Veterans Advocate Micaela Bensko of RAW Is A Santa Clarita Unsung Hero
Valencia Photographer and Mom Carries on her Work on Behalf of the Rebuilding America’s Veterans Nonprofit, Despite Personal Health Battle
As vice president and media relations director of Rebuilding America’s Warriors, formerly the Iraq Star Foundation, Micaela Bensko has been helping military veterans scarred in combat get free reconstructive or plastic surgery since 2007.
The Valencia resident has kept up her work on behalf of wounded veterans even as her own health has taken a turn for the worse in the last couple of years, due to an old back injury and a more recent spinal injury.
And through it all, Bensko has done her best to continue raising her young family. She and her husband, TV producer Don Bensko (“Big Love,” “Nashville”), are parents of four children.
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Bensko writes passionately about Rebuilding America’s Warrior (or RAW, for short) activities and candidly about her personal challenges on her own “Moana Vida” blog and a variety of subjects as an editorial columnist for the AM 1220 KHTS website at HometownStation.com.
Notified she had been chosen a Santa Clarita Unsung Hero and invited to guest on the air at KHTS, she was reluctant at first.
“I’m not a hero,” Bensko said. “The real heroes are these wounded veterans, the men and women who fought for us.”
Spoken like a true unsung hero.
She reconsidered, though, thinking like a good media relations director: Being on the radio provides a great opportunity, after all, to spread the word more about Rebuilding America’s Warriors.
“I’m in, but we’ll have to do it on the phone,” said Bensko, who is increasingly wheelchair-bound.
Bensko's Early Career as a Photographer
During her on-air phone interview with KHTS air personality Jason Endicott on July 8, listeners learned she earned a B.A. in communications and a K-through-5 teaching certificate. But she picked up her first camera at age 10, inspired by her father, and went on to make her initial fame and fortune as a globetrotting professional photographer in the entertainment and fashion industries.
After Bensko and Endicott talked a bit more about her childhood, growing up the daughter of a former Air Force ER nurse and a jet fighter pilot who met while on active duty, the conversation soon zeroed in on Rebuilding America’s Warriors.
Mother Maggie Lockridge Un-Retires to Help Wounded Warriors
Bensko said she got involved in helping wounded warriors because of her mother, Maggie Lockridge.
After the Air Force, Lockridge in civilian life became an expert in post-operative care for wealthy and/or well-known patients recovering from plastic surgery. She ran a successful recovery center in Beverly Hills for many years before retiring to Palm Springs.
In 2007, Lockridge saw a remarkable special by TV news reporter Bob Woodruff, who had suffered a head injury in a roadside IED explosion while covering the war in Iraq. Woodruff was documenting his own recovery and that of several wounded soldiers over a period of several months.
Watching the report, Lockridge noticed many of the soldiers still had disfiguring scars she knew could be treated. So she put retirement on hold and established the Iraq Star Foundation to help veterans just like those.
“She thought up the idea to start an organization that provided reconstructive surgery to our troops returning at the time from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Bensko said. “I was just helping, just her daughter, idolizing her and thinking what a fantastic idea this was.”
RELATED: Read all the KHTS Santa Clarita Unsung Heroes features presented by Mercedes-Benz of Valencia.
She volunteered to help her mother name the new organization. “I used to do marketing...and came up with ‘Iraq Star,’” Bensko said. “It's a play on ‘rock star,’ with the concept of flying the troop out to Beverly Hills, picking them up in a limousine, taking them to the best plastic surgeons in the world – like the movie stars are treated – and treating them like rock stars, because they deserve it. That’s how it started.”
Lockridge formally founded the Iraq Star Foundation in August 2007 in Rancho Mirage, Calif. (near Palm Springs), but it has a national reach, helping military veterans living anywhere in the nation get free reconstructive treatment. The donors who support the nonprofit organization pay for everything.
Iraq Star was an immediate success, with surgeons and doctors around the country lined up to provide treatment and popular celebrities like actor Gary Sinise and TV talk show host Dr. Phil McGraw helping to spread the word and raise funds.
As vice president and PR director based in the Santa Clarita Valley, Bensko helps her mother in a variety of ways. She started out by photographing Iraqi Star Foundation clients, documenting their return to health. As it became more difficult for her to get around, Bensko has become more deeply involved in fundraising, operations and marketing.
Iraq Star Foundation Becomes Rebuilding America’s Warriors
The Iraq Star Foundation board recently changed the organization’s name to Rebuilding America’s Warriors, to reflect an expansion in its mission now that the war in Iraq is essentially over and the war in Afghanistan is winding down.
“Our troops are still there,” Bensko said, “but we’re going to be expanding into other areas in the future, so we won’t just be treating veterans injured in Iraq or Afghanistan. So, we needed a name that had a broader spectrum.”
Bensko turned to Facebook, which she calls her “second home,” to ask supporters to submit ideas for new names, and a friend in Texas came up with “Rebuilding America’s Warriors.”
“And R-A-W is ‘RAW,’” Bensko said. “It just seemed perfect for what we're doing. So that became our new name, thanks to Sue Muskin.”
RAW Facilitates Free Reconstructive Surgery for Veterans
“We're administrative-based, which means we are primarily facilitators for the surgeries and treatment,” Bensko said. “We do not have a lot of money in our bank account. We are funded almost 100 percent by private donations.”
Tax-deductible donations to Rebuilding America’s Warriors “pay for my mother to run it and for the travel for our troops, for hotels, operating rooms and medicine,” she said. “We try to get the troops to a doctor as close to their home as possible, but if they aren't (near) the best surgeon for their needs, we will pay for their travel to wherever the best surgeon is. There's a lot of outlay…we don't make a lot of money, so we try to do the best we can in facilitating.”
Today, with noted reconstructive surgeon Dr. Norman Leaf serving as RAW’s medical director, Bensko said, “We have 287 surgeons in 46 states. Our doctors are the best and they offer their services pro bono 99 percent of the time. If they didn't, I don't know what we would do.
“I would say in the past year, we facilitated about $250,000 worth of free surgery,” she said. “I know one of our troops had $100,000 worth of dental work done free by one of our surgeons. Each of our troops runs anywhere from $1,000 up to $100,000. We never know how much it's going to cost, but we will do everything we can to get anything donated.”
Bensko said donations come from all quarters. “It is people like you, my friends, who just send in checks, who believe in what we're doing and share it with others. We do have a Facebook page, ‘Rebuilding America’s Warriors,’ so you can find us there and ‘like’ us and see pretty constant updates on what we're doing and who we're helping and what we support.”
Social networking is “our big thing right now, and that’s why I am so grateful for today,” she said. “It’s very awkward for me to do an interview as an Unsung Hero, but I’m very grateful for the opportunity to get the word out. Please also share our website, RebuildingAmericasWarriors.org, on your social network.”
Veterans Can Get RAW Help without Red Tape
Bensko invites returning veterans or anyone who knows one who needs help with lingering scars or disfigurements to contact the organization directly.
“You never know who knows somebody who's come home from war and has scars that are still bothering them,” Bensko said. “With us, there's no red tape. You make a phone call; you're going to get my mom on the line. She's the mother to all of our warriors – she thinks of every single one of them as a son or daughter. You speak directly to her; she speaks directly to our medical director, Dr. Norman Leaf, right out of Beverly Hills. Google him. He’s the best of the best.”
While reconstructive surgery deals with the physical scars of combat wounds, the psychological and emotional scars often run deeper. However, the boost veterans get from having their physical scars treated and even removed can contribute to their overall recovery.
Or, as the RAW website puts it, “Reconstructive surgery helps veterans heal from emotional trauma and eases a return to pre-war life.”
Our Unsung Hero Facing Her Own Health Challenges
Bensko continues her RAW work even as she recovers from recent surgery and learns how to navigate around her home and the community in a wheelchair.
“I was in a severe car accident in college, and I’ve lived for 20 years with lower back pain and sciatic nerve issue – little things that people normally deal with,” she said. “But with my job (as a photographer) also being extremely physical -- I was traveling all over the world – (the pain) became so severe.”
Another serious mishap in fall 2011 compounded the problem. “The electric hatch on the back of my car came down on my head as I was standing up quickly, and I was rushing, not paying attention,” Bensko said.
“It was a ‘stinger’ as they call it in the (spine injury) circle – where you'd naturally be paralyzed by the kind of hit I had on my head,” she said. “I went to the emergency room and they did a CAT scan. I had a concussion and a crack in my skull, so they put a staple in my head and I went back to work. I had had things to do.
That was October 2011. In December, I worked my last job, and crawled in the door at the end of that job. I knew at that moment my career was over. I immediately went into the proactive mode of getting MRIs and CTs, and in May 2012 I was in surgery.”
There have been more surgeries since then, and Bensko’s medical expenses are increasing beyond what her family and her insurance will cover.
In early July, friends and supporters who want to help set up the “Micaela’s Health Challenge” page on the GiveForward crowd-funding website. With three weeks to go, the two-month campaign has raised $22,525 in donations, or 45% of its $50,000 goal.
“When I got more involved and became vice president of Rebuilding America’s Warriors, I got to know them on a personal level,” Bensko said. “I spent a lot of time with these guys, and their families, and thought I was keyed in to what their struggles were and what they were feeling. But once my spine collapsed on me, I now have a whole new understanding, and I feel it’s opened the door for me to be able to help them on a whole 'nother level. I have a completely different appreciation for where they've been.
Listen to the Micaela Bensko Podcast
Listen to the podcast of the complete interview with Micaela Bensko of Rebuilding America’s Warriors and learn more about this KHTS Santa Clarita Unsung Hero’s good deeds.
Mercedes-Benz of Valencia Salutes Santa Clarita's Unsung Heroes
Mercedes-Benz of Valencia is proud to be part of the Santa Clarita Valley, not only giving you the superior customer service you deserve, but also giving back to our community by supporting our schools, sports teams, Sheriff's Station and nonprofit organizations. Now, Mercedes-Benz of Valencia and KHTS have teamed up to present "Santa Clarita's Unsung Heroes," a series of special features spotlighting local residents who make a difference in our valley. With new contributions also comes a new Mercedes management team. Visit Mercedes-Benz of Valencia today.
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