By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
BAGHDAD -- A couple of months after Capt. Jonathan Heavey, a Walter Reed Army Medical Center physician, arrived in Baghdad, an Iraqi doctor handed him the medical file of a 2-year-old boy with a life-threatening heart ailment. The doctor said the boy couldn't get the care he needed in Iraq.
Heavey decided to help. He e-mailed a copy of the child's electrocardiogram and other information to a former colleague at the University of Virginia, who agreed to treat the boy for free. Then Heavey began the many-layered process of applying for U.S. visas for the boy and a female guardian. Among other things, Heavey had to provide proof that the guardian wasn't pregnant. Two months into the process, the boy died.
"It was pretty crushing," said Heavey, a 33-year-old battalion surgeon assigned to the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. "It was incredibly disappointing to know there are academic facilities back home willing and able to help. But there were just too many logistical hurdles."
Appalled by the state of Iraq's health-care system and frustrated by rules preventing military doctors from treating Iraqis, Heavey and a colleague, Capt. John Knight, 36, began arranging for sick Iraqi children to receive free medical treatment abroad. During their year-long deployment, which ended last month, they created a nonprofit organization that has sent 12 children overseas for medical care, funded by $17,000 that Heavey and Knight have contributed from their own pockets and raised from family and friends.
Heavey, who is so polite and soft-spoken that he seems out of place among gruff infantrymen, and Knight, 36, a physician assistant, worked at a small aid station inside the high walls of Forward Operating Base Justice, a U.S. military base in the Kadhimiyah section of northern Baghdad.
Late last year, they visited a hospital where malnourished and neglected children rescued from an orphanage were being treated. A U.S. Army civil affairs unit had visited the orphanage and discovered children lying naked on the floor, surrounded by excrement. The plight of the children, some of whom had cholera, drew media attention in the United States and elsewhere.
Heavey and Knight, who both have young children, were haunted by what they had seen.
One day, as they worked out in the outpost's windowless gym, the pair decided to start an organization. They had their doubts: Maybe there would be mounds of red tape and cultural barriers to overcome. Maybe they'd be able to help no more than a handful of kids. Maybe it wouldn't work at all.
But as Knight later explained it: "We want to help people. We still really believe in what we do."
When they floated the idea around FOB Justice, many of their superiors and colleagues rolled their eyes. Then they approached military lawyers to ask whether, as Defense Department employees, they could solicit contributions.
"They were flippant about it," Knight said. "They didn't think it was going to go anywhere."
From that point, Heavey and Knight spent every spare minute on the organization. They lugged their laptops along on missions so they could work on their project during downtime. They spent hours downloading documents using the outpost's maddeningly slow Internet connection. They reached out to nonprofits and sent e-mails to friends, acquaintances and friends of friends asking for help.
Their first case involved an 11-year-old boy who had been admitted to a U.S. military hospital in Baghdad after being wounded in an insurgent attack. He had sustained severe burns and lost large amounts of tissue. An infection required expensive antibiotics.
Heavey contacted a friend at the University of Cincinnati, who agreed to take the case and found a family willing to take care of the boy and his grandmother during the treatment. Things came together at the last minute, just as doctors at the military hospital in Baghdad were concluding that they had to discharge the boy.
"Telling us they had to kick him out," Heavey said.
Heavey and Knight purchased the airfare for the child and his grandmother, who left Baghdad in late April. They are still in Cincinnati, where the boy's treatment at Shriners Hospital for Children has gone well.
"We got one!" Heavey told Knight after the boy and his grandmother left Iraq. "Now it's time to open the gate."
Army lawyers told them they could raise money for the foundation as long as they didn't identify themselves as military officers. They hired an Indian company to create a Web site, Hope.MD. The Internal Revenue Service responded to their application for nonprofit status with a letter saying they would need to submit additional documents to demonstrate that the organization wouldn't support terrorists.
"We found that to be particularly entertaining," Heavey said.
The next few cases Heavey and Knight took on involved children who were legally blind. Esen Karamursel Akpek, an ophthalmologist from Turkey at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, agreed to volunteer her services. The children are being treated at a hospital in Istanbul free of charge.
With dozens of additional cases in the pipeline and the end of their deployment just a few months away, Heavey and Knight started thinking of ways to broaden the reach of their organization. Knight jokingly suggested that they raise money from defense contractors.
"The next thing I knew, Jon was actually doing it," Knight said.
Heavey hovered around the computer during the seven hours it took to download Securities and Exchange Commission financial reports on the top 10 defense contractors. Two weeks later, with all the documents in hand, he created a database that juxtaposed the companies' revenue and net income for 2002 and 2007. Lockheed Martin, for example, posted $26.58 billion in revenue in 2002 and $41.86 billion in 2007. Halliburton saw its revenue increase from $12.57 billion to $22.58 billion during the same period.
"You always have a hunch that there are people who make money off a war," Heavey said. "But you never really grasp the extent of it until you look at the figures. It's mind-blowing."
In October, Heavey sent letters to Lockheed Martin, Halliburton and eight other companies, detailing what he had learned about their revenue.
"Greetings from sunny Kadamiyah Baghdad!" Heavey wrote, telling them briefly about Hope.MD and the handful of children the organization had been able to help. "Using our own funding we have helped nearly a dozen children receive surgery for life-threatening and disabling conditions they suffered in violent attacks. According to the revenue and income metrics below, it appears to us that you have considerably greater resources to help more children."
Heavey asked the executives to match, dollar for dollar, any money that Hope.MD is able to raise online.
He said none has replied.