Hidden benefits Little-known perk available to military members and dependents
Sunday, September 18, 2005
By Carrie MacMillan,

free cosmetic surgery. Active military members can receive free procedures such as nose jobs, tummy tucks, liposuction and face lifts. Their dependents and retired military members pay only a surgical fee for cosmetic operations. The fee, which varies by geographic region, can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

But few, including local recruiters, veterans and enlisted soldiers, know about this benefit. The Department of Defense argues that the free cosmetic surgery program helps them recruit and retain plastic surgeons at military hospitals.

Of the four branches of the military, all have plastic surgeons on staff with the exception of the Marines. The Army has 18 active duty plastic surgeons, the Navy has seven and the Air Force has eight. They are largely employed to correct disfiguring injuries suffered in wartime. Purely cosmetic surgeries comprise less than 1 percent of all surgeries performed annually in military hospitals, said Capt. Patricia Buss, a plastic surgeon in the Navy Medical Corps.

"It's not happening a lot right now with all the soldiers coming home from Iraq," said Buss. Cosmetic procedures must be performed in military treatment facilities, and active duty members of the military must first get clearance from their commanding officer.

The most recent data from the military on cosmetic surgeries is from 2003. That year, the top procedure was sclerotherapy, or the removal of spider veins. A total of 1,673 such procedures were performed. There were 384 liposuctions, 288 abdominoplasties (tummy tucks), 261 breast augmentations and 135 face lifts.

For breast augmentation, or anything that might require implants, those undergoing the procedure must purchase their own implants, which cost $500 to $1,000, Buss said.

By comparison, a breast augmentation typically costs $7,000 in the Waterbury area, and a face lift costs $11,000, said Dr. Wilfred Brown, a plastic surgeon in Middlebury.

The military's allowance of free aesthetic surgery, which dates back to at least the 1980s, has created controversy over the years. After media reports of the practice in 1990 created a large amount of negative feedback from the public, it was prohibited. At the time, the military had surgical residency programs for plastic surgery, ophthalmology, dermatology, oral surgery and ear nose and throat.

"All of those residencies require the trainees get some exposure to cosmetic surgery," said Buss. The programs suffered from lack of cosmetic procedures, and as a result, the program was reinstated in 1992 with the allowance of a "limited number" per year, she said.

Plus, it would be difficult to retain plastic surgeons if their responsibilities excluded cosmetic surgery, since they would have a hard time seeking future jobs in private practice without such experience, Buss said.

"Reconstructive surgery often uses the same techniques as cosmetic," Buss said. "You may only get a few horrible broken noses in a year and you don't want one of those to be your first opportunity. But if you have been doing rhinoplasty, it keeps you in practice."

Brown disagrees with this reasoning.

"It should be the reverse," he said. "Reconstructive surgery helps you become a good plastic surgeon. That's usually the evolution, not the other way around. And if it's purely cosmetic, why should someone else pay for it? If they leave the military two years later, I don't think it's good to have taxpayers paying for it."

Of several local recruiters and reserve units contacted, only one had heard of the cosmetic surgery offering. Army Sgt. Warren Steele, a recruiter in Torrington, said he knows a female recruiter who had liposuction. But he said cosmetic surgery is not something he mentions to recruit candidates.

"There's no connection between plastic surgery and recruiting," said Douglas Smith, a spokesperson for the Army Recruiting Command at Ft. Knox, Tenn. "It's such a limited thing and it would be totally inappropriate for us (to use in recruiting)."

Marv Kinnel, a Waterbury resident who served in the Navy for more than 9 years, said he was aware of simple cosmetic procedures, such as fixing chipped teeth, removing excessive tattoos or clearing up bad acne. "I've heard of it just to fix different things, but not to make you look like a movie star," he said.

Some argue that military members deserve any extra perks they can get. "Being in the military is not an easy life," said Al Hemingway of Waterbury, who served in the Marine Corps. "I think they should get a few perks we don't have in civilian life."


1. Sclerotherapy (removal of spider veins): 1,673

2. Chemical peel (to reduce signs of aging): 965

3. Hair removal (part of this is from soldiers who suffer from razor bumps caused by shaving that require laser hair removal): 862

4. Blepharoplasty (eye lid surgery): 734

5. Dermabrasion (refining skin to eliminate scars and fine lines): 561

6. Liposuction: 384

7. Abdominoplasty (tummy tuck): 288

8. Breast augmentation: 261

9. Otoplasty (correction of ear size): 182

10 Face lift: 135