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UCLA

Healing Warriors

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By Dan Gordon '85

Published Jul 1, 2014 8:00 AM


The Ronald A. Katz Center for Collaborative Military Medicine at UCLA is the first university-based military medicine center on the West Coast. It is a nexus for research projects and services designed to help U.S. soldiers, a UCLA tradition that stretches back more than half a century.

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Army Sergeant Jason March took a sniper’s bullet in the back of his head while leading a platoon near Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006. Today, after several surgeries, March can finally smile on both sides of his face. Photo by Eric Mencher.

When Army specialist Joey Paulk turned down free tickets to a San Diego Chargers football game in January 2009, it was a red flag. When the self-professed baseball fanatic told friends he wouldn’t be joining them on a road trip to Arizona for spring training, it was time for an intervention.

Hear Army Sergeant Jason March talk about his experiences with Project Mend.

The normally outgoing Paulk had become a recluse since the July 2007 incident that nearly killed him shortly after he deployed to Afghanistan. Three anti-tank mines had hit his tactical vehicle, flipping it over and igniting the fuel tank. Paulk suffered burns to 40 percent of his body and face. Three weeks later, he awoke from a medically induced coma at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio wearing a full-body bandage. All 10 of his fingers had been amputated.

It would be several weeks before Paulk could bring himself to look in the mirror to see what had become of his face — and then he instantly regretted the decision. “I looked like a scene out of The Terminator,” he says. He had scar bands across his face from the skin grafts. His lower left eyelid drooped down toward his cheekbone. His nostrils were squeezed together. His upper lip folded upward, his lower lip turned down and melted to his chin. He couldn’t open his mouth wide enough to eat a cheeseburger, or purse his lips to pronounce the “P” in his last name.

Critical Care

The novel partnership between the military and UCLA Health to bring physical and psychological healing to Paulk and others injured and disfigured in Iraq and Afghanistan can be traced to a 2006 segment on CNN. Host Lou Dobbs interviewed a young marine whose ears, nose and mouth were severely burned after his 26-ton amphibious assault vehicle rolled over an improvised explosive device in Iraq and shot 10 feet in the air. When Dobbs asked Marine Corporal Aaron P. Mankin what was next for him, the soldier replied in a voice still raspy from inhaling fire, “I have some surgeries planned to fix the beautiful part.”

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March enjoys dinner at a local sushi restaurant with former Marine Albert Valenzuela, a health, safety and environment manager at PCL Construction who is part of Operation Mend’s Buddy Family Program. Photo by Eric Mencher.

Ronald A. Katz ’58 and his wife, Maddie (who died in 2009), were watching. They had been looking for an opportunity to contribute to the well-being of service members. The U.S. had been fighting with an all-volunteer force for five years, and many soldiers who had returned for multiple deployments were coming home with grievous wounds. The Katzes felt that these warriors deserved the best possible care, and they knew that Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center — where Katz was a board member — might be able to help. Katz brought his philanthropic vision to the hospital leadership, which found a willing partner in Brooke Army Medical Center. “The military has outstanding trauma surgeons who save the lives of these young men and women,” says Katz. “But then there’s a life to live, and UCLA could contribute some specialized services.” In 2007, Katz’s $1-million initial gift established Operation Mend. Mankin was its first patient.

The Good to Come

What started with a focus on bringing UCLA’s plastic and reconstructive surgery expertise to post-9/11 war veterans now extends across large swaths of the UCLA community. Last November, UCLA launched the first university-based military medicine center on the West Coast, thanks to a donation from the families of Katz’s sons, Todd ’83 and Randy, in honor of their father. The Ronald A. Katz Center for Collaborative Military Medicine at UCLA will work with the U.S. military to address the unique challenges of healing and caring for the nation’s most critically wounded warriors. Peter Chiarelli, the retired four-star general who served as vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army from 2008 to 2012, serves as the center’s executive adviser.

To date, Operation Mend has provided reconstructive surgery to more than 100 active and retired U.S. military personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of whom have had as many as 30 operations. More than providing free care from some of the world’s top plastic surgeons, the program does everything from picking up the service members and their loved ones?at the airport and handling all appointment logistics to providing lodging at UCLA Tiverton House and connecting them with a handpicked “buddy family” for companionship and fun activities during their stay.

To learn more about UCLA Operation Mend, please visit http://operationmend.ucla.edu

At the hospital, UCLA surgeons performed a nerve transplant on a man whose face was partially paralyzed after he was shot in the jaw during combat; after the complex procedure, he was able to smile for the first time in five years. A woman with severe burns on her hands and face wanted to be able to wear her wedding ring again, and finally got her wish. After more than six years and dozens of surgeries as an Operation Mend patient, Aaron Mankin can recognize himself again, “the beautiful part” restored.

Despite countless surgeries with the Army, Joey Paulk had seen no improvement and would hide behind hooded sweatshirts, dark glasses and baseball caps any time he had to venture out in public. That all changed after he was convinced to accept the Operation Mend services. “The mental success has been even more important than the physical,” Paulk says. “When I was hurting, everyone around me was hurting. Now I’m feeling better than ever, and it’s made everyone around me happier.”

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