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Inquirer Magazine


Posted on Sun, Mar. 31, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Resourceful man of mercy
Advancing land-mine detection. Airlifting medical supplies. Recruiting celebrities to help. That's the life work of Richard Walden, Penn Law grad and founder of Operation USA.

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Every 21 minutes, an individual somewhere in the world - a child on the way to school, a farmer tilling his field - loses a limb or a life to one of 100 million land mines left by some forgotten conflict. Among the few people seeking creative ways to end this globe-girdling carnage is one Richard Walden, founder of the unconventional relief organization Operation USA. Walden, as his admirers note, has devoted his life to bringing attention and resources to appalling scenarios of human misery.

His specialty is creating unlikely partnerships for good, whether that means cajoling corporations to donate medical supplies or planes for disaster relief, nagging government scientists to create innovative land-mine-removal technology, or charming mega-celebrities from Barbra Streisand to Muhammad Ali into using their cachet to persuade fans to do something profound.

Most recently, Walden, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, has been trying to persuade Philadelphia to help him in a creative effort to improve medical services to the city's poor. Whatever he's up to, Walden always seems a few light-years ahead of the consciousness curve - struggling to bring others along.

Typical was one day a few years back when I followed him to the University of California at Berkeley, where he was convening a land-mine symposium. I was late and feared I would have trouble finding a seat, so I rushed down a corridor, only to be waylaid by Walden himself, who was leaning out of a phone booth. "Take it easy," he said with a self-deprecating chuckle. "Including you and me, the crowd is now three."

After a time, things looked a little more promising. Other panelists appeared and the audience grew to several dozen, among them the rock musician Jackson Browne. Later in the evening, a packed fund-raising dinner courtesy of Alice Waters, the celebrated chef-owner of Chez Panisse, and a Jackson Browne benefit concert brightened Walden's spirits, galvanizing the campus community, which seemed to sympathize with Browne's plea for a greater focus on land mines' insane and unnecessary toll.

The Hollywood-born Walden, who turns 56 today, will never be considered a Mother Teresa. He is unapologetic about enjoying a nice hotel or his propensity for recruiting attractive volunteers who perhaps draw Hollywood types to do the right thing for the wrong reason.

But neither has he been touched by scandal, the way some juggernauts, like the Red Cross, have. While huge relief organizations always seem to be where the cameras (and the funding) are, Walden and his tiny crew usually find themselves struggling unheralded to get help to some forgotten locale or ignored cause, whether that means medicines for disaster victims in El Salvador or micro-loans for impoverished Vietnamese peasants.

"One of these unappreciated - or at least underappreciated - heroes" is what George Bekey, robotics researcher at the University of Southern California, calls Walden, who recruited the scientist to his dream of improving mine-detection technology.

"Richard Walden is very refreshing," says Joel Charney, vice president for policy at Refugees International in Washington. "He's iconoclastic, and he tries to get things done. He doesn't believe in bureaucracy or red tape." Charney adds: "In a field of people holier than thou, he's not."

Operation USA's priorities are evident to those visiting its West Hollywood offices. It has the slightly dilapidated air of a place where everything is donated. With a paid staff of eight, a lot of volunteers, and an annual budget of more than a million dollars, Operation USA has managed to distribute more than $160 million worth of donated medical supplies. While many comparable nongovernmental organizations spend 25 to 40 percent of their resources on overhead, Walden's outfit reports devoting just 4 percent. Recently, the group's formula for effective philanthropy was recognized by Worth Magazine, which named Operation USA one of America's 100 best charities.

Despite its limitations, Operation USA has chalked up some impressive accomplishments while operating in 82 countries. It was one of the first relief agencies into Mexico City after the devastating 1985 earthquake, and among the first Westerners into Phnom Penh, Cambodia, after the overthrow of Pol Pot. In famine-stricken Ethiopia in 1986, it innovated the use of 747s, doubling the aid delivered in a single shipment.

"Part of Richard's motivation, and what I love about him, is that he's an adventurer with a wonderfully altruistic nature," says Operation USA chairman Jonathan Estrin, who is also dean of Drexel University's Media Arts and Design Program. "He loves going to places people have never been before, and accomplishing things that seem to be unaccomplishable. Tell him it can't be done - then he's really interested."

Given Operation USA's far-flung attentions, how did Philadelphia get on Walden's radar screen? As a cofounder of the 2000 Shadow Convention, the counterprogramming forum during the GOP convention, he kept hearing about the lack of affordable health coverage for the city's poor. Where others saw only a political morass, Walden saw an opportunity. Many of the millions of dollars in donated medical supplies his group receives each year come from East Coast firms, and shipping to his L.A. warehouse was a costly burden. The deal Walden envisioned sounded like a sensible quid pro quo: If Philadelphia would help him find free storage space in the city, plus some local angel willing to fund warehouse staff and the rental of some trucks, he'd provide a tremendous amount of urgently needed medical supplies to the city's overburdened public health clinics. The project is now in development, under the aegis of Estrin. The Drexel dean is working closely with Mayor Street to advance the plan, which Walden hopes might soon result in a warehouse at the Philadelphia Navy Yard regularly providing local health centers with supplies ranging from examining tables and X-ray machines to latex gloves and syringes.

The art of the deal got into Walden's blood at a tender age. He grew up in Los Angeles, where the family house was alongside MGM's back entrance and his father's pharmacy abutted the studio's front gate. Young Walden once got a big tip from Marilyn Monroe for delivering a prescription. He has never been shy. Estrin, who met Walden two decades ago while working as a writer-producer in television, credits him with "a big heart and a lot of chutzpah, nerve and hustle. He will pick up the phone and ask anybody for anything. He has no fear of rejection whatsoever. He will partner with anybody - there's no ego driving it."

To rush earthquake relief to Mexico City, Walden persuaded the industrialist Armand Hammer to donate his private jet. To help Cambodians in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, he got Flying Tiger pilots to fly a cargo plane into a long-shuttered airport. Every few months he drags along some diva or rugged actor to some jungle or desert or drought-stricken savanna to persuade them to do something that truly matters. His companion, of course, pays for the trip. The Los Angeles Times has called him a "charity buccaneer."

Sometimes it's hard to tell when the loquacious Walden is in full promotion mode or just being enthusiastic, but he certainly is an accomplished name-dropper. "Muhammad Ali was in the office while we were working on Rwanda relief, and he got hungry, so I took him to lunch," Walden tells me in the umpteenth anecdote of a short evening together. "I took him to Jerry's [a popular L.A. delicatessen] and the room went completely silent. Then they began to applaud, and it grew like a wave. It was incredible."

For a guy who knows so many rich and famous people, Walden doesn't have much to show for it personally besides a nice, midtown-L.A. Spanish-style house with a mortgage. His income - $105,000 - is modest by standards of officials of nonprofit organizations. Walden is married to Rosanne Katon, a former actress and Playboy centerfold who is now a fledgling screenwriter and occasional panelist on ABC's Politically Incorrect, where, dubbed as a "black liberal Republican," she duked it out with the Rev. Jerry Falwell. They have two children, Jamaica, a 17-year-old hoping to attend the University of Pennsylvania, and Adam Mandela Walden, 5.

Walden's Philadelphia project is hardly his first involvement with the city. In the mid-1960s he entered Penn, where he went on to earn undergraduate and law degrees, and where the young civil-rights enthusiast was admitted to the black radical group, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, precisely at the moment that it was kicking out all the other whites. Walden soon impressed his comrades by persuading Wilt Chamberlain, the Philadelphia 76ers center, to do an SNCC fund-raiser, quite an achievement given that Wilt the Stilt would turn out to be a Nixon Republican.

Confronted with a moral dilemma when he was about to be called up for Vietnam, the antiwar activist Walden joined an Army Reserve medical unit, where his enthusiasm tempered a total lack of hospital skills. While being trained at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, he talked the Hilton Hotel there into renting him a room for $12 a night; he paid another guy to keep his bed neat for inspections back at the base. At breakfast one day, a hotel guest, a prominent Philadelphia psychiatrist, took a liking to the confident young man, and at 23 Walden found himself setting up a federally funded health center at Ninth and South Streets. While still in law school, he worked on prison reform both as an appointee to Gov. Milton Shapp's justice commission and as recipient of a Ford Foundation grant. He also served as a student attorney representing black activist Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party.

Walden passed the Pennsylvania bar, but had a hunger for new vistas and moved first to New York, where he landed a plum position in the administration of New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay, and then to the Golden State, where he joined San Diego's legal aid program. His next crusade would set him on the course of his life's work. While in the midst of a lawsuit over unexplained deaths of mental patients in state hospitals, he got a late-night telephone call. It was Jerry Brown, the offbeat governor. "Why are you doing this to me?" Walden recalls Brown saying.

Walden surprised the governor with his response. "Where are you? Are you at Linda Ronstadt's place in Malibu?"

Brown was. Walden persuaded Brown to leave the singer's side and meet him for a tour of the mental institutions. The reformist governor was stunned by what he saw, and later, in a characteristic move, asked Walden to become his hospitals and nursing homes commissioner. Walden begged off until his lawsuit against the state was over, but ended up, at age 30, accepting the position.

Operation USA got its start in 1979, when Walden and another Brown appointee were reading the newspaper at Walden's Venice Beach house. They noted two articles. One was about Vietnamese boat people who were wandering the seas from port to unwelcoming port. The other described the grounding, following a crash, of the world's entire fleet of DC-10s. With a couple of phone calls, the duo ended up with a jumbo jet and a planeload of critical medical supplies. Good Morning America came calling; an avalanche of checks from the public followed.

Soon Walden got a call from Julie Andrews and her husband, film director Blake Edwards, who had adopted two Vietnamese girls during the fall of Saigon. They handed him $10,000 and promised to do more. That was 18 years ago, and ever since they have been involved. Other supporters include the opera singer Placido Domingo, whom Walden met during the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, in which nearly 10,000 died. Walden was providing relief; the tenor was trying to rescue members of his family. That bond led Domingo to call Frank Sinatra and John Denver, and the three joined Andrews for a benefit at the Universal Amphitheatre. Barbra Streisand gave one night of her 1994 World Tour to Operation USA.

It's fortunate Walden knows how to charm the well-heeled: Operation USA has no permanent fund-raising operation, no direct mail, no TV ads. The charity also does not accept government funds. That's just as well given the group's insistence on providing aid to people of all countries, irrespective of U.S. policy preferences, and given Walden's willingness to criticize any administration he thinks is being irrational or unfair. "Politically, I'm so on the outs with, oh, it doesn't matter who is president," shrugs Walden.

One venture that infuriates Washington is Operation USA's support for four pediatric hospitals in Cuba. When Castro went on television to lament the human cost of the U.S. embargo of the island, he mentioned having to ask certain "friends in California" to rush in emergency heart medicine for two infants as aid.

In recent years, expressing frustration with the seemingly futile, finger-in-the-dike nature of much relief work, Walden has looked for opportunities to extend and deepen his group's imprint. Though Operation USA long provided prosthetics to land-mine victims and funded a school to train Cambodians to fit their countrymen with artificial limbs, eventually expanding the program to Bosnia, Rwanda and other countries, he felt it was not enough. Why wasn't it possible to eliminate the cause of the carnage and find better ways to remove the estimated 100 million mines already in place? For starters, he found, the current technology is incredibly archaic. In Cambodia, it took 3,000 people 15 months and cost $8 million to de-mine just eight square miles. And the work is dangerous.

A solution came in typical fashion: He seized a passing opportunity and harnessed a coalition of strangers. In 1994, he met K.G. Engelhardt, a former NASA robotics expert, who invited him to address a NASA roundtable about the things his group would love to adapt from the agency's grab bag of gee-whiz creations.

"As a throwaway line, I said, 'Oh, by the way, we can't find land mines from six inches away,' " Walden recalls. That set off an electric reaction. A man in the crowd exclaimed that was about the dumbest thing he'd ever heard. He was director of the Mars Lander program, which, he said, could analyze soil and rocks and radio the results back to Earth. So why in the world, he wanted to know, wasn't it possible to find an object of known mass and size a hand's length away?

Walden asked the assembled group if any of them had ever spoken to the Pentagon about applying NASA science to mine removal. No one had. Walden sprang into action. He arranged a meeting in Washington with the Departments of Defense and State, and the United States Agency for International Development, and brought with him two of the NASA researchers.

The D.C. folks were suitably impressed, but getting them to take action was something else again.

"It was like peeling an onion," says Walden. It turned out that no one involved with removing land mines was talking to anyone else. A GAO study found 16 federal offices dealing, independently, with the issue.

Walden plunged ahead with his own initiative, enlisting an impromptu team from entertainment, science and business to show the foot-dragging bureaucrats how it could be done. He began lining up allies at a host of federal agencies and labs. He even prevailed upon special-effects designers at movie studios to adapt their inventions.

Perhaps the most fruitful contact was with California's Lawrence Livermore lab, a defense, energy and biomedical research facility best known for its development of nuclear weapons. "Not much of what we do is humanitarian," says Stephen Azevedo, Micropower Impulse Radar Project leader at the lab. "He was very persuasive to me, personally, that this was something our lab could contribute to. We can feel good about the fact we can save some lives and be productive on the other side of defense applications."

Operation USA began introducing some of these technoguys to the developing world. Pink-faced lab boys huddled with village elders in Kampong Chhnang Province and Tul Kuk near Phnom Penh and got to know firsthand the children whose lives are forever altered by the weapon systems their laboratories developed. "They helped us convince my management it was important to go into the field and see what the problem really is," says Azevedo.

In 1997, Operation USA triumphantly returned to Cambodia with scientists to start field-testing radar to detect mines; at Lawrence Livermore, scientists showed off a de-mining robot. A high point came in 1998 when Walden delivered the Robert J. Oppenheimer Memorial Lecture in Physics at Los Alamos National Laboratory. "It was the ultimate Zelig experience for me," he recalls.

Ultimately, however, this subversive, creative alliance - and the land-mine movement as a whole - could not buck the realpolitik and inertia of government. Several countries including the United States have managed to block a landmark, 120-signatory international treaty to ban the manufacture and use of land mines. The U.S. government has also stalled Walden's dream of marshaling technology to remove the millions of existing mines - by failing to get agreement between key agencies that could authorize required tests.

None of this has waylaid Walden, whose resourcefulness continues to pay off in unexpected ways. At another meeting at another lab to evaluate yet another land-mine solution, Walden got another brainstorm. As he watched a researcher's Power Point presentation on the ability of a new device to peer beneath the Earth's surface, he noticed a blue field.

What is that? he asked.

Oh, just water, came the reply.

Walden sat up straight.

Next month, at UNICEF's request, Operation USA will fly to Afghanistan and see what it can do about the water shortage that has afflicted that ravaged land.


Russ Baker is a New York-based writer and cultural commentator.
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