A Home Away From Home

Leily Arzy

Marine Corporal Aaron P. Mankin was critically injured May 11, 2005 while serving in Iraq when his assault vehicle rolled over and exploded. Mankin suffered burns on over 25 percent of his body. His ears, nose and mouth were gone along with two fingers on his right hand.

Mankin became the first participant in Operation Mend, a program that funds plastic and reconstructive surgery at the UCLA Medical Center for military personnel with severe medical injuries.

“People just think ‘Oh, it is just reconstructive surgery,’ but Aaron Mankin said he wants to do this so his daughter won’t be teased because he is disfigured,” Sara Evall ’15, who volunteers forOperation Mend’s buddy program, said. “It can be debilitating and, psychologically so, seeing people look at you differently or seeing little kids get scared when you walk down the street. You lose your identity, and you lose your confidence.”

The buddy program provides service members and their families support and companionship while they are undergoing treatment.

Many Harvard-Westlake students have gotten involved with this aspect of the program, including Evall and her family, who have been a buddy family for the Mankins for several years.

As volunteer director of the buddy program, Dana Katz (Gracen Evall ’13, Sara Evall ’15) is responsible for coordinating the buddy families, which she said can be a very difficult process. Katz said it is important to match each patient with a family who shares a similar lifestyle and interests.

“We made a commitment to the Army that we would wrap our arms around the wounded warriors, that we were going to bring them to UCLA like they were our own families,” Katz said.

While service members get surgery or treatment, they are housed with their families at the Tiverton House, which is in close proximity to the UCLA Medical Center.

Once the doctor permits their release, the service members go home for the remainder of their recovery and return to UCLA for their next treatment if it is necessary. Depending on the extent of their injuries, patients may go back and forth for several months or even years.

Each patient is estimated to run up medical bills of approximately $500,000, all of which is covered by donations. This cost includes not only the surgeries but also psychological counseling, housing, plane tickets and other necessities associated with medical treatment.

Because many of the patients are in their mid-twenties, their parents often accompany them to UCLA. If that is the case, Katz will match that family with a couple who is similar in age with the patient’s parents and who also have kids who are similar in age with the patient.

“Once you are a buddy family, you just provide a home away from home,” Evall said.

Evall introduced Emma Graham ’15 and Tyler Graham ’15 to the buddy family program six years ago. Their main involvement in the program has been helping the soldiers after surgery, taking care of their kids and being a general source of support.

The Graham family has supported two buddy families, including the family of Marine Gunnery Sergeant Blaine Scott, who was severely burned in war but through surgeries provided by Operation Mend is now healthy enough to return to active duty.

Operation Mend has had very few patients be redeployed because the majority of the patients’ injuries are too severe. However, some patients have returned to active duty, which includes training and educating other service members as well as other administrative tasks.

The Grahams’ current buddy family is that of Army Staff Sergeant Lee Jones and his two daughters.

Jones has had several reconstructive surgeries through Operation Mend, but he still can’t independently eat or utilize fine motor skills, Graham said.

“My experiences getting to know the soldiers and their families have been incredibly valuable to me in the sense that I have been able to expand my horizons and gain a larger perspective of the world,” Graham said. “I am always shocked by the soldiers’ commitment to our country. It is very influential.”

During the pre- and post-operative periods, the buddy families will do whatever they can to make the process less daunting for the service members and their families. This may include taking them out for dinner, exploring the city or simply talking to them, as the buddy system is intended to meet the needs of the patients.

Roman Holthouse ’15 and his family have been a buddy family for five years and have become very close with Army Sergeant Salvador Trujillo-Lopez, who is being treated for severe burns on his body. Whenever Trujillo-Lopez, accompanied by his wife and three young kids, returns to UCLA, the Holthouse family invites them over for dinner.

“I think their family and our family have just a really good bond now and is just really nice when we see each other,” Holthouse said.

Patients are required to bring at least one person with them, but the program regularly accommodates patients who bring their whole families. Patients also must be in stable condition. A service member can not be in a life-threatening state and come to UCLA because of the dangers that could ensue. Lastly, patients must be injured during training or active battle from a post-9/11 war.

Joe Katz ’16, Evall’s cousin, has been involved with Operation Mend since the sixth grade. He recalls spending time with Army Staff Sergeant Shiloh Harris’s one-year-old son Glenn and teaching him how to swim.

“I would like to advertise the program more and try to keep doing it as long as I can,” Katz said.

Katz remembers Katie Kreshek’s ’16 Operation Mend presentations during school assemblies at the Middle School.

Since the eighth grade, Kreshek has held bake sales, raising around $2,000 each. She plans to continue holding bake sales for the remainder of her high school years.

Kreshek and her family have also been involved in the buddy program.

“The idea is to get [service members] as close to ‘normal’ as possible,” Kreshek said, referring to the physical injuries from the wars.

Sloane Chmara ’15 babysits at the Tiverton House, so she primarily interacts with the service members’ children. She either plays with the children or takes them out into Westwood.

“When the kids are a little older, the dynamic changes, and I kind of become like a friend to them,” Chmara said. “I am glad that I get to help them in any way, like by giving the servicemen a day off, so they don’t have to worry [about] their kids.”

Many of the students involved with Operation Mend have become more aware and grateful of the sacrifices that these service members have made for their country.

“I have learned a lot about the armed services, definitely a lot more than I knew before, and it has given me a new outlook on just how important these servicemen are to protecting our country, to make sure we have a safe place to live every day,” Evall said.

*Additional reporting by Angela Chon