Veteran-led nonprofit helps fund child surgeries

By Eric Feldman, Queens
New York 1 News Release
Published: August of 2022

“I didn’t know it changed me until I got back,” he said. One day, Zamora met up with fellow Marine and New Yorker, Dre Popow, at a Queens’ bar. “It was the first time we were open to each other,” Zamora said.

They opened up about the scars they were hiding after their tours in Iraq. “We had to acknowledge the fact that we directly participated in something we didn’t believe in,” Popow said. After their chat, they realized they needed help after serving in a war. They said they knew there were many others who were in the same boat as them. Popow took the napkin on their bar table and then wrote up a contract. It was a pledge to help each other by finding a way to support other vets with similar feelings. Two years later, Popow called Zamora, with an idea to launch the Queens-based nonprofit. The group helps fellow vets with mentoring, job placement and giving back. Part of that last pillar meant assisting who were left behind in Iraq.

“The term we use is service to atonement. We saw what happened. We were there whether directly or indirectly you feel some guilt,” Zamora said. That particularly weighed on Zamora for the children he met.

“Many of us saw them suffering over there,” he said. So Zamora and Popow made helping children in Iraq a part of VRL’s platform by fundraising and covering surgeries for children in Iraq. So far, they’ve helped about 30 procedures in over a decade, raising money and coordinating with doctors who conduct the surgeries in Iraq as an in-kind donation. One of those children in need was Abdul Rahman, an 11-year-old who loves to play soccer in Iraq. When he broke his leg and needed surgery, doctors found out he had a heart defect. His family couldn’t pay for either operation.

“Sometimes someone just needs help and the worse the situation is the less likely is they’re going to get help,” Zamora said. For each surgery VRL helps cover, a veteran is paired to lead the charge to fundraise. For Rahman, it was Zamora who wanted to do it. He talked to Rahman with translators over Zoom. When Rahman told Zamora he was nervous about the surgeries, VRL promised to send him a toy car and a bicycle. It wasn’t long before Zamora and the team got a video of Rahman, happy and healing, playing with a brand new toy car and riding his bike.

“He’s back to being a kid,” Zamora said, smiling while watching the video for the first time. He said seeing the difference these operations can make has helped him and the other veterans. “When a vet saves the child, the child saves the vet,” he said.