The first time I saw Paul Statzer, I didn't know his name or what had happened to him, except that he had been badly wounded in Iraq. It was one of the days when wounded soldiers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center are brought over to the Pentagon for a tour of the building.
It's always very moving because people line the hallways and applaud as the soldiers, many of them in wheelchairs, and their families go by. I noticed Statzer because he was wearing a goofy-looking helmet and seemed unsteady on his feet, enough so that I thought someone reaching out to shake his hand might knock him over.
A couple weeks later Bob Schieffer called to tell me about a weekend trip he had made to Walter Reed with Sen. John McCain to meet some of the wounded. Bob said I just had to do a story about one young soldier who looked like half his head had been blown away yet was expected to make a full recovery.
It took a while to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops that you have to jump through to get a camera into Walter Reed, but finally, one day last August, I met Paul Statzer, who I instantly recognized from the Pentagon hallway because he was still wearing that goofy helmet, although he no longer seemed unsteady on his feet.
I was sure Bob had been using a little poetic license when he described how much of Statzer's head was missing. But when I saw for myself, it just took my breath away, not only because the wound was so disfiguring, but also because I just couldn't understand how a person who had suffered such a severe head wound could seem all there mentally.
The helmet is gone now and his head has its normal shape back. Surgeons made his head whole again by inserting an acrylic implant to take the place of the skull bone he had lost. He'll need more surgery to reconstruct his eye socket, but the improvement in his appearance has been so dramatic that the eye seems like a minor detail. He himself says "it's no big deal."
As for his mental abilities, he did suffer brain damage. Specifically, he lost part of his frontal lobe, an area of the brain that controls speech and memory. But over the past several months, I have spent a lot of time talking to Statzer and only twice has he had trouble finding the right word.
One of his doctors says he tests "a bit below baseline" for someone of his age and education level. He also has suffered one seizure, which is a scary, but a common complication of brain damage that can be controlled with medication.
You can't say doctors have made Paul Statzer good as new, but if you were to walk by him in a shopping mall you would no longer do a double-take and have no idea what he's been through.