Retired CIA agent uses spy skills for new healing mission

ASHBURN, Va. -- To the naked eye it's nearly impossible to tell what has Eric Brenner so excited. For the first time in his life, the 12-year-old has looked in the mirror and seen himself with a right ear.

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Eric Brenner, 12, admires the new prosthetic ear built by Robert Barron
CBS News

"It's really awesome," said Eric, admiring his new ear. "Even I can't tell."

That's the ultimate measure of success for Robert Barron -- the man who designed Eric's prosthetic.

It's something he's used to because Barron's designs are fit for spies - literally. In his previous life, Barron was an undercover agent, creating disguises for the Central Intelligence Agency.

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Bob Barron stands in front of the Berlin Wall during the time served for CIA
BOB BARRON

"I tinted silicone to look like skin, that was my forte," Barron told me.

For 15 years, he crafted silicone masks for operatives working incognito around the world.

"Agents depended upon on the realism of that disguise, because if that disguise attracted attention in a negative way, then their lives were in jeopardy," said Barron.

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A child displays the prosthetic ear built by Bob Barron
BOB BARRON

But in 1983, he went undercover to a biomedical sculptors' conference to learn some new tricks of the trade. It was a mission that changed his life.

"I saw the disfigurements of people without a nose, without eyes, without ears," he told me. "I said, 'Bob, if you can put people in hiding you can bring these people out of hiding.'"

Nine years later, he retired. And today works out of his Ashburn, Va., studio where he sees patients from around the world, rebuilding eyes, ears and lives.

Barron showed us his brag box - it's what he shows new patients on their first visit. Inside was a full face mask that he made for a burn survivor.

Barron says he treasures his 24 years at the CIA because it led him to people like Eric.

"That's all I need to see is when a patient walks out of that door, they have that genuine smile on their face," Barron said.

A smile from ear to ear.

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    Julianna Goldman is a CBS News correspondent based in the Washington bureau.