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Hawaii soldier’s face repaired by Iraq Star

KAHULUI, Maui — Military doctors patched up Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Goede’s shattered body after a bomb exploded near his vehicle in Iraq three years ago, but until yesterday he still carried bits of the war-torn country in his face.

Sixteen surgeries at nine medical facilities repaired his mangled leg and removed some of the shrapnel, rocks and other material from the 25-year-old’s neck and face, but pea-sized pebbles and dirt remained in his lips, cheeks and lower eyelids.

Goede, a member of the 25th Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, said the debris didn’t hurt but was hard to ignore when he looked in the mirror.

“It’s knowing that it’s there,” he said before undergoing surgery yesterday at Dr. Larry Schlesinger’s Maui Plastic Surgery in Kahului.

Goede is one of only 12 servicemen and servicewomen nationwide, and the first in Hawai’i, to benefit from Iraq Star, a new nonprofit foundation dedicated to providing free reconstructive surgery to wounded and disfigured soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Iraq Star picks up where the military and the Veterans Administration leave off,” said Maggie Lockridge, a California registered nurse and Air Force veteran who founded the organization in June.

“The aesthetics is something the military does not really have time for right now. They are underfunded and overwhelmed with the traumatic injuries they are addressing.”

CALL FOR VOLUNTEERS

Iraq Star so far has signed up 140 board-certified plastic and reconstructive surgeons in 38 states. Among those helped, in addition to Goede, were a female Marine injured by a car bomb, a soldier who had to have his teeth replaced and another serviceman who nearly lost his tongue from a war injury.

Another soldier will undergo cosmetic surgery today in Texas, Lockridge said.

Schlesinger, a 10-year Army veteran, is the first Hawai’i doctor to join Iraq Star.

Goede, from Tucson, Ariz., showed up at Schlesinger’s Honolulu office in July to see about having cosmetic surgery to remove the foreign matter from his face.

“He was perfectly willing to pay, but I was unwilling to accept his money,” the doctor said. “I was thrilled to be able to give back to the effort the troops are making. The military does a great job taking care of limbs, but for facial, we’re the experts.”

Around that same time, Schlesinger received an e-mail from Iraq Star seeking physicians to join the program. The doctor contacted the foundation to arrange for Goede’s medication, travel and other expenses to be covered.

Schlesinger and his staff donated their time for the procedure, which normally would cost $8,000 to $10,000.

SIX WEEKS TO HEAL

During yesterday’s three-hour procedure, Schlesinger carefully cut the pebbles from Goede’s face and used a laser to remove the top layer of skin containing smaller material. Hawaiian salt was used to abrade the skin and draw dirt to the surface, where it will be absorbed by gauze.

Within six weeks, the soldier should be fully healed, his face largely indistinguishable from his prewar appearance.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I never expected anything like this to happen,” said Goede, who enlisted in the Army in 2001.

The soldier said he was on routine patrol in an overcrowded, unarmored vehicle on June 25, 2004, when a buried bomb was detonated nearby. Goede was sitting on the edge of the vehicle and suffered the brunt of the blast. His leg was broken in several places and chunks of tissue had been ripped away from his body.

KEEPS ON GOING

Goede lost most of the vision in his left eye. Military doctors were hesitant to remove matter from areas close to his remaining good eye, so the pebbles, dirt and sand were left in place.

Four months after being wounded, Goede rejoined his buddies in Iraq. “I wasn’t in shape, but I went back for a morale thing. Everyone who was there thought I wasn’t going to make it and that was the last image they had of me. I figured I’d go back and cheer everyone up,” he said.

The explosion earned Goede his second Purple Heart. He had been wounded less than three months earlier in a firefight with insurgents in Huwijah on April 7, 2004.

He earned a third Purple Heart in a separate incident before returning to Schofield in February 2005. He married his high school sweetheart, Amy, at the end of that year.

Goede received a special medical waiver to apply for the Army’s Special Forces and in July passed a 30-day selection process that he described as “a month of hell.” In January he’ll leave for two years of training at Ft. Bragg, N.C., as a Special Forces paramedic.

Goede and Schlesinger said they wanted to share their story to encourage more soldiers and physicians to participate in Iraq Star. The foundation also accepts donations.

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