"I guess the way the 'buddy family' part of 'Operation Mend' started was with my own family," said Ron Katz. The philanthropist, inventor, and UCLA Medical Center advisory board member is the founder of the collaborative pilot program between UCLA and Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio, Texas.
Under the auspices of "Operation Mend," U.S. military personnel wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan are receiving reconstructive plastic surgery at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. It can be a lengthy process requiring multiple procedures over a protracted period of time. The Katz Family Foundation is supporting all non-covered costs, including travel and housing, for soldiers and their families during treatment. Patients and their families are housed at UCLA's Tiverton House, a hotel adjacent to the hospital campus designed to meet the needs of patients receiving treatment at UCLA, and with "buddy" families throughout Los Angeles.
"My daughter-in-law said she'd do this for Aaron [Cpl. Aaron Mankin, "Operation Mend's" first patient], and then she'd spread the word among her friends. It wasn't long before people were lining up to be host families," Katz said. "The families start out wanting to do their part and come out with these amazing friendships and meaningful relationships that no one could ever guess would happen."
Jeff and Suzy Pion and their three children-Chase, Drew, and Griffin-are the buddy family of U.S. Army Sgt. Darren Mikeworth and his family. "Ron Katz's son, Todd, is my best friend," Jeff explained. "Ron doesn't ask for a lot, and when he called and asked us to do this, of course we said yes, we'd love to."
"This is our opportunity to give back to the military community," Suzy said.
Her husband concurred. "When you think about what they've given of themselves, it's a privilege for us to do this. It's our chance to give back. Our job is to make them feel comfortable, to open our house and be their family in Los Angeles. We also want to make the experience fun and show them a little bit of L.A. and what life is like in California. On the second visit we took Darren and his family to Disneyland with our youngest son, Griffin. We had a great time."
The soldiers are usually here for about seven to 10 days. "They arrive on a Sunday, they have a consult on Monday, and surgery on Tuesday," Jeff said. "Afterwards, Darren was always covered in bandages, so you don't get to see the results until the next visit. The last time he came, I was able to say, 'Dude, you look handsome!'"
"We always make it a point to get together on the Sunday they arrive-either at our house or at a restaurant, or even if we just go by and see them," Suzy explained.
"At first I didn't know what to expect," Chase said. "You see it in the movies on TV, but you don't really know."
"They're just like everybody else," Griffin interjected. "It seems like they have a lot of fun at our house."
"The kids really get that we're all just human beings. The face that your face got messed up doesn't change the fact that you're a human being," Katz said.
Andy and Darcy Simon host U.S. Army Capt. James Barclay. The Simons felt it would be a great experience for their kids, Juliana and Logan, to meet someone who has served in Afghanistan.
Darcy shared one of her most memorable experiences. "When I took Capt. Barclay and his wife and daughter to a favorite local Venice Beach hot spot, the Rose Café, someone overheard our conversation, and when I went to pay the check, it had been taken care of anonymously by someone who was grateful for the captain's service in Afghanistan."
"Having a 'buddy' family has aided in my recovery," Cpl. Diane Cardile, USMC, Ret., said. "It wasn't like we were just stuck in a hotel room."
Planned activities have included a bowling night attended by everyone involved with the "Operation Mend" program. "It was a very nice bowling alley," Sgt. Mikeworth joked. "It's not every day you get kicked off your lane because it's reserved at certain times by Tom Cruise."
Army Sgt. Salvador Trujillo-Lopez tells families they shouldn't be nervous about signing up. "Buddy families are great. They're really there for you."
"The lifeline for the surgeries is the hospital; the lifeline for everything else day-to-day is with the buddy family," Katz concluded. "It's worked like a charm."