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Mount Ayr Record News
Mount Ayr, Ringgold County, Iowa
Thursday, May 03, 2007

Staff Sergeant Blaine Scott will be returning to Kellerton for a two-week leave beginning Wednesday, April 18. Scott, who was wounded in Iraq in August of 2006, has been hospitalized in Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, TX.

Mount Ayr Record News
Mount Ayr, Ringgold County, Iowa
Thursday, May 03, 2007, Pages 1 & 8

Road-side explosion in Iraq quickly
changes life for Marine from Kellerton

Master Sargeant E-6 Blaine Scott recovering from burns,
injuries when LAM blows up

By Alan Smith

Staff Sargeant (sic) E-6 Blaine SCOTT, a Kellerton native, will always remember August 20, 2006.

That's the day that the world changed for SCOTT, who was platoon sergeant for a convoy traveling in a light armored vehicle (LAM) down a road in Rawah, Iraq, in the volatile Al Anbarr province northeast of Baghdad.

The veteran Marine, who has been in the service for more than 14 years in various assignments and was in his second tour of duty in Iraq, just a few weeks before returning stateside, was driving in a convoy.

Much of the work of his Marines in the Third Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Delta Company, was in setting up vehicle control points, searching vehicles as they would come into towns to try to stop contraband from moving around areas and stop suicide bombers from bringing car of truck bombs to town.

Another responsibility from time to time was searching out IED's (Improvised Explosive Devices) that insurgents have used as weapons against coalition troops and other factions of Iraqis. Once suspected charges were found, bomb squads with their robotic explosives handlers were called in to disarm the devices.

August 20 was a Sunday and SCOTT and the convoy were moving rapidly along a road when his vehicle was struck by an IED buried on the side of the road.

SCOTT says it is hard to know just how the device was triggered, but the first three vehicles had passed it when his vehicle, the last of the group, was blown apart by the charge. The devices are set up to use many tripping devices from sophisticated lasers to water hoses where the change in water pressure from a vehicle rolling over it sets it off, SCOTT noted.

It was a big charge that blew a four-foot hole in the ground and wiped out SCOTT'S vehicle.

He knows what the explosion looks like. It was one of the explosions that made television in the Arab world. He has a clip of it on his computer, where many pictures of his experiences in Iraq reside.

It's a music video, in a morbid sort of way, complete with music and messages in Arabic running along the bottom of the picture.

On his computer he has pictures of some of his buddies who were with him in the LAM that day.

Two Marines and a medical corpsman he called "Doc" were killed in the explosion. Three others, including Sergeant SCOTT, survived.

The least hurt was burned on his hands and had flash burns on his face. He has fully recovered and is back to duty.

Severely burned were SCOTT and Lance Corporal Isaac GELLAGOS. Because of the severity of burns to both men's faces, they were at first mixed up by their rescuers.

SCOTT had severe burns over 40 percent of his body and an ankle that was shattered. GELLAGOS had burns over 70 percent of his body from the fire in the explosion.

The word first sent to SCOTT'S wife and GELLAGOS' family was that SCOTT was the more severly injured of the two.

Treatment of seriously injured soldiers has come a long way in modern war zones.

SCOTT was stabilized and flown from Al Asad to Baghdad to Ramstein, Germany and on to San Antonio, TX by Wednesday, Aug. 23.

"I was put under before being evacuated at Al Asad and I woke up in San [Page 8] Antonio," SCOTT said. It must have been surreal.

His wife, Lillia, pregnant with their second child, left their daughter Isabella with her parents in California and joined him in San Antonio for his rehabilitation.

"The Marines know how to treat their injured right," SCOTT said, praising the health care system he has dealt with. "The Army is looking at how to improve their care for their injured and are using the Marine's system as a model."

It's been a long rehabilitation process.

SCOTT spent the first three months back in the states in the hospital as doctors worked on healing the scars from the burns and working to rebuild his shattered ankle and heel.

"My ankle bothers me a lot more than my burns do," SCOTT noted.

He has had a dozen surgeries as part of his rehabilitation and has a couple more still to undergo.

Since being released from the hospital in Texas, he has continued with his rehabilitation while living with his family. Daughter Isabella, three, joined them in Texas, and son Blaine, five months old, was born just after SCOTT was released from the hospital.

If there are heroes in the experience, SCOTT is quick to point out that he is not one of them. Those who died in the attack can be called heroes.

And also his wife, Lillia, who came to his side six months pregnant and stood by him, feeding him when he couldn't do that himself, learning how to change his bandages and do all the routine items needed in helping a burn patient heal.

"She never left my side in the early going and has been there for me the whole way," SCOTT said.

SCOTT is still a Marine's Marine, using the formal "sir" and maam" with those he talks to. Driving a stick shift truck despite his hurting ankle. Standing with that extra straightness.

SCOTT was a graduate of the last graduating class from Grand Valley Community high school back in 1992, one of the six in that group. By October that year he had followed the way of many of his family to serve their country in the military.

He has been stationed most of the time in California, though he spent time in Okinawa and southeast Asia on three trips, and his two tours in Iraq.

He has been stationed in San Diego, Camp Pendleton, Bridgeport and 29 Palms, CA with various units.

Probably his favorite posting over the years was as a mountain warfare training instructor in Bridgeport, CA, he says.

There aren't many good memories of Iraq except for the opportunity to be with his buddies, depending on each other, being there for each other as Marines do.

He told of an experience in his first deployment in Iraq, where his group was to guard a bridge. "That was the first time I was shot at over there," SCOTT said. "They launched a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) at us." He has a picture to remind him of it.

In fact, the pictures are there maybe more than in any earlier war. With digital cameras and files that can easily be shared, this conflict may eventually prove to have more private documentation than any previous one.

SCOTT has pictures of the hole in the ground left by the IED that stopped his vehicle. He has pictures of his unit on patrol. There are pictures of relaxing behind the LAM out in the countryside. There are pictures of getting the LAM stuck in a hole and the effort trying to get it back out.

He keeps in touch with his former commanding officer and platoon commander to keep up with how things are going for them.

They returned to the United States in September, soon after he made the quick evacuation trip.

His old battalion is headed back to Iraq in September for their third tour of duty there, but SCOTT won't be going with them.

Neither will the eight members of his group, seven from his platoon, who died in Iraq during the last rotation there. Or his friends, like Lance Corporal GELLAGOS, who comes over to eat with the SCOTTS from time to time as he continues with his rehabilitation from much more severe burns.

Once SCOTT is released from his rehabilitation he hopes to leave Fort Sam Houston, where he and his family live now, to go back to southern California.

"The weather is nice in California and that helps when dealing with the burns," SCOTT said.

He will be placed on permanent light duty for the last five and a half years until he reaches the 20 years in service for which he can get full retirement.

"There are good hospitals there that can help me with any problems I come up against as well," SCOTT said.

SCOTT said he was pleased with the reception he received from family and friends in his two week visit to Kellerton and Ringgold county, which included a potluck dinner Sunday, April 22.

The support system from family and friends is special, but people can help support the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan beyond their immediate families or people they know, SCOTT noted.

He said, "care packages" of items were great to receive over in the war zone because they help break the routines and remind soldiers of the support from people back home.

Groups that support the families of troops while they are deployed overseas are also very important, SCOTT noted.

"There are a lot of groups like Mothers of Marines that do a great job of supporting the troops," SCOTT said. Finding a group and helping them do what they do so well can be a way to do something at home for those overseas.

If you didn't know Sergeant SCOTT, you might not at first recognize him from his earlier pictures after the burn he suffered in the bombing. But you'd recognize the Marine in him anywhere -- and the courage he has had to serve and recover.

All photographs in this Mount Ayr Record News article are from the collection of Blaine Scott, courtesy of the Mount Ayr Record News

Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, August of 2012

Stars and Stripes
by Charlie Reed
February 6, 2010

Military, civilian medical communities team up
to improve the lives of troops with severe disfigurements from war

Before and after, Gunnery Sgt. Blaine Scott
showing his transformation after a dozen surgeries through Operation Mend
UCLA Medical Center, California

Gunnery Sgt. Blaine SCOTT can now eat a cheeseburger without first having to tear it to pieces.

It's a small yet significant triumph for the 37-year-old native of Kellerton, Iowa. In 2006, a roadside bomb in Iraq scorched 40 percent of his body, including his face. Three of his fellow Marines died in the attack.

SCOTT endured more than a dozen surgeries during the 18 months he spent recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where 800 troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan have been treated at its burn center since 2003. But it wasn't until he returned to active duty and hooked up with Operation Mend at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center that civilian plastic surgeons restored his ability to chew, gave him a new nose and further refined scars with another dozen surgeries.

"It's good to get back to the way I was," said the married father of three, whose youngest son knows him only by the face scarred by war.

Advances in combat medicine and body and vehicle armor have made war more survivable for troops like SCOTT. Today, 3 percent of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq die from their wounds, compared with 19 percent during the Vietnam War and 25 percent during World War II, according to statistics provided by the Pentagon.

But the price of survival is often paid with severed limbs, disfigured faces and burned bodies. Operation Mend is among a growing number of partnerships the military has forged with the civilian medical community to help the tens of thousands wounded in combat, many with severe disfigurements. And recent investments in reconstructive surgery research point to the military's growing attention to improving life for war-mangled troops.

Established in 2008, the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, or AFIRM, was the first major effort. The $250 million project brings together military doctors and 20 public and private medical centers for stem-cell research focused on using patient and donor cells to reconstruct and reshape the body and reduce transplant rejection.

"The problem is when you have very large segments of composite tissue — meaning skin, fat, nerve, muscle, bone — that is missing from some of these horrific traumatic injuries," said Lt. Col. Barry MARTIN, chief of plastic surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "There is no effective way to rebuild that with current methods. So in the end you may get something that's somewhat functional, give the person the ability to chew their food again. But the cosmetic outcome, it never passes our gold standard test, which is: Can that person walk down the street and have nobody look at him?"

Perhaps the most extreme breakthrough could happen in the next 18 months, when a small group of veterans will receive full face transplants at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. In December, the Pentagon awarded the hospital a $3.4 million contract to perform six to eight face transplants. There have been seven successful face transplants worldwide since the first one in 2005.

The military has estimated that as many as 200 veterans would be eligible for the dramatic procedure, according to Brigham and Women's Hospital. It is a quantum leap from the tin masks painted to look like faces during World War I, when modern-day plastic surgery techniques were pioneered for troops maimed in trench warfare. Most combat casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq are caused by roadside bombs.

"Out of every conflict, you have advances in medicine," said Dr. Anthony ATALA, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, an AFIRM partner. "Medical advancements are often limited by resources. So partnering in this field is really beneficial to be able to transfer the technology to our wounded warriors."

But new techniques such as craniofacial implants for crushed skulls and growing artificial skin for burn also are being developed inside such military hospitals as Walter Reed and Brooke, where many of the most severely injured troops are treated.

"We are on the cutting edge," MARTIN said.

Doctors at the major combat recovery hospitals typically handle only the initial and major reconstruction, and many troops are discharged before all procedures can be exhausted, he said.

Most major military and veterans hospitals have plastic surgeons on staff for follow-ups, but not all are qualified to meet every patient’s specific needs, especially in the most severe cases. And after already spending months — if not years — in the hospital, traveling for more surgery can be challenging for many service members.

"I just wanted to get out of [the hospital] and get back to the Marine Corps," said SCOTT, the gunnery sergeant injured in Iraq. "I accepted this is how it’s going to be for the rest of my life."

He opted for a procedure to help restore function to his mouth near the end of his 18 months at Brooke. But it was wholly unsuccessful, he said, and he left for Camp Pendleton, Calif., happy to finally be out of the hospital, whether he was able to chew properly or not.

After a friend recommended Operation Mend, he got a referral from doctors at Brooke and soon became the seventh service member to undergo reconstructive surgery through the UCLA program. Backed by philanthropist and inventor Ronald A. KATZ, the program pays for expenses and procedures not covered by military or veterans insurance and has facilitated operations on 38 service members since it was established in 2007.

For the most part, the military pays for all costs to make injured soldiers whole again, but at times will not cover certain surgeries. SCOTT, for example, was the first to receive an orthopedic surgery for pain relief through Operation Mend, a procedure he said Tricare would not cover.

Navy plastic surgeons in San Diego are hoping to inspire a sea change in military plastic surgery with a new program called Comprehensive Aesthetic Recovery Effort, or Project CARE for short. It aims to incorporate more comprehensive plastic surgery options — including psychological counseling — into overall treatment plans for injured troops across the services.

"There's a change occurring in reconstructive medicine," said Navy Capt. Greg SALT, chief of plastic surgery at Naval Medical Center San Diego. "There's an old way of looking at things: It was save your life, your limb, your eyesight. Aesthetics has not been a major focus in recovery."

SALT and his plastic surgery partner, Cmdr. Trent DOUGLAS, are also establishing a network of civilian plastic surgeons who can lend their expertise when needed, much like Operation Mend. Nearly 300 of them have expressed interest in working with the program, they said.

The benefits of plastic surgery are more than cosmetic for injured troops. The surgeries not only restore function in most cases, but also help many heal from invisible psychological wounds.

Even the most minor procedures have benefits, said Chief Petty Officer Aaron SEIBERT, a Navy corpsman whose legs and abdomen were sprayed with more than 100 pieces of shrapnel during a mortar attack in Iraq in 2006. SEIBERT, who still walks with a limp, was among the first patients assisted through Project CARE, undergoing a series of scar revision surgeries.

As the senior enlisted officer at the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton, the 37-year-old encourages injured Marines and sailors in his unit to take full advantage of the corrective surgeries they are entitled to receive.

"Having battle scars tells your story," SEIBERT said. "On the other hand, it's a constant reminder of something horrible."

Stars and Stripes' Joe GROMELSKI contributed to this report.

Photograph courtesy of Stars & Stripes; Operation Mend at UCLA Medical Center

Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, July of 2011

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