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US Troops Receive Treatment at Burn Center

Advances in combat medicine have helped hundreds of badly wounded soldiers in Iraq survive, but many of them need long-term care and rehabilitation. Survivors of bomb attacks, who have often lost limbs and suffered severe burns, face an especially difficult future. But, as VOA's Greg Flakus reports from San Antonio, Texas, medical science is helping improve their prospects for a normal life.

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Jason Leisey and his wife Katy were starting a life together in their home state of Pennsylvania when he volunteered to join a National Guard unit on a tour of duty in Iraq.

But his life was almost cut short last April by a suicide bomber.

Now Jason and Katy both spend much of their time here at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

The bomb left severe burns on Jason's face and left arm.

"This is silicone, it helps with the scarring,” says Katy. “You can see he has half of his thumb and half of his pointer finger and then from here on down it gets a little smaller, so we are up in therapy working on him being able to move the joints."

But bad as his wounds were, Jason says he knows he was lucky compared to many other soldiers who are being treated here.

"Losing my fingers was a really traumatic experience,” Jason says, “and seeing the guys that were more injured than I was and how they coped with day-to-day living, it kind of helped me through what I was going through."

The treatment and therapy available here for Jason and other burn victims is the best medical science can offer.

Doctor Stephen Wolf, Director of the U.S. Army Institute's Burn Center here at the Brooke Medical Center, says rapid treatment in the field and expedited transport to San Antonio have helped keep many of these burn victims alive.

"The really big burns that would have been universally fatal in the ‘60s and ‘70s, those patients routinely survive because of the advances in techniques of early excision and grafting and getting the burn wound off and putting their skin on as soon as possible," Doctor Wolf told us.

But the treatment here goes well beyond assuring the survival of burn victims. New rehabilitation techniques offer even the most badly burned soldiers hope for a better future, according to Dr. Wolf.

"The human being is very adaptive, so these guys generally can go on and live relatively normal lives, but it takes a year or two for them to develop the means to make that happen and that is where that rehabilitation is most active, in the first couple of years."

Major Lynn Burns, a certified hand therapist, helps patients stretch scar tissue so as to reduce contraction and regain function.

"Massage will help soften the scar and with stretching we are trying to increase the elasticity of the scar tissue,” says Major Burns. “We primarily work on increasing the elasticity of the scar tissue with splinting and casting and then the massage just sort of helps maintain it."

Doctors here are also working with medical researchers on some of the most promising advances in regenerative medicine, which Dr. Wolf says may one day provide even more for these patients.

"A lot of the regenerative technology that is out there right now is focused on (whether) we can grow a finger and then stick it on there and it works like a finger."

Once outside the hospital setting, burn victims like Jason look for support from the community and from employers in particular to begin their lives anew.

"A lot of people out there, a lot of companies, they are willing to help injured soldiers because they understand the needs that we have, they understand the tough times we have come across and a lot people really have extended their hands to us to try to help out," says Jason.

As much as they appreciate the help provided here at Brooke Medical Center, Jason and Katy look forward to the day they can leave and never need to return.