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Razor Magazine
October, 2002

By Russ Baker

Every 21 minutes, someone somewhere in the world - a farmer tilling his field, a woman on her way home, a young boy playing beside a road - loses a limb or a life to a land mine left behind by some forgotten conflict. Few people in the developed world are even aware of this carnage – much less doing anything about it. Enter Richard Walden, founder of the irreverent, feisty and utterly unconventional relief organization Operation USA.

Rousing a largely complacent, inward-looking populace to indignation and action about far-off-events is a daunting task. But Walden, a skilled cultural guerrilla, has had plenty of experience cracking the tough ones. 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 tad more promising. Other panelists appeared and the audience grew to several dozen, among them the rock singer-songwriter Jackson Browne. Later in the evening, Walden's spirits were brightened by a packed fund-raising dinner, courtesy of Alice Waters, the celebrity chef-owner of  the acclaimed eatery Chez Panisse, and a benefit concert by Browne. A galvanized campus community clearly sympathized with plea for an end to the insane and unnecessary toll of the almost unfathomable 100 million landmines – many of them manufactured and lain with the acquiescence of governments such as ours  –  that place hapless innocents around the world literally one step away from dismemberment and death. 

In his campaign against this scourge – and a dozen other causes that make up his group’s portfolio – Walden battles not only complacency but a perennial shortage of money for important things in a society teeming with wealth. To bridge this conscience gap, he operates as a kind of matchmaker for justice, whether that means cajoling corporations to donate medical supplies or cargo 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 their fans to help the unfortunate. Whatever he's up to, Walden always seems a few light-years ahead of the consciousness curve – but constantly dragging others along.

"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."

To rush earthquake relief to Mexico City, where an 8.1 quake killed thousands in 1985,  Walden persuaded the tough-as-nails industrialist Armand Hammer to donate his private jet. To help Cambodians in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, he got gonzo Flying Tiger pilots to fly a cargo plane into a long-shuttered airport and iconic actress Julie Andrews to pay for it. Every few months he drags along another diva or rugged actor to some jungle or desert or drought-stricken savanna to see first-hand what needs to be done. Walden and Operation USA being on a budget, it is his well-heeled companions, of course, who pick up the tab. On one memorable trip during the civil war in Nicaragua, Walden and several  members of Hollywood’s “Brat Pack” swooshed into that country at rooftop level while government and rebel forces exchanged fire nearby. Such tactics led The Los Angeles Times to dub him a "charity buccaneer."

Walden’s impressarial flair emerged from a childhood in the heart of Hollywood, where the family house overlooked MGM's back entrance and his father's pharmacy abutted the studio's front gate. He remembers getting a big tip from Marilyn Monroe for delivering a prescription. Operation USA chairman Jonathan 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.” Estrin, now dean of Drexel University's Media Arts and Design Program in Philadelphia, marvels that Walden 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."

This zest and flash extends to a writ-large lifestyle in which Walden comports himself with a joyous near-recklessness that makes him stand out from other nonprofit executives.  Walden, who at 56 looks ten years younger and acts half his age, is unapologetic about his predilection for nice hotels (on the tab of those who can afford it) and his propensity for recruiting attractive volunteers who, it has been said, draw Hollywood types to do the right thing for not necessarily charitable reasons. In addition,  the loquacious Walden 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."

Mostly, though, Walden and Operation USA stand out for getting a lot done for a little, and avoiding the kinds of power plays, strategic missteps and scandals that have tarred  the Red Cross, United Way, and other mega-charities. Ironically, while the huge relief organizations so often manage to be where the news 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, such as medicines for disaster victims in El Salvador and micro-loans for impoverished Vietnamese peasants.

Operation USA's priorities are evident to those visiting the organization’s West Hollywood offices. Walden’s headquarters has the slightly dilapidated air of a place where everything is donated. With a paid staff of just eight, dozens of volunteers, and an annual budget of not much over a million dollars, Operation USA has managed to distribute over $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 two 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 financial and staffing limitations, Operation USA has chalked up some impressive accomplishments in operations that span 82 countries. It was one of the first relief agencies into Mexico City after that country’s devastating 1985 earthquake, and its operatives were among the first Westerners into Phnom Penh, Cambodia, after the overthrow of the butcher Pol Pot. In famine-stricken Ethiopia, it innovated the use of 747s in place of smaller cargo planes, doubling the amount of 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 Estrin.  "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."

For a guy who knows so many rich and famous people, Walden doesn't have much to show for it personally, aside from a midtown-L.A. Spanish-style house with a big 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. As an occasional panelist on ABC's Politically Incorrect, where she was dubbed a "black liberal Republican," she duked it out with the Rev. Jerry Falwell and MSNBC’s hollering host, Chris Matthews. Walden and Katon have two children, Jamaica, a 17-year-old entering the University of Pennsylvania in the fall, and Adam Mandela Walden, 5.

Walden began breaching conventional barriers as a college student in the City of Brotherly Love. In the mid-1960s he entered the University of Pennsylvania, 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 when SNCC  was kicking out all the other whites. Walden soon impressed his comrades by persuading Wilt Chamberlain, the Philadelphia 76ers center, to do a 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 staunchly antiwar Walden joined an Army Reserve medical unit, where his enthusiasm and entrepreneurial skills made up for a total lack of medical knowledge. 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 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, in downtown Philadelphia. While still in law school, he worked on prison reform both as an appointee to the Governor’s Justice Commission and as recipient of a Ford Foundation grant. He also served as a student attorney in federal court representing black activist Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party, and managed to win rulings from the US District and Third Circuit courts putting the entire Philadelphia Police Department into receivership for failing to uphold the civil rights of Philadelphia’s black community [C.O.P.P.A.R. v. Rizzo, later reversed by Nixon’s Supreme Court].

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, where he was Deputy General Counsel of the New York City Health Services Administration. Eight lawyers under the age of 30 were in charge of a $2 billion agency which ran prison health, mental health, drug treatment, alcohol treatment, community clinics and the hospitals. Being a typical careless Manhattanite, he ended up using the mayor’s limo on occasion to visit the outer boroughs.

In his free time, he managed to wow young female interns with trips to the city morgue to watch an autopsy; “A great first date!” he recalls. He also kept his activist chops, participating  in antiwar street theatre and taking a paid leave to represent Native American activists at a celebrated face-off against federal firepower at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. A federal judge found him in contempt of court, and in lieu of jail time, had him “evicted” from the state.

Missing the balmy Southern California climate, he headed for San Diego, where he joined the city’s legal aid program, and taught at the University of California at San Diego. Before he could follow up a promising start in mainstream politics, however, whim intervened, and Walden accepted a tantalizing offer to join a luscious French girl on a house sitting gig in Tahiti (his going-away letter read “Ta-Ta! I’m going to Ta-ha.”) The young woman, whom he would subsequently marry and divorce, became a famous journalist, biographer and novelist.

His next crusade would confirm him in his life's work. While in the midst of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit over unexplained deaths of mental patients in state hospitals, he got a late-night telephone call. It was from Jerry Brown, then California’s offbeat ‘Governor Moonbeam’.  "Why are you doing this to me?" Walden recalls Brown saying, referring to Walden’s appearance on CBS News castigating him for not remedying the situation.

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 sultry singer's side and meet him for a tour of a mental institution. The reformist governor was stunned by what he saw, and later, in a characteristic move, asked Walden to become his Hospitals Commissioner. Walden begged off until his lawsuit against the state was over, but ended up, at age 30, accepting the post, which he held for five years.

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. The couple, bolstered by the good fortune that came from such hits as The Sound of Music and Victor, Victoria (starring Andrews) and the Pink Panther movies (directed by Edwards), handed Walden $10,000 and promised to do more. That was 23 years ago, and they have been involved ever since. Other supporters include the opera tenor Placido Domingo, whom Walden met during the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, in which nearly 20,000 died. Walden was providing relief; the singer was trying to rescue members of his family. That bond led Domingo to call Frank Sinatra and Rocky Mountain High crooner John Denver, and the three joined Andrews for a benefit at the Universal Amphitheatre the following year. 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. Which is just as well, given the group's insistence on providing aid to people of all countries, irrespective of U.S. policy preferences, not to mention 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. Fidel Castro alluded to the group’s role when he went on television to lament the human cost of the U.S. embargo of the island, and mentioned having to ask certain "friends in California" to rush in emergency heart medicine for two infants. In June, the Bush Administration seemingly got into the payback lane by modifying Walden’s Commerce Department license to send humanitarian aid to Cuba, by cutting out all four pediatric hospitals in Havana and by refusing to allow the group to send computers, X-ray equipment, sterilizers and even fetal monitors for newborns in Cuba. Walden is appealing those restrictions as well as the glacial pace adopted by the Bush Administration in renewing the group’s Treasury Department license to travel to and from Cuba to monitor its aid. (Unlike most aid administrators, Walden doesn’t shy away from taking personal political action when the spirit moves him. Disgusted that the little Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez wasn’t being returned to his father when his mother died, he hatched an elaborate "Plan B" to fly three “very loud” lawyers, including himself, into Miami and launch lawsuits against Elian's American relatives, their eight lawyers, and, while they were at it, the entire Cuban-American exile leadership and the two mayors of Miami, city and county.)

Walden’s general irreverence and often-startling candor extend to his appreciation of the perks of his trade, politically correct or no. For example, he cheerfully admits that part of his motivation in continuing his work in Asia is that he, like many American men, find Asian women alluring. He laughingly suggests that it would have been very easy to co-opt male anti-Vietnam War protestors with a few well timed trips to Asian pleasure palaces.

Still, at the end of the day, the guy is obsessed with his work – and with results. 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 devilishly dangerous.

A solution came in typical Walden fashion: he seized a passing opportunity and harnessed a coalition of strangers. In 1994, K.G. Engelhardt, a former NASA robotics expert, invited him to address a NASA roundtable about the things Operation USA would like to adapt from the agency's grab bag of gee-whiz technology.

"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 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which, he said, could analyze soil and rocks on the Red Planet 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 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 eighteen 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 federal agencies and labs. He even begged special-effects designers at movie studios to adapt some of their cool inventions, such as the mini helicopters used to film chase scenes.

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. They helped us convince my management it was important to go into the field and see what the problem really is," says Azevedo.

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 the Pentagon laboratories developed. (Presumably, none of them complained about one member of their party, Operation Landmine Staffer Naomi Wyles, a British-Malaysian woman with sharp Playboy Centerfold looks and even sharper understanding of the technical issues involved in the project.)

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 realpolitik and the inertia of government. Several countries including the United States have managed to undercut a breakthrough, 135-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 discouraged 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. Watching 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.

As a result of his putting H2 and O together, UNICEF has requested that Operation USA come to Afghanistan to help it find water sources for displaced Afghans. And the Ministries of Rural Development of both Vietnam and Cambodia want the device used in their parched rural areas.

But just when Walden was ready to launch his newest venture, the US National Security Agency balked. The spy bureaucrats made clear that they want the same device reserved strictly for detection of explosive and radioactive materials in the War on Terror. 

To Walden, that’s plain nuts. The way he sees it, you can’t separate “national” security and the safety of individuals. Besides, he figures, the public ought to have some say in the uses for advanced technology paid for with its tax dollars.

In any case, if the news discouraged our hero, his funk lasted exactly two seconds before he was back on the phone, rallying his scattered but inspired troops to new battles in his personal, peaceable war. 

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