The walk up Fifth Avenue in New York City on Veterans Day was only 1.3 miles, but it took hundreds of thousands of steps, both physical and emotional, for 10 patients from UCLA's Operation Mend to get there.
Jimmy Gentile was among those who made the journey. "It was a complete honor, and I felt very blessed to represent Operation Mend and to walk with all the other wounded veterans," says Gentile, who, with his family - wife Megan and children Tristan, 17, Alyssa, 14, Callie, 6, and Kimber, 2 - marched at the head of the Operation Mend contingent holding the group's banner. "It is a very different environment to be around other wounded guys who understand what you have been through. For my children, I thought it was really good for them to see what sacrifices have been made for them."
Gentile was a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq in 2004 when he was shot in the face and nearly killed. He has undergone more than 35 surgeries, but he was blinded in his right eye and lost much of the vision in his left. Through Operation Mend - the program established in 2007 as a partnership among UCLA Health, the U.S. military and the Department of Veterans Affairs to help service members injured in the post-9/11 wars - Gentile came to UCLA to undergo a procedure called refractive lens exchange to replace the natural lens of his remaining eye with an intraocular lens and restore his sight. "Now I have full, perfect vision in that eye," he says. "Everything in my daily life is better because I have that vision, and I don't have that fear of one day I am not going to be able to see."
U.S. Marine Staff Sargent Johnathan Rose was another UCLA Operation Mend patient in the 2015 America's Parade, which gathered together more than 20,000 participants. SSgt. Rose was wounded in Afghanistan in 2010, when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device. The blast blinded him in one eye and caused second-degree burns as well as fractured bones in his leg, jaw, hip and hands. He has undergone medical and dental care at UCLA to restore his teeth and mouth. Operation Mend and the staff at UCLA "have become my West Coast family," he says.
SSgt. Rose still is on active duty in the Marine Corps. Though he was stationed in the New York City area for three years before he was deployed to Afghanistan, he never got to take in the sights. "I was working 24/7," he says. So in addition to the honor of walking with Operation Mend, he welcomed the opportunity to come back to New York as a tourist. And he embraced the camaraderie of being with other veterans with whom he had shared experience.
Walking in the parade, he says, "was awesome." The crowds lining the route were "five-, six-, seven-people deep. I don't think there was an empty spot on either side of the street." SSgt. Rose carried a GoPro camera on top of an Operation Mend flag - "I had the birds-eye view from 10 feet up" - and when he got home, he reviewed the video. "I was like, wow," he says. "I didn't realize there were that many people there."
For more information about UCLA Operation Mend, go to: operationmend.ucla.edu.