CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — A Fort Bragg soldier injured more than six years ago in a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan is breathing easier after a free surgery to repair his nose, which was damaged when he slammed into a machine gun.
Shannon Cruz, 40, of Fayetteville admired his new nose earlier this week in the mirror at a plastic surgeon's office in Chapel Hill, who operated on the chief warrant officer as part of a program called Faces of Honor.
"It was weird. I didn't realize how bad it was. I got accustomed to not being able to breathe out of the left side," said Cruz, who has served nine tours of duty in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Bosnia. "It's like getting a shot of oxygen."
Cruz was in the Air Force when the Taliban attacked his team in Uruzgan province. The enemy attacked with a Soviet heavy machine gun, disabling their vehicle and blowing out its tires. He slammed into an M240 machine gun, which weighs about 35 pounds. The impact not only broke the bone in his nose but moved the cartilage so that his left nostril was blocked, leaving him unable to breathe through that side.
A military doctor operated on Cruz in 2006, but within six months the problem returned, Cruz said. He became accustomed to waking up several times a night, unable to breathe, and his wife adjusted to a husband with a serious snoring problem.
Just a few weeks ago, a mental health counselor at Womack Army Hospital at Fort Bragg told Cruz about Faces of Honor, a program operated by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. It's an offshoot of the academy's program Face to Face, which helps victims of domestic violence.
Faces of Honor, which the academy began in 2009, provides free medical and surgical help to veterans who injured their face or neck in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Dr. Charles Finn, a member of the Face to Face steering committee, was able to schedule Cruz's surgery quickly because another patient had canceled. The doctor operated Nov. 2 and removed Cruz's bandages Thursday — just in time for Veterans Day, which is Sunday.
Cruz's surgery was more complicated than many because he had significant trauma and because the previous surgery left a layer of scar tissue, Finn said.
"It was an impressive degree of obstruction," Finn said. Few people would have suffered with such severe breathing problems for years as Cruz did, he said.
Cruz was Finn's first patient under the Faces of Honor program, although he said he's performed free surgery for domestic violence victims for 17 years. He also participates in the academy's international program, in which surgeons operate on patients overseas and train doctors in countries such as China and Guatemala.
"Doing something that allows you to give back gives meaning to your life and career," said Finn, whose father served in the 101st Airborne Division. "Having a chance to give back to these guys is just priceless for us."
Cruz, a married father of two, said he hopes other troops take advantage of the program.
"I'm humbled because I know people who have way more injuries than I have that could really benefit from their work," he said.
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc