When James Gentile walks up New York’s Fifth Avenue on Wednesday in the Veterans Day parade, he will think about the people who gave him back the gift of sight.
Gentile feared he would be left blind after he was shot in the head during his tour in Iraq in 2004. Now, more than three dozen surgeries later, he can see. For that he thanked the UCLA Operation Mend program in Los Angeles, which offers medical treatment to post- 9/11 combat veterans at no cost.
The 32-year-old Lee’s Summit veteran will march with Operation Mend in America’s Parade. The group invited him as an example of how the program helps service members with catastrophic lifelong injuries, including burns and severe head wounds.
The costly reconstructive surgeries Gentile has undergone would have been out of reach without Operation Mend, he said. Insurance would not cover it.
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“I wouldn’t have been able to regain my vision,” he said. “They have given me back that part of my life.”
Gentile found success in life after the war. Married with four children, he leads a team of engineers at Cerner Corp. in its Kansas City, Kan., operation. In his desk drawer at work, Gentile keeps the bullet that wounded him as a reminder that things could always be worse.
The bullet hit Gentile while he was on patrol in Ramadi, Iraq, entering below his right ear, on his jawline, and exiting through the front of his face. He still can’t see with his right eye, but surgeons with Operation Mend restored vision to his left.
But his recovery is not finished. More surgeries are planned to improve his vision, and Gentile still sees psychologists both as part of the Operation Mend program and at home.
In the parade, Gentile hopes to represent his fellow soldiers who did not make it home. But he also wants to send a message to the public that the terrible wounds suffered by soldiers often affect them for life.
“It’s not a ‘Hey, you’re wounded, you’re in the hospital, and you’re better,’ ” he said. “It’s your whole life.”
Operation Mend, established in 2007 by UCLA, the United States military and the Department of Veterans Affairs, provides advanced surgical and medical treatment to soldiers, often through many years of recovery. The program also provides comprehensive psychological health support.
For more information about Operation Mend, visit operationmend.ucla.edu.