Our Hometown Stories - Micaela Bensko: Iraq Star
By Rachel Singer
Beauty is only skin deep-
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder-
These are great platitudes if you are having a "bad hair day" or if you wake up with a blemish on your face.
If you are a wounded warrior returning from the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan with disfiguring physical injuries, you realize that your entire emotional and physical well-being are irrevocably tied together
There are angles among us in Santa Clarita. They do not necessarily have iridescent wings and a shimmering halo. They do not preach, but they teach, inspire and leave you awed with their passion.
The angels that I sat with in Valencia earlier this week were not only beautiful to look at, but beautifully eloquent in their enthusiasm for their phenomenal foundation "Iraq Star."
Micaela Bensko and her mother Maggie Lockridge are two champions for a cause.......and their cause deserves a Hometown Story.
Micaela and her family live in the North Park area of Santa Clarita. They moved here almost six years ago.
"We absolutely love it, especially for our four children," said Micaela.
The decision to make Valencia their home came when the television show her husband is a production supervisor on, "Big Love", began filming in and around the Santa Clarita Valley.
Micaela is a stellar wedding and portrait photographer. She has now found herself on a journey that she never could have anticipated.
Through the lens of her camera, she will capture the inherent beauty of a bride along the canals of Venice, Italy and then days later the venue changes to an operating room where she documents a plastic surgeon rebuilding an eye socket or creating a new nose for a battle scarred United States serviceman.
Micaela comes by her compassion and activism by genetic design.
Her mother, Maggie Lockridge was a nurse in the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War, while her father was an F-4 Fighter pilot.
Maggie retired from the Air Force and took her training and talent as a surgical and post-op nurse into the world of cosmetic and reconstructive surgery.
For eight years, she worked with plastic surgeons throughout Beverly Hills. In 1995, Maggie opened "Shanteque", an elite post-operative recovery sanctuary, housed in a Beverly Hills luxury hotel.
When the rich and famous wanted utmost discretion and excellent medical care while recuperating from cosmetic surgery, it was Maggie who they called.
Micaela laughed as she said, "My mother was known as the most recognized and least acknowledged woman in Beverly Hills."
Maggie sold "Shanteque" in May of 2005. Her retirement did not last long.
One year later, she penned the book, "Facelift Hotel." Within the pages, Maggie shares anecdotes and true stories about the bevy of celebrities she ministered to during their stay at her recovery oasis. Maggie manages to do this without divulging any identities!
An "aha moment" can happen at any time. Maggie's came in February of 2007, while she was sitting on her bed, watching television and eating a bowl of cereal.
ABC News War Correspondent, Bob Woodruff was hosting a documentary on Traumatic Brain Injuries suffered by U.S Servicemen and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bob himself suffered a brain injury while riding in a tank that was hit by an IED (improvised explosive device) while covering the war.
As Bob Woodruff and the television cameras were spotlighting soldiers with brain trauma, Maggie began focusing on the horrible scarring and disfiguring injuries left behind.
"I called my daughter Micaela and told her that I had to do something," Maggie continued, "Once you serve in the Armed Forces, you have a patriotism that never goes away,"
That "aha moment" led to a grass roots campaign aptly named "Iraq Star," a play on the name "Rock Star."
"When I meet these wounded warriors, I am star struck, they ARE rock stars," Micaela stated passionately.
"The VA (Veterans Administration) is wonderful for getting the injured soldiers structurally sound and functioning. We pick up where they leave off," Maggie explained to me.
"When a wounded warrior returns with disfiguring physical injuries, it impedes their ability to deal with the emotional trauma of what they have lived through," stated Maggie.
The physical damage can range from a missing finger to a missing face.
These brave men and women do not feel socially acceptable. They can suffer from depression when they look in a mirror and see only what their mind's eye reflects back.
The Iraq Star Foundation has been a godsend. The small grass roots organization now has on board 203 surgeons in 42 states that perform cosmetic surgery and reconstructive procedures on active duty and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan War.
"99% of the surgeons waive all of their fees," Maggie shared proudly, and "Dr. Norman Leaf of Beverly Hills is our medical director."
Iraq Star runs small classified ads in the Marine and Army military base newspapers and they receive referrals from the VA Hospital. "I want to make sure that our name is always out there," Maggie explained.
Micaela teared up when she told me about her friend, Private Randy Gollinger. "Iraq Star" was invited to be a guest on the Dr. Phil (McGraw) show. Maggie was surprising Private Gollinger with the surgery to rebuild his eye socket.
"Private Gollinger had lost a leg and an eye while fighting for our country. When I met him, something just clicked. On a gut level, I just knew that I needed to become involved. It became personal."
Micaela is now the Vice President of the Iraq Star Foundation.
The media exposure from Maggie and Pvt. Gollingers appearance on The Dr. Phil Show put the Iraq Star Foundation directly into the living rooms of America.
Shepard Smith of Fox News learned of the foundation and did a segment on the plight of these soldiers. Private donors then raised $50,000.
A philanthropist, Maggie donates 100% of the proceeds of her book "Facelift Hotel" to the Iraq Star Foundation.
While researching and putting together the Iraq Star Foundation, Maggie and Micaela were deeply moved by the wounded warriors and their stories. As their involvement deepened, the floodgates opened.
Being "structurally sound and functional" is not enough. The physical and aesthetic wounds left behind from battle are devastating to a soldier's psyche.
"We provide the wounded warriors with the aesthetics that give them the assurance and self esteem that they need to go back into society again. It gives those who were willing to give up their lives for us, the opportunity to start dating, interview for a job or go shopping without feeling self conscious," Maggie stated.
The story of USMC, Octavio Sanchez (retired), is horrifying and yet all too typical. His humvee was hit by an IED and flipped over. He was pinned inside while the vehicle caught fire. His comrades, under sniper fire, were unable to rescue him. Sanchez was burned over 70% of his body, lost his right arm and three fingers on his left hand. 50% of his nose was burned away.
Micaela recalled, "When we met Octavio, all he wanted was a nose so that he could go out in public and not be stared at."
This was a man who by society's standards was considered grotesque, but with the generosity and skilled hands of Dr. Timothy Miller of UCLA, Octavio Sanchezis once again beautiful through and through.
The Veterans Administration does their best, but their resources need to be spent on saving a life. Surgeries to rebuild self-esteem are not always offered.
Iraq Star, a non-profit foundation provides transportation for the soldier and a loved one to the surgery, hotel, food, medical supplies, related surgical costs, medications and the aftercare.
Maggie and Micaela have amassed a national network of surgeons who generously donate their time to erasing the wounds of war.
This leads to the crux of my story. These Hometown Angels need your help. Iraq Star is financed by public donations.
On October 4, 2009, the Iraq Star Foundation is hosting a fundraising gala at the Hilton Universal Hotel in Universal City, California. The event is entitled "A Night of Honour."
"Star studded" is an understatement. So many great Americans in the entertainment world are giving their time pro-bono to honor and raise money for our returning wounded warriors.
There will be no bigger rock stars at the event than the soldiers, the real Iraq Stars.
Dr. Phil McGraw is the Master of Ceremonies. Dennis Miller (so funny) will be honoring actor Gary Sinise (CSI:NY/Forrest Gump) who has been instrumental in his commitment to Iraq Star, the troops and the children of Iraq.
There will not be a dry eye in the house as the Camp Pendleton Color Guard performs the National Anthem and Maggie Lockridge in her eloquent style will captivate you as she recounts stories of the wounded warriors.
"We would love to pack the place," Maggie shared, "It will be one of the most patriotic events that Los Angeles has ever seen!"
Marty of "Marty's Flooring" in Valencia is providing the red, white and blue carpet for the "red carpet" entrance.
Feast on dinner, partake in spirits, and bid, bid and bid some more.
TriWest Health Care Alliance is the main underwriter for "A Night of Honour" benefit and gala. TriWest's CEO David McIntyre has been a true friend of the foundation.
"We are so deeply indebted and grateful for all that he has done," said Maggie.
Highlights of the live auction include,
- Two tickets to the finale of "American Idol",
- Two tickets to the "Dancing with the Stars" finale, which will be auctioned off by John Ratzenberger,
- Terry Fator, winner of "America's Got Talent, a ventriloquist extraordinaire will auction off 4 tickets and Meet and Greet passes to his show.
The ‘piece de resistance'of the live auction will undoubtedly be the show stopping "Iraq Star Chopper" which was custom built by Orange County Choppers. The bike will be featured on an episode of TLC's "American Chopper."
The Iraq Star chopper will be unveiled on the Dr. Phil Show at the end of September.
Tickets for this evening of inspiration and patriotism are available on the IraqStar.org. The website alone will touch your soul.
My husband Ron and I will be attending and would love to see our friends from Santa Clarita showing support to the wounded warriors who gave so much and ask so little.
~Beauty comes as much from the mind as from the eye.