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Changing Lives: 'Operation Mend' Reconstructs Severely Injured Veterans

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Vets "deserve not only the best that the Defense sector has to offer; they deserve the best that the private sector has to offer as well."

"Operation Mend" is a program that has been established by Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and the V.A.-Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System to "help treat U.S. military personnel severely wounded during service in Iraq and Afghanistan."

According to it's founder, philanthropist Ronald A. Katz, military men and women "deserve not only the best that the Defense sector has to offer; they deserve the best that the private sector has to offer as well."

 

Operation Mend's website states:

The project was launched with the help of philanthropist Ronald A. Katz, a well-known inventor and Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center board member, who recognized that providing excellent care to injured soldiers need not be limited to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Armed Services. The project aims to serve as a model for other medical institutions interested in helping additional wounded service members.

'Operation Mend' represents an extraordinary collaboration between the surgeons and staff of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and Brooke Army Medical Center," said Katz, whose Katz Family Foundation will fund all uncovered costs associated with the project, including lodging patients and family members at UCLA's Tiverton House, a hotel on the hospital campus designed to meet the needs of patients receiving treatment at UCLA.

Surgeries will reportedly be led by Dr. Timothy A. Miller, Chief of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at UCLA, who is also a military veteran.

And one San Antonio veteran, Aaron Mankin -- who underwent nearly 40 life-saving surgeries -- not only served as the program's inspiration, but reaped the benefits of Operation Mend by being its first patient.

Mankin, a full-time single dad of a 4-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, said that Operation Mend "has shown my kids that Americans want to help."

The Huffington Post reports that in November 2006, Katz and his late wife saw Mankin on CNN.

"Aaron's face was extraordinarily devastated; it was in shambles," Katz recalled. "From all of that, which would be catastrophic to most people, there was this immense wonderful personality. He told CNN that he had gone through dozens of surgeries. When asked what he was going to do next, Aaron, with his facial skin to the bone, looked up and said, 'I have to fix the beautiful part!'"

Katz called it a "fortuitous" moment. Inspired by Mankin, Katz began to lay the groundwork for Operation Mend, a partnership program that flies patients from all over the country to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center to undergo face and hand reconstructive surgeries.

"My wife and I soon realized that there were dozens of Aarons out there," Katz said. "These men and women deserve not only the best that the Defense sector has to offer; they deserve the best that the private sector has to offer as well."

In September 2007, Mankin flew to Los Angeles where he began a series of 20 facial reconstructive surgeries at UCLA.

"They took the cartilage from what was left of my ears and put it onto my forehead. It looked like I had horns for several months," Mankin said. "The cartilage became a 'flap,' which they peeled off, twisted over and folded down onto where my nose was supposed to be. Those horns became my nostrils. For several weeks, when I touched my new nose, I felt my forehead. Around my mouth, countless scar release procedures allowed me to have an adequate smile and eat a burger again."

Mankin even opted for prosthetic ears. "In the morning, I glue them on and, at night, I take them off," he said.

"Like contacts!"

The confidence gained by Mankin's surgeries has given the veteran a sense of how he looked and felt before his injuries occurred:

Of the more than 50 other service members who have since undergone Operation Mend surgeries, he said, "Just look at their pictures and focus on the eyes. You can see a rejuvenated spirit behind those eyes."

Mankin has another Operation Mend surgery scheduled for late November and anticipates it will be one of his last. "I guess I would say the marines, medical community, doctors and nurses saved my life," he said. "My family kept me alive. And Operation Mend gave me a life worth living."

A poignant tribute to our brave soldiers on Veterans Day, and every day moving forward.

Watch this touching video about Operation Mend:

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