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‘A Night of Honour’ to heal vets

Nonprofit Iraq Star helps veterans reclaim normal lives

Posted: September 26, 2009 6:34 p.m.
Updated: September 27, 2009 4:55 a.m.

"Honour Back" $10 fundraising wristbands.

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In an evening filled with such notable guests as Dr. Phil McGraw, Jon Voight, and Gary Sinise, Iraq Star Foundation vice president Micaela Bensko knows where the spotlight will shine during their second annual "A Night of Honour" celebration - on the 20 veterans who have received reconstructive surgery through the non-profit organization.

"They're our celebrities," said Bensko, a photographer, wife and mother of four who lives in Valencia. "It's all about the troops and raising funds for them."

The event at the Sheraton Universal hotel in Universal City will be held Saturday, Oct. 4. It will also feature a performance by Dennis Miller, cocktails, entertainment and dinner, plus silent and live auctions. Tickets are $175.

The highlight of the live auction will surely be the custom "Iraq Star" chopper created by the craftsmen of American Choppers, who star in the reality series of the same name on TLC. The bidding starts at $80,000.

"We hope to raise $300,000 overall," Bensko said. "It can cost anywhere between $800 and $12,000 to help each troop."

Since its inception in 2007, Iraq Star Foundation has funded and coordinated dozens of reconstructive surgeries for Iraq War veterans, mostly victims of IEDs, "improvised explosive devices."

It all began when Bensko's mother Maggie Lockridge, a registered nurse who served in the Air Force and married an Air Force pilot, saw a "20/20" special with Bob Woodruff on wounded veterans at a military hospital.

"Mom realized that the Veterans Administration gets them functioning, but could only take them so far aesthetically," Bensko said. "These were men and women in their early 20s, with full lives ahead of them, and she knew they needed to feel full, complete, and whole when they re-entered society."

Since Lockridge ran an elite reconstructive surgery recovery center in Beverly Hills for nearly 20 years prior to retirement, a light bulb went off in her head, according to Bensko.

Lockridge applied for a 501(c)3 non-profit status and within two weeks was running Iraq Star Foundation out of her garage in Palm Springs, creating a network of more than 200 American reconstructive and plastic surgeons willing to perform their services for free and raising funds for travel and residual medical expenses.

One of the organization's first cases was a 24-year old veteran who had lost a hand and suffered burns on more than 70 percent of his body after an IED exploded while on duty in Iraq. The VA had restored his nose to a functioning level, but it remained unsightly. When he was contacted by Iraq Star, despite his many medical issues, the soldier told them all he wanted was his nose to look normal.

Another Iraq war veteran, a divorced father whose wife had left him, was discharged from the hospital with a speech impediment and the inability to swallow following severe burns.

"It was as though his tongue was adhered to the bottom of his mouth," Bensko recalled. "We flew him to a tongue reconstruction specialist, who usually deals with cancer patients. He just wanted a normal, functioning life."

In December, 2008, Maggie Lockridge was asked to guest on the TV show "Dr. Phil," where Iraq Star Foundation surprised Randy Gollinger, a veteran who had lost an eye and a leg in the war, with the reconstructive surgery he needed.

During the "Dr. Phil" appearance, McGraw mentioned Iraq Star Foundation's "Honour Back" camouflage plastic wrist bands, which sell for $10 and raise funds for the organization.

The Iraq Star Foundation Web site (www.iraqstar.org) subsequently crashed under intense usage.

Bensko is seeking Santa Clarita Valley hometown support for Iraq Star, as well - Marty's Flooring is supplying the red, white, and blue carpet for "A Night of Honour" and several neighbors, including actress Kristy Swanson who is now an Iraq Star "warrior ambassador," have become involved with the organization.

"As awareness grows, our support grows," she said. "This is not about war or politics. It's totally non-partisan. It's about our troops and the fact that this issue needs to be addressed and someone has to address it."

For tickets to "A Night of Honour" or for more information on Iraq Star, visit www.iraqstar.org or call (310) 245-6775.

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