Nonprofit helps veterans fill health care gaps

The White Heart Foundation serves a "select few" severely injured survivors of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars

In 2013, Army Corporal Zac Gore stepped on a bomb in Afghanistan that obliterated his left arm and leg and filled his right foot with shrapnel and shattered bone.

Zac Gore with family
Photo Courtesy of White Heart

Gore's primary care physician at Veteran Affairs recommended surgery.

“His foot was completely sideways,” said Gore’s wife, Aly. “He needed a complete ankle fusion done.”

But the podiatry specialist balked, she said, telling Gore he had arthritis and that surgery wasn't necessary.

“They told him he could just do some physical therapy and wait,” Aly Gore said. She worried that waiting might increase the likelihood that her husband might lose his right foot and leg entirely. “I feel like it was easier to tell him to go to PT than it was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for surgery.”

Frustrated, Aly Gore turned to Facebook, posting a family photo describing her husband’s predicament. Within a week the Gores heard from Ryan Sawtelle, founder of the White Heart Foundation, which provides financial support for a "select few" veterans unable to get the care they need from the VA.

“My right leg should have been cut off, but they decided to try and save it instead of making me a triple amputee,” Zac said.

Gore's surgery could have cost upwards of $1 million, Sawtelle said. But the hospital and doctors provided the procedure and related medical treatment pro bono. White Heart paid for transportation.

“We want to help the severely injured of the injured,” Sawtelle said. “So we provide rehabilitation and life-enhancing services for severely injured veterans, our warriors, those with multiple amputations and/or traumatic brain injuries.”

Ryan Sawtelle explains application process

White Heart, which operates with a fluctuating annual budget of $100,000 is run by Sawtelle and one other staff member and a handful of interns and volunteers focused on fundraising. At any given time they fund care for 12-18 veterans, who usually find them via word of mouth. Those receiving financial support for medical care also include veterans suffering post-traumatic stress and military sexual trauma.

“A lot of organizations just give you mobility equipment,” Sawtelle said. “Others retrofit homes so that you can fit it for wheelchair access. Our goal is to be warrior centered. Then it’s ‘what else can we do for you?'"

Gore said the accident left him with chronic severe pain, which he managed with opioids until White Heart helped wean him off.

“I am now off my pain meds and my foot still needs some surgery but it’s doing better than it did five years ago.”

White Heart Over The Years

A timeline of White Heart and its' progress over time.

Click HERE in case video doesn't work

Veteran Affairs, also known as the VA, provides a wide range of services to veterans, ranging from educational assistance to life insurance to vocational compensation and disability rehabilitation. But the nearly-90-year-old agency has struggled to maintain an adequate level of support for those it is charged with serving, in particular regarding medical care. Requests for an interview with a representative from the VA were declined.

In the wake of a federal law enacted in 2018, the VA began enlisting the services of private healthcare providers in an effort to fill in gaps in medical care, but critics say the shift has not resulted in access to better care.

The RAND Corporation published a study in October 2018 that found the VA health care system performed “similar to or better than” non-VA systems. In a more recent study published in December by Dartmouth College, researchers found the VA hospitals performed much better than non-VA hospitals after comparing facilities in 121 regions across the country.

We want to help the severely injured of the injured ~ Ryan Sawtelle

But opinions about the quality of services provided by the VA vary, especially when it comes to performing life-threatening surgeries.

Nathan Graeser, a veteran-turned-community program administrator at the Center for Innovation and Research for Veteran and Military Families at the USC School of Social Work, said the VA departments are different in each state.

“The West LA hospital is often known for being one of the worst hospitals that the VA has just because it’s such a big campus,” Graeser said. “So most vets will get out, go get a job somewhere and use their civilian benefits because they’ve heard these horror stories from the VA.”

But Graeser said the biggest issue is the time it takes for the VA to accept an application.

“You have to be ‘VA healthcare eligible,’ which means you have to go file your claim and you have to document your service-connected injury," Graeser said. "Then they have to go through a whole process to validate whether your injury is service-related, and only then can you get help."

The whole process already reduced from two years to anything between three to six months.

Graeser said non-profits act as "shoulders" to veterans who turn to these smaller communities to help them transition into the world.

“Non-profits are communities, they are not governmental organizations," he said. "If you don’t have non-profits, then you’re missing out on a key part of sort of innovating and developing the service sector so that vets can get the services they need.”

Aly Gore talks about Zac's treatment

Sawtelle said he founded the White Heart Foundation in 2008, after setting up a flag display on the front lawn of Pepperdine University to commemorate the 2,977 individuals who lost their lives on 9/11.

“As we were raising funds for the military charities, I was starting to notice that the funds weren’t going to where it should be,” Sawtelle said. “I just thought we could be doing better and be more efficient with those dollars donated.”

In response, Sawtelle started White Heart, to supplement the medical care for veterans

“We are taking veterans out of the system that has failed them and we are getting them private medical treatment in Los Angeles by specialists in Beverly Hills," he said. "But it’s hard because technically they are not their doctors so often, they have different opinions."

In 2016, White Heart launched the Guardian Project. It seeks to improve mental health via “eco-adventure therapy,” by taking warriors on outdoor trips where they go white water rafting and rock climb together with other veterans who face post-traumatic stress.

This program is led by Warrior Sgt. who said the goal is to empower others.

“We help each other develop these tools so when we leave from this adventure, we come back and we can try to integrate ourselves back into society,” said Jeremiah Montell, a veteran who leads the Guardian Project.

Sgt. PO2 Jeremiah Montell

In 2020, White Heart is planning to add even more services, Sawtelle said.

“One of our expansion programs is going to be a caretaker retreat," Sawtelle said. "Because when the veteran suffers, the whole family suffers, and the general relationship suffers."