By Lea Johnson
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — When Mark Backlin decided to start a medical foundation in his wife’s memory, he had no clue what he was about to get into.
“I didn’t know at all how foundations worked or how to raise money. I just decided that’s what I was going to do no matter what anybody said,” said Backlin, who is a managing engineer with the 4th Manpower Readiness Squadron located at Peterson AFB.
Judith Lombeida, a native of Ecuador, came to the United States at 18 to study medicine. “She got here and she failed her first semester because she just didn’t know the language,” Backlin said. But Lombeida, who was focused and determined, went on to achieve the rank of colonel and was the neurology chief at the Air Force Academy from 2003 until her tragic death in 2006.
Backlin and Lombeida, along with their two children David and Laura, were driving on Interstate 80 through Nebraska on their way to Minnesota when an armoire fell off a trailer in front of their vehicle. Backlin swerved to avoid the debris and the vehicle rolled six times. Lombeida was ejected from the backseat and died at the scene. Though severely injured, Backlin and his children survived.
During Lombeida’s 19 years and nine months in the military, she went on five medical trips to Central and South America. She was always willing to reach out and help someone if she could, Backlin said. It was only a few months after the accident that Backlin created the Judith Lombeida Medical Foundation.
During the first mission in August 2007, about 2,500 Ecuadorians were treated. “It was a little hard at first because being a brand new foundation nobody knew what the foundation was, you’ve got a credibility thing you’ve got to work through,” he said.
Backlin, who had never been on a mission nor had any medical training, credits the success of the mission to those who knew Lombeida. “What I did was target people who had in the past gone on missions with (Lombeida) and people who were interested in trying to go on a mission in another country,” he said. The Ecuadorian Air Force provided health care professionals to fill positions that Backlin couldn’t fill with volunteers.
The first mission changed Backlin in a way he wasn’t prepared for. “It makes you think in your life, what is it that makes you do what you do? What are those things that line up and make you move forward? I’m the last person that you would find to do this,” he said.
Over the last five years, Backlin has accumulated a wealth of stories from lives the foundation has touched. Wilson, a 33-year-old cleft palate and cleft lip patient was treated on the last mission in November. “Now his lip will be just like mine and yours,” Backlin said. “His sisters were writing us this letter to thank us for changing his life. Those moments are just amazing to me. You can’t put a price on it.”
Though she’d be proud, Lombeida would request her name not be in the title. “She was so quiet and humble. She didn’t like a lot of attention,” Backlin said.
The foundation raises about $25,000 a year, enough to do two medical missions and provide more than $200,000 worth of free care. “I have no employees, so I don’t have to pay anybody. I don’t pay me, I just do it. It’s a relatively cheap foundation. I’ve always kept it small on purpose,” he said.
Fundraising is done through private donations, donations through the Combined Federal Campaign, and an annual golf tournament at the Academy’s Eisenhower Golf Course.
Volunteers on the trip pay for their own air fare, lodging and food. “If you’re going to take a thousand of your hard earned dollars, you’re probably going to go down there with the attitude and the idea that you really want to try to make a difference,” Backlin said.
And there are plenty of people who want to make a difference; Backlin has to turn down volunteers because of all the interest in the foundation.
Missions 11 and 12 are already being planned for next August and November; and at that point Backlin estimates the foundation will have provided care for more than 10,000 Ecuadorians.
“The things that come out of a mission keep you doing the next mission. I’ll never be the same person. I have my job here, but that world out there — that’s so different from this, I don’t know once you get out there how you could not stay in it. You can’t put a price on someone’s heart and hope and health,” Backlin said.