Mending Those Who Serve
Ron Katz’s quest to deliver top-notch medical care to military service members wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan began with a cable TV program and a jab to the ribs.
One afternoon in the autumn of 2006, Ron Katz—the inventor and entrepreneur—sat curled up on the couch with his wife, Maddie, watching Lou Dobbs on CNN. Dobbs was interviewing Aaron Mankin, a corporal in the U.S. Marines, who was badly injured in Iraq when the armored vehicle he was traveling in rolled over an improvised explosive device and detonated. Six Marines died and a dozen others—including Mankin—were gravely hurt. Third-degree burns covered 30 percent of his body from the waist up; his face was shattered and he lost two fingers on his right hand.
“Lou asked him, ‘What’s next for you?’ And the young man gestured toward his face and smiled. He said he needed surgery to ‘fix the beautiful part,’” recalls Katz. “My wife jabbed me in the ribs and said, ‘We have to do something about this.’”
The following year, the couple donated $1 million to launch Operation Mend, a partnership between Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio, Texas, the V.A. Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, and the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where Katz is a member of the board. (Maddie, a former president of the medical center’s auxiliary board, died of cancer in 2009.) Operation Mend provides free medical and mental-health care—including reconstructive surgery, diagnostics for brain injury, and treatment for post-traumatic stress—to military service members.
In previous wars, the men and women Operation Mend treats likely would not have survived their injuries. But because of technological advancements and improvements in combat medicine, they were saved. “Herculean efforts were made to save their lives, but what about their lives after the fact?” says Katz, whose demeanor is both thoughtful and avuncular. “We need to do the right thing by our service members—especially the wounded ones. These kids are volunteers.”
Cpl. Mankin was Operation Mend’s first patient and “he taught us a great deal,” says Katz. For instance, Mankin, who arrived at UCLA for his initial surgery with his wife and 18-month-old daughter in tow, inspired Operation Mend’s signature Buddy Program. The program, run by Katz’s daughter-in-law Dana Katz, matches patients with a local family and provides logistical assistance to their spouse and children. Typically, the Buddy Family invites them to their home for dinner, runs errands, and takes them to a beach or a museum for the day. “We started with a simple question: How do we make the veterans’ faces and physical injuries better? But over time, Operation Mend has evolved to provide a cocoon-like experience that takes care of the soldier and his entire family,” says Katz. “When a soldier is hurt, everyone is dynamically affected: the husband, the wife, and the children, too.”
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