Eyes and ears and mouth and nose. I’ve sung that with my young niece and nephew. It’s a simple song, designed to teach children about the body parts. For veterans injured by IEDs, sniper fire, mortars, RPGs, and training accidents, the song takes on an entirely different meaning. With shattered jaws, nonexistent eyelids, missing ears, damaged nerves, and other injuries, these servicemembers and veterans are, as one vet described them, the “Humpty Dumpties” of the vet world. Thankfully, there is someone who can put Humpty Dumpty together again.
Operation Mend was piloted by UCLA, the VA, and Brooke Army Medical Center to supplement the wounded warrior care being provided by VA hospitals and take it beyond what VA can offer. Originally designed as a reconstructive plastic surgery program, it has since grown to include other cutting edge medical services in fields such as Traumatic Brain Injury, Orthopedics, and even medical tattooing to hide scars. Since its inception in 2007, it has served just over 100 wounded veterans of Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Operation Mend’s first patient was Marine Cpl Aaron Mankin, who you may recognize from Mike Corrado’s “Still in the Fight” video. Originally injured by a mine exploding in Iraq, Mankin has undergone 65 surgeries over the last 8 years and is now an avid spokesperson for the program.
Eligibility: Operation Mend is open to OEF/OIF/OND servicemembers and veterans of all branches who were injured overseas or in stateside combat-related training. The servicemember/veteran must also have an injury/injuries that require special treatment, be in stable and travel-eligible condition, have a friend or family member who can accompany him/her on trips to LA, and have a case manager that can facilitate referrals and other Operation Mend “intake” requirements.
Basic Process and Details: Operation Mend covers the medical expenses (which can reach $500,000!), travel and housing expenses. A UCLA representative will meet you at the gate each time you fly into LA and transport you to your lodging, the Tiverton House, UCLA’s fully-equipped campus hotel, located a few blocks from the medical center. Treatment will take place at the Ronald Regan UCLA Medical Center. Generally, there will be a consultation and pre-op functions (blood draw, photo, Q&A, etc.) on the first day and surgery on the second (you even get your own “Quilt of Valor”). Most surgeries are outpatient, so patients will stay only one night in the hospital and spend the rest of the trip (usually 7-10 days) staying at Tiverton House, heading back to the hospital only for post-op wound checks and post-op functions. (There are several very informative videos on their webpage, which will give you more details.)
UCLA also has several other programs to compliment the medical side of their program:
Buddies: One of my favorite parts of Operation Mend is their “Buddy Program.” As one of the wives said in a video on Operation Mend’s page, and I’m paraphrasing here, it doesn’t do a whole lot of good to heal the outside if you can’t heal the inside as well, and that’s the part the Buddy Program focuses on. As the healing process often involves numerous surgeries over several trips, the “buddies” are individuals who volunteer to be the support system for wounded warriors and their families while they are in LA. If you’re in the LA area, there are several ways you can become a buddy:
– Buddy Families – These are families who volunteer to provide companionship for veterans and their families. Buddy families may do such things as: greet the families when they arrive at their hotel accommodations, introduce the veterans and their families to LA, maybe take them home for dinner or out for a recreational event, such as bowling. Buddy families must complete an application, in-person interview, and a short online HIPAA training.
– Daytime Buddy – This program is for individuals who may not have the time or resources for the Buddy Family program, but would be willing to do hobby related outings.
– Teen Buddy – This program was developed in 2011 by LA teens and involves teenagers acting as greeters, tour guides (in the area immediately around the hotel), babysitters for the young children and companions for the teenage children of the veterans. To participate, teens must submit an application, obtain parental consent, attend a four hour training, and complete the HIPAA training.
– Medical Student Buddies – This is an opportunity for medical students to gain unique experience as part of the medical team treating veterans, raise awareness of veteran health issues, and spend time with the veterans and their families.
– Undergraduate Buddies – This is a UCLA student organization, the members of which socialize with Operation Mend patients, volunteer with other veterans-related organizations and events, learn about and raise awareness of veterans’ medical and other needs through speaking events and other venues, and learn leadership and teamwork (one example: an event where teams had to solve a puzzle using military and medical trivia!). You can find out more about this organization on the Operation Mend Undergraduate Association’s page.
UCLA PAC: UCLA’s People-Animal Connection (PAC) is an animal-assisted therapy program which brings canines to visit Operation Mend patients (and over 900 other patients a month in various facilities) during their recovery. You can find out more about this program here.
FOCUS: One of the beauties of the Operation Mend program is that they recognize that a servicemember’s injury and recovery doesn’t just impact the servicemember but those are around them as well. They work with FOCUS, Families OverComing Stress, a “resiliency training” program started by the Department of Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, to ensure that the family unit has coping mechanisms to help them through the healing process. The program focuses on giving the veteran and their family members tools for communication, problem-solving, and emotion management. You can find out more about the FOCUS program here.
If you or someone you know might benefit from Operation Mend, check out their website and/or Facebook page for more details and contact information. Even if you don’t need the services Operation Mend is offering, you should watch the videos on their page that tell the stories of the wounded warriors who have been healed by this program. The stories of wounded warriors like Petty Officer 1 Michael Lammey, who was severely burned by steam while serving on the USS Frank Cable, or Army Specialist Louis Dahlman, who lost his jaw in an IED explosion, will make you cry, but I promise you, you will also be astonished by the work of UCLA team.
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