Image Source: James Dao Article: NY Times

Nearly 900 service members have been badly burned during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to data from the Pentagon. These soldiers typically have a disfigured appearance that requires extensive plastic surgery to correct. The New York Times reports that a free program sponsored by U.C.L.A. is helping those who have been disfigured due to war regain their pre-deployment appearance.

The Program

The U.C.L.A. program that helps restore soldiers’ appearances is known as Operation Mend. It was started in 2006 by a philanthropist named Ronald Katz after he watched an interview with a Marine who had been badly burned in war. The program was much-needed for returning veterans, as the burn units most service members had access to only provided the essential medical care, and deemed reconstructive surgery as optional. To date, Operation Mend has provided reconstructive facial surgery for more than 50 service members at an average cost of around $500,000 per patient.

Real Life Case Study

One soldier who has been helped by Operation Mend is Specialist Joey Paulk, who was severely burned in Afghanistan in 2007. That’s when the Humvee he was riding in inadvertently struck a land mine that was buried in the sand. The ensuing accident claimed the life of his team leader, but Paulk was able to escape the vehicle alive. He was completely engulfed in flames, which resulted in the loss of three fingers. Specialist Paulk also suffered injuries to his chin, nose, lips, and eyes, which resulted in a rather unusual appearance even after his wounds had completely healed.

Operation Mend Steps In

During the next few months, Specialist Paulk would undergo thirty different surgeries to take care of his wounds, including numerous skin grafts. Despite having so many operations, Paulk still looked far different than he had when he had first enlisted in the Army. A representative from Operation Mend contacted him with an offer to provide him with free cosmetic surgery. Since Paulk was having difficulty eating and talking due to deformed lips, he agreed to give the organization a chance to restore his appearance.

The Surgeries

In all, Specialist Paulk had four separate cosmetic surgeries performed. The first surgery was to remove scar tissue so that his left eyelid and lower lip would be raised slightly. Subsequent surgeries were done to add healthy tissue, which essentially brought the eyes and lips into their proper position. The final surgery included adding silicone implants to Paulk’s chin, as it was barely visible after the accident. Paulk claims that the results of his surgeries were remarkable, stating that “from a distance, you can’t tell I was injured.”

For those who have been disfigured due to war, Operation Mend is a life-changing program. Thanks to the efforts of the doctors at the U.C.L.A. Medical Center, service members who suffer from traumatic injuries such as burns will be able to regain their sense of pride and self esteem so they can heal physically as well as emotionally.