How Plastic Surgeons Are Helping Wounded Soldiers Return to a Normal Life

11 Nov 2014 at 5:00pm

On Thanksgiving Day in 2007,  Paul McQuigg was more thankful than most to be stuffing his face with food. After spending months ingesting meals from a feeding tube, Paul ate actual food in the way most of us take for granted... something doctors told him would probably never happen again. "I had turkey and mashed potatoes," he reveals. "It was great because it was Thanksgiving and I was grateful to have these functions back."

Paul, a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, served in Iraq as a Staff Sgt. in the 3rd Amphibious Assault Battalion Bravo Company. His time was cut short after a roadside bomb went off on February 27, 2006. The soldier underwent three surgeries, but was still left with a shattered jaw and only 40% of his tongue. Surgeons repaired his jaw with the help of an external fixator, but told him his tongue was something that would never be able to be fixed.

"I wasn’t able to eat orally," Paul explains. "I took all my medication, my food, and my supplements through a feeding tube."

At only 30 years old, Paul was facing a future with the inability to eat normally and learning to live with a new speech impairment. It wasn't until Paul heard about  Maggie Lockridge and Rebuilding America's Warriors (R.A.W.) that eating solid food became a possibility again.

Paul McQuiggPaul learned about the non-profit, at the time known as Iraq Star, an organization that provides free plastic surgery to war veterans. Paul recounts reaching out to Maggie in hopes of being helped, but explains that his mom had to do most of the talking due to the loss of his tongue.

At the time, the organization didn't have a doctor with the knowledge to reconstruct Paul's tongue, but that didn't stop them from acting as a facilitator. Maggie got in touch with  Dr. Bruce Haughey from Washington University in St. Louis, a skilled surgeon specializing in facial reconstruction. It wasn't long before Paul flew to Missouri to meet with Dr. Haughey, a man who ultimately gave him back what he thought he'd lost forever.  

"Paul called me on Thanksgiving and said, 'I just had turkey for Thanksgiving,'"Maggie recalls. "Then he called me in January and said 'Maggie, the tube is out of my stomach,' and he was just talking with a slight lisp."

About Rebuilding America's Warriors

Maggie founded R.A.W. in 2007 after running a reconstruction recovery facility in the Beverly Hills Hotel. After touring veteran hospitals and realizing the need for plastic surgeons, the nurse was inspired to sell her business and found Rebuilding America's Warriors. "I started writing my 30 favorite surgeons in Los Angeles and they all came on board," she explains. "I wanted to know if they would provide free surgery for the young wounded."

Since 2007, R.A.W. has expanded to a network of 300 board-certified plastic surgeons in 46. "We treat burn scars. We fix cracked teeth. We remove tattoos that are no longer wanted," Maggie says.

And of course, the best part is that everything is for free.

Hawaii plastic surgeon Dr. S. Larry Schlesinger is one of the doctors participating in the organization. He's now helped six veterans since joining R.A.W., including three-time Purple Heart recipient Ryan Goede. Ryan lost vision in his left eye after being caught in an improvised explosive device (IED) blast.

"When Ryan came in, he was literally willing to pay for it,” says Dr. Schlesinger, himself a military veteran. “I told him his money was no good. He said he didn't feel like himself and he was embarrassed."

Dr. Schlesinger says that even if he couldn't have helped Ryan, he would have made sure one of his surgeon friends did. Dr. Schlesinger took the shrapnel out of Ryan's face, but most importantly, helped him regain his confidence.

"It’s a gift to us,” Dr. Schlesinger says of being involved with the organization. “My whole crew just loves it. It just gives you a good feeling about your value in the world. It helps them; it helps us; it helps everybody.” 

Returning to Normalcy

Even though the organization has helped over 100 wounded soldiers, Paul's story continues to stick with Maggie. "Although the military put his jaw back together beautifully, they essentially told him, 'Sorry, we don’t have anybody who reconstructs tongues.' He was left with a tube in his stomach and he couldn't swallow."

Paul took his medical retirement in July 2013 to spend more time with his fiance and his then 9-year-old son. When he's not at home with his family, he's touring the country with Maggie, informing fellow wounded vets about R.A.W. “I’ve gotten back to a sense of normalcy. I can communicate with my fiance, with my friends, I’m better at what I do due to what Iraq Star did to me," Paul says. “I owe a lot of my life’s happiness now to what Iraq Star helped me do."