Beyond the Burns

Manny and his wife, Laura, swing their son Johnny between them. All are laughing.


In 1996, twenty-year-old Manny Gonzalez was fulfilling his dream of helping others. He was a United States Marine. He was serving his country.

Then, during a combat exercise, a fire broke out. Manny went back into the flames to rescue a fellow marine, sustaining second and third degree burns over 80% of his body.

“Surviving those burns was – for lack of a better term – the easy part,” said Manny. “I was in my early twenties and just starting my career of choice, then I was told I couldn’t do it anymore.”

As Manny struggled to overcome the hard part, adjusting to his new reality and deciding what came next, he found support from other survivors.

“When I was in the hospital, a survivor came to talk to me and said, ‘It’s going to take a lot of hard work and perseverance, but you’ll see. One day, you’ll be able to do whatever you want.’”

After being released, Manny searched for a new path. He tried to pursue federal law enforcement, as his father had, but physical limitations kept Manny from following in his footsteps. After a lot of trial and error, Manny regrouped. He decided to finish his education with a degree in safety and security management.

“It was an extension of what I loved doing, helping people,” said Manny. “It put me in a position to be a leader, working with security professionals to protect the lives and properties of others.”

In 2002, Manny was given another opportunity to help others.

 “I was volunteering at the burn unit in Miami, and they were one of the first hospitals to initiate the Phoenix SOAR Program,” said Manny, who was excited to have a more profound impact as one of the first trained SOAR peer supporters.

Through SOAR, Manny became involved with Phoenix Society. In 2011, he joined the planning committee for Phoenix World Burn Congress, which would be held in Milwaukee in 2012. He had no idea that the conference would be a pivotal moment in his life.

On a trip to Chicago for a planning meeting, Manny met the assistant executive director for Illinois Fire Safety Alliance (IFSA), a woman named Laura. After the meeting, Manny returned home to Houston and didn’t think about Laura again.

Not until that summer, when he moved to Chicago and decided to volunteer with IFSA at the Illinois State Fair. There, Manny got the chance to reconnect with Laura, who was leading the group, and get to know her two children.

 “The more time I spent with her, the more I knew: she’s the one. I can’t let her slip away,” said Manny. “But one of my challenges throughout my post-burn life was taking that step and letting that other person know how I felt.”

Later that year, Manny attended the keynote speech at Phoenix WBC. Inspired by the speaker’s message of overcoming obstacles, Manny decided it was time to take the next step. He finally told Laura how he felt later that day.

“It was like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders,” said Manny. “That changed everything in my life.”

A year and a half later, they were married. With Laura at his side, Manny continued to pursue his passion for helping others. This led him to begin speaking professionally in 2015.

“I just get an incredible high when I do these speeches,” said Manny. “I know there’s always someone out there going through something…and sometimes it just takes hearing the right thing to help them overcome whatever challenges they’re dealing with.”

Manny knows what he’s taking about – because not long ago, he was able to overcome his own challenges though the keynote speaker at Phoenix WBC. “If it wasn’t for him, who knows where I’d be today?”

This fall, Manny returned to Phoenix World Burn Congress with Laura and their two-year-old son, Johnny. Before an audience of burn survivors and their families, he gave a keynote speech of his own: “Beyond the Burns.”


This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support Magazine, Issue 3, 2017.  Burn Support Magazine is a tri-annual publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery.  All Rights Reserved.