Wrapped in bandages, Joey Paulk woke up at a military hospital more than two weeks after he nearly burned to death in Afghanistan. He saw his mother crying by his bedside, then began asking questions.
“My mom, she kind of leaned over. I said, ‘What’s wrong with my hands?’” He recalls. “She said, ‘Well, they had to amputate your fingers.’ I said, ‘Well, how many?’ She said, ‘All of them.’”
Paulk also sustained severe burns, deforming many of his facial features. Other wounds were not as visible. But Paulk persevered, and the strength he showed in his recovery earned the former Army specialist UCLA Health Laker for a Day honors for the game against the Utah Jazz on April 8.
Paulk’s injuries occurred July 5, 2007, when the tactical vehicle he was in drove over a mine. The vehicle flipped over and the fuel tank ignited, killing his team leader, ejecting Paulk and engulfing him in flames.
By the time Paulk regained consciousness at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, he could barely recognize himself. His lower left eyelid drooped. His upper left eyelid and nostrils were gone. His upper lip melted upward, and his lower lip turned inside out. Both of his ears were partially amputated.
“At first, I didn’t really understand what happened or how badly injured I was,” he says. “I didn’t really feel any pain. And then slowly but surely, it started kicking in. And then I really kind of knew that I was in trouble.”
Paulk tried to blend back into society, which proved difficult. People would stare at his injuries. Children, not knowing any better, would make comments. Paulk eventually started wearing long sleeves and a hat to try to conceal himself.
“I was really uncomfortable with it and I started isolating myself,” he says. “That’s when my family kind of stepped in and said you need to do something.”
Paulk found his way to UCLA Operation Mend, which began in 2007 as a collaboration with the military and the Veterans Health Administration to provide free specialized care to wounded warriors and their families. He underwent cosmetic surgeries at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center that helped realign and restore his face – and, in the process, his self-confidence.
“They helped me physically. That immediately helped me psychologically. I owe everything to them,” he says.
Paulk is now retired and lives in his hometown of Oceanside, California. He was joined at the Lakers’ game with his girlfriend Ashley. They received an up-close view of warmups and met Coach Luke Walton, and Paulk discovered he and Walton had a shared connection. Paulk bowls every week with Walton’s high school basketball coach. It’s one of several sports Paulk can partake in again.
“I’m just very excited to represent the military and represent Operation Mend,” he says. “Being a Laker for a Day is a dream come true.”