TOPICS > Health

Soldier Discusses How He Copes with His Reconstructed Face

October 11, 2006 at 6:05 PM EDT

SUSAN DENTZER: Jeffrey, I’d like to start off by talking about your background, how it is that you came to be in the Army, what your aspirations were for going into the military

JEFFREY MITTMAN: I originally joined right after high school, I graduated high school in ’88 and went to college for a year. I decided to join the military. I thought it was a good thing to do and it allowed me to pay for school, for college. At that point, I wasn’t planning on making it a career. Once I got in and had joined the Army and I found that I really enjoyed it. I think it was the lifestyle. I enjoyed the camaraderie and brotherhood of the men in my company. I changed my mind about getting out and ended up deciding probably about 3 years into it to make a career out of it. And that’s where it took me, so that’s where I went.

SUSAN DENTZER: And you went around the world with the US Army.

JEFFREY MITTMAN: My first duty station was in Germany. I spent two years there. I was at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, I spent three or four years there. I spent about five years in Fort Benning, Georgia. Then I went back to Fort Campbell actually, and was at Fort Campbell when I went to Afghanistan in 2002. Then I was in Iraq in 2003 on into 2004. And then back to New York about two years ago and then went back to Iraq again in 2005.

SUSAN DENTZER: You were in combat in the first Gulf War and in Afghanistan and then in Iraq twice.

SUSAN DENTZER: Now what point along the way did you two meet?

CHRISTY MITTMAN: I’ll let you take that one.

JEFFREY MITTMAN: I had a friend of mine in high school and Christy was a friend of his younger sister’s. We actually met in my parent’s kitchen, in Indianapolis. We’d gone to high school together growing up, 2 or 3 blocks apart and didn’t know each other. But we met immediately after me joining the Army, about 3 months.

CHRISTY MITTMAN: Stayed in touch.

JEFFREY MITTMAN: Stayed in touch and here we are 17 years later. So I guess it’s worked out fairly well.

SUSAN DENTZER: So you all have been married then how long?

JEFFREY MITTMAN: Thirteen years.

SUSAN DENTZER: You were married when he was in Afghanistan, Christy, and then the two times in Iraq. What did you think through those deployments?

CHRISTY MITTMAN: Well with the first deployment, I was pregnant with our second child, so he actually missed her being born by three weeks. So I was kind of busy with, you know our first child, being pregnant again. But you just support him, do what you have to do to, to get through it and you know you move on with things, so you just wait for their phone calls, wait for their emails and send them in the mail whatever they needed and just wait for them to come home.

SUSAN DENTZER: Did you always know in the back of your mind that something might happen?

CHRISTY MITTMAN: You try not to think about it. You know it’s there, but you just, you try not to think about it because if you dwell on the negatives then it’s just downhill. So you just, you try to stay positive and you, like I said, you look forward to the phone calls and the emails to make sure that they’re okay and just you know keep asking, when are you coming home? When are you coming home? Have you heard yet? So then you just, you look forward to that and you just, you don’t think about what might happen or what could happen, cause you know it didn’t happen the first three times. So . . . you just never know.

Re-deployment to Iraq

SUSAN DENTZER: So 2005 arrives, and you're on your second deployment to Iraq, Jeffrey. What happened?

JEFFREY MITTMAN:I went back to Iraq in March of 2005. And I was injured in July of the same year

SUSAN DENTZER: And that was July 7th.


SUSAN DENTZER: The same day as the London bombings.


SUSAN DENTZER: Tell us what happened that day.

JEFFREY MITTMAN: I don't remember anything after July 4th, because I was hurt. I guess I was knocked out. I was an advisor for an Iraqi unit. I was on the way to meet my Iraqi unit and go on a mission with them that morning. I was hit by an improvised explosive device in Baghdad and was knocked out immediately. And I woke up in Walter Reed, actually about 30 days later, about a month later. And I have no memory whatsoever of the actual incident, so the only information I have is from my peers that were with me and their action report and everything. So as far as memories, I have no memories of the incident.

SUSAN DENTZER: You were in a Humvee at the time of the attack?

JEFFREY MITTMAN:I was in a Humvee, I was actually driving that day. And the IED blew. A projectile came through my window and it caused my injuries. Knocked me out, immediately, obviously. And caused all my facial injuries. Took my nose, my lips, most of my teeth and damaged my right arm. Took my index finger. And caused all my injuries immediately right there. And, I went off the road into a canal. My interpreter was actually riding in the vehicle with me and came around. He was, he suffered some minor injuries but he was able to get out, come around and pull me out and he actually got me out of the vehicle and protected me while the other Americans were moving towards me.

SUSAN DENTZER: Now the fact that you lost some of your memory suggests that you also have some kind of a mild brain injury. Do you know?

JEFFREY MITTMAN: No, I believe it was just the concussion of the explosion as it came through the vehicle. Knocked me out and there was, I have the memory loss of the incident, but other than that I have the, I've escaped without any traumatic brain injury. So I function as normally as I did prior to the injury. So I was very lucky in that aspect.

SUSAN DENTZER: So Christy, when did you hear that Jeff had been injured?

CHRISTY MITTMAN: They called me on that Thursday morning, it was about 7:30 in the morning and asked me if you know Jeffrey Mittman was my husband and if this was his social security number and I said yes. And you know, they said well we need to let you know that you know he was seriously injured or very, they called it a VSI, very seriously injured. They said that that was the, the worst category that they could classify him as except for being dead. So they told me very generally that he had major facial trauma, and a right hand injury and that he was in the operating room. And other than that they couldn't tell me anything else. They were still trying to get information.

So it was a bad day. So you know I immediately you know called everybody and you know told them what happened and you know, the kids were still sleeping because it was summertime. You know there was no need to get up early and you know tried to turn on the news to see you know what I could you know find out if there was any you know news coming out of Baghdad, but everything was coming out of London that day, so there was nothing coming out of Iraq that day. So we sat and watched the, the London bombings and the craziness going on over there. So you know we just kind of waited by the phone to see what else they could tell me.

The injury

SUSAN DENTZER: Were they able to give you any details about the injury?

CHRISTY MITTMAN: No, I actually didn't find out really any more information about his injuries until he got to Landstuhl in Germany and that was actually Friday afternoon. So it was about 36 hours later that I found out the full extent of his injuries. And then had to wait and until he got to Walter Reed in Washington, DC to see him. So it was a long weekend.

SUSAN DENTZER: What did they tell you?

CHRISTY MITTMAN: They told me that he had lost his left eye, that it was gone. They weren't you know sure about his right eye yet and they told me that basically he had lost most of his face. And that he had a right hand injury that more than likely you know he would lose his index finger, but that they weren't sure about any others. But you know that it was, it was pretty bad and that he had mild burns on his left arm. So you know they, the way they made it sound you know when I finally did see him it wasn't as bad as I had pictured in my mind. It was still bad, trust me, but it was not as you know his, you know when you tell someone they don't have a face anymore, you know you think no skin, no you know, no anything but you know it was, his nose and his lips and you know still several broken bones that you know were obvious you know just you know by the way that his face was shaped now, so it was pretty bad.

SUSAN DENTZER: What was going through your head?

CHRISTY MITTMAN: It was get to the hospital and see him. You know that was, it was just tunnel vision. Get to the hospital, make sure that he's okay. And you know for the first couple of weeks, that all it was, making sure that you know they were taking care of him, you know. Not that I would know if they were doing something wrong, but just you know being there with him, just letting them know you know that I was there. But you know it, it didn't matter you know whether you know he had lost a leg or you know his face.

The nurse sat there with me the whole first night and um, he told me, he said you know, he said 30 years ago, like in Vietnam, he said more than likely your husband would not have made it off the battlefield. He said that he's here and he goes, I've seen it. They will get him looking almost perfectly the way that he did before he got hurt. And I called them liars. You know I called him a liar to his face. And he goes, I'm serious. He goes, I can bring people in and show you that have had injuries, not quite the same but you know just as bad and uh he said you know they're getting better. He goes, it'll take time, but it will get better. And you know slowly but surely you know he didn't have a nose three months ago and he does now. So you know it's, it's getting better.

SUSAN DENTZER: So they're not liars. What would you call them today?

CHRISTY MITTMAN: Angels from God. That's what I would call them because they, they're you know they are a special group of people who have the imagination that can you know plastic surgeons I have decided are a whole different breed of people because you know other doctors would be like, ah, I don't know if we can do that, you know, plastic surgeons will just kind of look at you and be like, oh yeah, we can take pieces, parts from here and you know we'll, we'll make it fit. So you know they, they just figure out ways to, to do it and, and they do it.

SUSAN DENTZER: So Jeff, you wake up in Walter Reed. What do you think?

JEFFREY MITTMAN: Well the first thing, I realized it was Christy standing there next to me. I'd woken up. My first remembering was her standing there, I was trying to figure out what she was doing in Baghdad and I couldn't speak. I had a trach[eotomy] and I couldn't see at all from my left eye and you know obviously all the vision, I lost my right eye, but I guess after being married for 13 years I could tell it was her. So I just remember being confused and I remember her telling me, you're in Walter Reed in Washington DC and I was thinking to myself, I thought Walter Reed was in Virginia. So I was, I think I was a little bit confused and I believe the first three or four times I woke up, she had to explain to me.

SUSAN DENTZER: When do you feel that you were aware enough that you understood what they were telling you about your injuries?

JEFFREY MITTMAN: Maybe a little later, 12th, 13th of August. Probably about 5 or 6 days after I woke up. I just remember being kind of confused a little bit and then I slowly, like the fog lifted. And I remember I said, hey I got hurt. So uh, it was probably 5 or 6 days maybe. I'm just guessing.

SUSAN DENTZER: And what did they tell you and what did you understand had happened to you at that point?

CHRISTY MITTMAN: Well Christy actually explained everything to me. She sat there and explained, she just told me, honey listen you lost your nose, you lost your lips, you lost most of your teeth and most of your eyesight. And I don't ever remember, I don't remember being mad, I don't remember being sad. I was like well, you know, just okay. I was really, I don't really remember being upset about it. It was just almost like instant acceptance at that point. That's the way it is. So you know of course I had questions about well, will my vision come back or anything, but other than that, no.


SUSAN DENTZER: So let's walk through what's been done to you in the more than a year now since this happened.

JEFFREY MITTMAN: It's been I guess 14 months, almost 14 months. I believe immediately after being injured obviously they did quite a few emergency surgeries on me, quite a few exploratory surgeries on me prior to moving me to Germany. In Germany they continued a few more surgeries, just lifesaving stuff to make sure I was stabilized. And once I arrived at Walter Reed, that's when they had to clean my hand I believe every other day for a month. I had reconstructive surgery on my face where they actually replaced some of the bone, wired my jaw, put the metal plates in my cheeks and my jaw to hold everything in place. Added quite a bit of hardware to my hand to try to um, stabilize my, my arm and my hand.

Eye surgery, reconstructed my left eye. So I believe probably that first month I probably had 15 or 20 surgeries I imagine within the first month. Now since then I've started my plastic surgeries, reconstruction of my nose, they reconstructed my nose and they're going to start shaping the nose and so I can look like a normal nose and then my lips. They worked on my lips and I've had quite a few more surgeries on my arm and my hand and I have a few of those left also. So overall I believe I probably had 20, 25 surgeries, around there. So it's quite a bit of work.

SUSAN DENTZER: And the way they reconstructed your nose is really a fascinating story. Let's tell that story.

JEFFREY MITTMAN: They originally took a forearm flap, this is a flap from my left forearm and implanted it in my face and let that heal up for about 2 to 3 months and then my second plastic surgery came and they took cartilage from my ribs and skin off my forehead and constructed the nose itself. Each surgery took about 10 to 12 hours. And the follow-on surgeries is when they actually start shaping it. The first two were just to construct it. Let it take place and let it sit and heal, make sure the blood supply takes hold and then the cosmetic aspect of it will come later.

SUSAN DENTZER: Looking at you now, we see a wound on your forehead and we can see a scar. Is that where they took the skin?

JEFFREY MITTMAN: They took that skin from my forehead to cover my nose. All this is from my forehead so when I actually touch here, it really feels like my forehead. It feels like I'm touching here. I've got a ton of cross circuits all over. So even when I, cause they took it and they clipped it. So when I move up like this, it feels like I'm moving down my forehead. And the opposite is true also. You can also see the hairline here which will be, they'll correct that also again in some of the procedures.

SUSAN DENTZER: Because actually in pulling it down they pulled the nerves and everything else down.

JEFFREY MITTMAN: They pulled everything down. My artery, they ran an artery down and so it's uh, it's just like my hand. When they took my index finger, they folded my skin back over my hand so when you touch the back of my right hand, it feels like my index finger which no longer exists. So it's a little hard at first but you get used to it.

SUSAN DENTZER: And as you said a moment ago, Christy, a few months ago he didn't have a nose, now he has a nose. What do you think when you watch all this?

CHRISTY MITTMAN: It's amazing what they can do. It's just absolutely amazing. You know you listen to the plastic surgeons and oh, we're going to take a piece from here and we're going to take skin from here and you know we're just going to mix everything together and you know boom, he'll have a nose. You know you just wonder how they even came up with you know you can take part of a rib and then take skin from its forehead and you know all of that. But I mean you, you can see the progress that he's making and, and that's just wonderful. So it, it's nice to you know he's, he's got a profile again for, for quite awhile he didn't have a profile.

JEFFREY MITTMAN: I have to watch how I take corners now.

SUSAN DENTZER: As we talked, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA has been looking into this question about whether there should be this so-called virtual face project. I'm wondering what you think about the advisability of that, of having some major project because tens of millions of dollars would be expended on that to look at even more advanced ways of treating people in your situation.

JEFFREY MITTMAN: Well obviously the advances need to be made and they will be made. Anything that's going to do, assist the recovery of a soldier needs to be done. If it assists a soldier in his return to a productive life, it should be done.

SUSAN DENTZER: I want to talk a bit more about your vision and your blindness. How, how do you feel that is going to affect you going forward?

JEFFREY MITTMAN: Obviously you know it's a physical handicap, it limits me. I can't, I can no longer obviously operate a vehicle or drive or any of that. Luckily I have enough grainy vision that I can move around fairly well in my home, you know around my immediate environment without hurting myself. I'm fairly mobile. And going to the Blind Rehabilitation Center has helped me quite a bit with that mobility. Cane training, GPS training from the Veterans Administration, has been a big help.

The GPS system is built into a PDA and it has a GPS antenna and I have to press a button and it'll you know tell me where I'm at. So it assists quite a bit with mobility for somebody who's visually impaired. It gives the independence that you might have lost with losing your sight. And I'm still young. I still want to work, when I retire and go forward and so any technology that assists me in that then I'll be happy to learn and move forward with to continue on in my next career.

SUSAN DENTZER: What is your goal in terms of becoming employed again?

JEFFREY MITTMAN: My goals once I recover and I'm actually retired from the military, currently are to continue my education. I'm within a year of my bachelor's degree and then I enjoy school so I'm actually considering with my benefits that I'm going to, what I'll do when I retire is continue on and pursue an advanced degree. What field I decide to get that in, I haven't decided that yet. But the way I'm leaning right now is continuing my education once I do retire.

SUSAN DENTZER: How much longer do you think you will be undergoing surgical treatment to restore your face?

JEFFREY MITTMAN: It will be at least another year before most of that will be completed and then I have quite a bit of dental work that's going to be needed, that's going to need to be done. I have some other minor injuries, such as a knee injury and some more work to be done on my hand. So it's, it's probably going to be a couple more years before I'm completely put back together again.

SUSAN DENTZER: And how about your spirits? I can think of what all the people I know, what you know certain things would bug certain people more than others. I can think of marathon runners that would just you know be beside themselves if they lost a leg. How do you take this emotionally and psychologically?

JEFFREY MITTMAN: I never really remember being upset. The only time I remember being upset is about a week after I had woken up is when the, the doctors told me I wouldn't regain any of my vision. It just so happened that same day I found out a friend of mine had died, had been killed in Iraq and I was upset, I was upset anyway when I'd gone to the doctors and then I found out I wouldn't regain any vision. And I was, you know, I was down, for a couple of hours. And then I realized that even with all my injuries and with my blindness and the recovery period I have to go through, I'm still better off than, you know not being here at all. So from that point forward, to me it's just looking ahead.

I say look, and I can't see ahead, but looking ahead to the future because you know it could have been a lot worse than it is. And you know I, I have friends where it was a lot worse for them. So that alone really keeps my spirits up, and of course Christy's just been phenomenal in this, and the support system that I have with my family and my friends who came to me and just get my spirits up. And you know we all have our down days, but as far as depression or any dramatic thing, I think I keep a fairly positive attitude.

I think I've dealt fairly well with the emotional and psychological problems that other people run into. Again all that's got to do with Christy and the kids and it's got to be easier for me being a little older I believe. You see some young kids get hurt and they probably have a little more trouble. Christy and I have been married awhile and we have a home and are already established, so that support system's in place for me already I believe. So it's easier on me than some other people.

The virtual face

SUSAN DENTZER: Well I just want to close by asking you a little bit more about literally physically how your new face is operating for you these days. So you got your nose and when you touch it as you said earlier it feels like you're touching your forehead. You don't have a sense of smell so and you won't, right?

JEFFREY MITTMAN: Not that I know of. Right now I have an opening in the right side which is my actual nostril and I can breathe through that when I try. But that'll be opened up and I'll be able to breathe through that. On the left side will be what we call a false pocket and it'll appear to be a nostril but it actually will not be an actual opening inside the nose. So other than that it'll, it'll look like a regular nose.

SUSAN DENTZER: And your lips --what, what kind of sensation do you have there?

JEFFREY MITTMAN: My lower lip is numb and my upper lip I don't have total control over. I couldn't push my lips out right now if I wanted. And I can't feel so when my nose runs I really don't have any sensation. I'm kind of numb on the lips because you know my lips were actually blown off my face. So I have a lot of numbness there. But you know it makes it a little hard to eat and a little hard to drink. So I drink through a straw, everything I drink is through a straw. But it's functional now.

SUSAN DENTZER: Do you still have your sense of taste?

JEFFREY MITTMAN: Some. In fact my sense of taste is also affected. In fact I really don't taste sweets so I don't taste you know candy. I really don't have any taste, taste salt with it. All the sweet things I really don't taste. Spices, well I can put a lot of hot sauce on food now. But again, you know, candy or cookies or brownies whatever, I don't eat because I can't taste.

SUSAN DENTZER: And your teeth, you lost three-quarters of them.

JEFFREY MITTMAN: Somewhere around there. Half to three-quarters, something like that.

SUSAN DENTZER: And you're going to get some dental implants.

JEFFREY MITTMAN: Right, right. After all the plastic surgery is done, they'll have to go in and do some grafts on my gum line and I'll probably receive dental implants you know which is a long drawn out process in and of itself. So that'll take place following all my plastic surgery. So it's kind of in stages. I'll have the plastic surgery done also because of all the damage to my mouth and face. And so when that's healed, done and healed, then I'll move to the dental procedures.

SUSAN DENTZER: And then back for a moment to your vision. You have some peripheral vision out of one eye.

JEFFREY MITTMAN: Yeah, I don't see at all out of the left eye. That's completely blind. My right eye, my central vision is blocked out so I see peripherally out of my right eye. I see uh, to the right and down and to the right. So when I, to look at something I have to actually look at the left, to the left of it. And uh, what I do see is not exactly clear.

SUSAN DENTZER: You see blurry images?

JEFFREY MITTMAN: I see kind of shapes and colors. Uh, I can't make out a face more than 12 inches or 18 inches. I can see somebody standing 3 or 4 feet from me but I can't make out what their face looks like unless I'm really close. So it doesn't allow me to read without adaptive technology like close circuit TV or magnifiers.

SUSAN DENTZER: Tell me about your relationship with the kids -- how they have responded to you, how you feel about them.

JEFFREY MITTMAN: My children are absolutely amazing. When I was in the hospital, after I woke up, I guess Christy had the kids fly out with my in-laws to Washington DC and Christy picked them up at the airport. She had talked to them, she'd taken them to the hotel prior to running to the hospital. Because they, they hadn't seen me. They hadn't seen a picture of me or anything. And she sat them down and she talked to them, and said, 'Daddy got hurt. This happened to Daddy, you know he's missing his nose, he's missing his lips, he can't see.' And she showed them pictures of me. And I was obviously quite a bit worse off than I am now and she sat them down and talked to them, saying, 'It's still Daddy. You know Daddy got hurt but you know it's still Daddy. It's the same guy.' And when they got to the hospital I was sitting in the chair in my room. And u they walked in the room and you know I, I couldn't see but I saw a little shape and a little bit bigger shape. So I knew it was my kids.

And I said, 'Hi, babies!' And they both come running over and gave me a hug and that was it. They started teasing me, started playing with me, wanted me to chase them. I think Peyton wanted to play hide and go seek. But I didn't think she caught on that I couldn't find her at all if I tried. They were 8 and 3 at the time. And their adjustment was almost automatic. Since I spoke, and they realized that's Dad, that was it. There was no you know, no fear, no apprehension whatsoever. It makes it easier on me, and that's part of the reason I think I've adjusted as well as I have, because of a 3 year old and an 8 year old. So they they've been wonderful.

It's not the end of the world, you know you have to, you have to keep going. You know you take from my experience where you can and realize that, uh, there's always tomorrow.

CHRISTY MITTMAN: Like I tell people, he may look a little bit different but you know, he's getting better you know and he'll be back to him, you know his almost normal self you know soon. So you know it, it could be worse, you know he could be in the ground. So you know we'll take what we can get and go fix it slowly, but surely, you know, it's not the end of the world. You just, you deal with it and you move on and accept what's happened and you know, leave it at that.