Military Plastic Surgery: How Plastic Surgery Can Help Wounded Soldiers

Dr. Sacha Obaid, Board-Certified Plastic Surgeon Serving Dallas, Plano, Southlake, and Nearby Fort Worth, Texas

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By Sacha Obaid

Soldiers who return home from combat with disfiguring injuries can face many setbacks, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Fortunately, the aid of military plastic surgery can help many returned soldiers live their lives to the fullest.

Why is plastic surgery important for wounded veterans?

The soldiers in our nation’s armed forces can often face many problems when they return home from active combat. Readjusting to life at home is difficult, and having lived through the trauma of war vastly increases the risk for veterans of developing mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

The injuries these soldiers experience are not all psychological, of course. For many wounded veterans, the physical injuries they suffer are extremely debilitating. Even injuries that are more cosmetic than functional cause a great deal of stress and pain and a loss of confidence and self-esteem, in addition to increasing the difficulties that veterans face when they return to their everyday lives.

These major injuries, whether purely cosmetic, purely functional, or a combination of both, profoundly change the lives of the men and women who are affected by them. Altered self-image, loss of self-esteem, depression, and other kinds of emotional distress relating to their injuries are quite common for wounded veterans.

Surgery, therefore, can be an incredibly important part of rehabilitation. It can help restore normal form and function to injured limbs, and facial reconstruction can help restore a wounded veteran’s sense of self and improve their self-esteem.

How does plastic surgery help soldiers heal after war?

military plastic surgeryMany amazing medical advances have been made in wartime. For example, the practice of triage that is standard in hospital emergency departments was pioneered on the battlefields of World War I. The entire field of plastic surgery greatly developed during the same era, as surgeons discovered new ways to help soldiers who had suffered devastating and disfiguring injuries in battle.

Reconstructive surgery still plays a vital role in helping veterans return to civilian life. Organizations such as Operation Mend (Facebook) have been created to help veterans access the kind of highly specialized reconstructive work they need after being wounded during combat operations.

Project C.A.R.E. is another example of a program that helps soldiers. Created by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), members of Project C.A.R.E. are ASPS members who provide services in their own hometowns to wounded veterans who can benefit from cosmetic procedures.

Which plastic surgery procedures can help wounded veterans?

For wounded veterans, two of the most pressing problems are typically repairing scar tissue that forms when extensive burns heal and reconstructing facial features, digits, and limbs that have been shattered by explosive devices.

Skin Grafting

Burns in particular can cause extensive scarring, especially when full-thickness burns are involved. Explosions from IEDs kill many people who are caught in the blast. Those who survive typically sustain horrific injuries, including extensive burns. These may include third-, fourth-, and even fifth-degree burns, which cause immense pain and are extremely disfiguring. Because burn injuries sustained in IED (improvised explosive device) blasts are typically so extensive, the physical and emotional effects of the event, the injuries, and the scarring are equally extensive.

During skin grafting, layers of skin are removed from one part of the body and used to repair or reconstruct burns and similar kinds of wounds elsewhere. Depending on the patient’s circumstances, this can involve debridement, or removal, of scar tissue before the grafting takes place.

Army Captain James Barclay sustained injuries like those described above, when his vehicle drove over a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2006. Just two of the five soldiers in the vehicle survived.

Captain Barclay was left with third-degree burns over 35% of his body. After months of healing, extensive scar tissue meant he was unable to fully open his mouth or use his hands.

Thanks to Operation Mend, Captain Barclay underwent reconstructive surgeries to repair his hands, as well as skin grafting over his hand and facial scarring. Now he is able to fully enjoy life with his wife and children, he has a job, and after that terrible 2006 explosion, he has the life he was never expecting to get back.

Facial Reconstruction

Some of the most dramatic results for wounded veterans can be seen in the men and women who undergo facial reconstruction surgery after sustaining extensive burns and other disfiguring injuries. Bones may be shattered and facial features ripped apart or even severed altogether.

Those with severe injuries are often isolated and find it hard to reconnect with family and friends. Facial reconstruction, which involves repairing shattered bones and repairing facial features (or even creating new ones), can give veterans a new lease on life by restoring their sense of self and helping them feel comfortable in the world again.

Operation Mend achieved this for retired U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Michael Schlitz, who in 2007 was injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Three soldiers were killed in the blast. Sergeant Schlitz, the only survivor, suffered burns over 85% of his body and lost his nose, ears, and arms.

Incredibly, a team of plastic surgeons built the injured Sergeant a new nose. The team took Sergeant Schlitz’s remaining ear cartilage, skin grafts from his chest, and bone from his skull; pieced them together into a nose; and then attached it to his face. Surgical teams also repaired his eyelids and other facial features and performed skin grafts on other areas of his body.

Sergeant Schlitz himself notes that undergoing these reconstructive surgeries changed his life completely, giving him a new level of confidence and self-esteem. They also allowed him to build and enjoy a life filled with family and friends and to work with several non-profit organizations that support the veteran community.

Plastic surgery provides hope for injured veterans.

Thanks to the incredible work of plastic surgeons across the country, many wounded veterans have received life-changing surgery procedures, with more to follow. Because of the ability of plastic surgery to help to improve and restore both the physical and emotional well-being of veterans, organizations that provide these services are doing important work, providing much-needed hope to people who have sustained such serious injuries.

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