took 10 steps?' " she recalled.

German, in turn, was asked by hospital staff to motivate other burn patients when they were down or just not interested in therapy.

German understood, too, that burn patients deal with issues because of the way they look.

"When he saw a group of children in public, he was more concerned about what they might think," said Renz, his surgeon. "He would work to make them comfortable with him."

He accomplished one major goal: He set up a foundation for burned children called "Merlin's Miracles" to raise money so the children could enjoy life, whether it was getting an air conditioner for their home or taking a trip to Disney World, a place he loved.

And children adored him, including Elder's two young sons. German had a habit of buying them toys with the loudest, most obnoxious sounds - and presenting them with a mischievous smile.

But he was closest to his mother. When the hospital's Holiday Ball approached in 2006, German told Norma Guerra he wanted to surprise his mother by taking her for a twirl on the dance floor.

Guerra thought he was kidding. She knew it could be agony for him just to take a short walk or raise a scarred arm.

But she agreed to help, and they rehearsed for months. He chose a love song to be played for the dance: "Have I Told You Lately?" by Rod Stewart.

That night he donned his Marine dress blues and shiny black shoes - even though it hurt to wear them. He took his mother in his arms and they glided across the dance floor.

Everyone stood and applauded. And everyone cried.

Merlin German died after routine surgery to add skin under his lower lip. He was just 22.

"I may no more understand why he left us when he did than why he survived when he did," Renz said. "I don't think I was meant to know."

For more about Sgt. Merlin German and his foundation, visit