Doctors are developing a mask of real skin that they can surgically implant onto a wounded soldier's face.
Forty percent of injured service members are coming home with facial wounds, but military doctors say the way they treat facial burns hasn't changed in decades. Treatment requires dozens of surgeries and a lifetime of scars.
Retired Staff Sgt. Jason March's journey took him from the battlefield to the operating room.
"All I remember is, there was a thud. I was shot in the back of the head," he said. "Close to 80 surgeries."
As a souvenir, March now has a mold of his skull that shows the toll the injury took.
"This side shows you the whole cheekbone destroyed," March said. "The entire right side of my face has been reconstructed."
The faces of wounded troops tell a story of sacrifice. Other scars, you don't see in the mirror. They'll struggle to chew, swallow and talk the rest of their lives.
"These soldiers who stand up in uniform and go overseas, they have a lot of spine," Col. Robert Hale said. "They're tough people."
Hale works with the most severely injured troops at the San Antonio Military Medical Center.
He is one of about 50 experts working on a groundbreaking idea that could minimize pain and scarring. Instead of grafting skin on like a quilt, they mold it into what they call a Biomask.
"Make it into a face so surgeons can, after removing the burned skin and scars, place it over the face," Hale said. "It gives the contours of the skin (a) more normal (appearance)."
To engineer the Biomask, the military is working with scientists at the Southwest Research Institute. It would require a synthetic skin made partially of collagen from fetal cow tissue.
"We will combine with the stem cell from the patient's own stem cell to promote wound healing," Dr. Jian Ling said.
The Biomask won't be ready for five to 10 years. But March said he's the face of what smart minds have already accomplished.
"I was never able to smile," March remembers from the initial recovery period. "When I smiled, that side went down," he says while pointing to the right side of his lips.
March pauses and slowly forms a smile.
"The doctors gave me the will to stand in pictures and smile," he said.
If the military gets the Biomask right, it could eventually help civilians recover from injuries in fires or crashes.
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