Rebuilding The Faces Of War

Soldiers who've suffered burns and trauma to the face in the current wars are being given the chance to heal and restore a part of their identity. Specialists at one of only two clinics within the Department of Defense are using innovative techniques to restore the facial features of wounded warriors.

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And now, a story about the effects of war and violence in a different part of the world and how specialists are learning from it. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created a need for innovative treatments for severe battle wounds. Service members often suffer injuries that disfigure and even eliminate parts of their face. At a Defense Department clinic in Texas, surgeons are restoring missing facial features and in a way they're restoring the identities of the wounded.

Texas Public Radio's Terry Gildea takes us to the clinic at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

TERRY GILDEA: Thirty-six-year-old Army Staff Sergeant Shilo Harris served two tours in Iraq as an Army cavalry scout. His life changed forever more than three years ago when he and his team were patrolling in an area south of Baghdad.

Staff Sergeant SHILO HARRIS (U.S. Army): I was the third truck in the convoy, two trucks had already passed over the side and, you know, I guess I just - I drew that hand that day. You know, I got hit with IED. I don't remember a lot. My truck was literally just blown to pieces.

GILDEA: Harris suffered burns to nearly 35 percent of his body. The two other soldiers in the vehicle were killed instantly. Parts of his nose were missing and both of his ears were blown off. Harris, who can read lips and is aided by temporary hearing aides, spent several grueling months at Brooke Army Medical Center's burn unit.

He's now working with doctors at the Maxillofacial Prosthetic Clinic at Wilford Hall Medical Center. Today his anaplastologist, Nancy Hanson, is fitting him with a new set of ears.

Staff Sgt. HARRIS: I haven't told anybody today was the day.

Ms. NANCY HANSON (Anaplastologist): Oh, you didn't?

Staff Sgt. HARRIS: No, so nobody knows. I'm just going to show up and I'm just going to start, you know, hey, what's up, you know? And see who notices first.

GILDEA: This place feels like a special effects lab on a movie set. All over the clinic are detailed photographs of facial features and life-like silicon models of faces that look completely real. Colonel Alan Sutton is the director of this operation. One of only two clinics within the Department of Defense that attempt to rebuild the faces of wounded warriors. Sutton and his team get input from the patients on the kinds of facial features they think will look and feel the best.

Colonel ALAN SUTTON (U.S. Army): And this is kind of the cool thing, you know. What do you think your jaw should look like? Or if they had no ears, would you like to go shopping down the hallway and look at other people's ears to select what you wish to have your ears look like?

GILDEA: Plastic prosthetics are created that can be glued onto the patient's ears or nose, but these are only temporary.

Col. SUTTON: From there we want to convert them to something a little more permanent and we plan with the surgeons to place titanium implants into their skull, which have little studs that stick out that we can hook magnetically retained ears onto their skin.

GILDEA: Nancy Hanson inspects the titanium studs in Harris' head to make sure there is no immediate risk of infection. She then shows Harris his new silicon ears that match his own skin tone. Imbedded inside each are three magnets that will attach to the metal studs.

Ms. HANSON: They look clean. They look really good, Shilo. Is it sensitive? This side looks very good. You'll hear it click on, just like we've been hearing through all this process.

Staff Sgt. HARRIS: It feels good.

GILDEA: Shilo Harris looks into a mirror for the first time since being wounded in battle and sees his ears.

Staff Sgt. HARRIS: I feel funny. It looks funny to me, you know, because I've been, like, three years without ears, you know. And then all of a sudden, you know, it's like there's something there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Staff Sgt. HARRIS: I don't know. I'm happy though. It's been a long road to get here.

GILDEA: Harris medically retired from the military in 2010. He will return to the clinic at Wilford Hall for routine maintenance on his new ears.

Staff Sgt. HARRIS: As soon as I get some new hearing aides, watch out.

Ms. HANSON: Oh, you best stop.

Staff Sgt. HARRIS: Watch out.

GILDEA: For NPR News, I'm Terry Gildea in San Antonio.

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