HIGH WYCOMBE, England - Liam Palmer says his dream is to serve in the British Army. But the military won't accept the 21-year old with gaping holes in his earlobes from ear piercings, followed by stretching the skin with plugs.
"I don't regret it. [Wearing ear plugs] was just a part of who I was," Palmer says about his younger counter-culture days of gelled hair, skinny jeans and ear plugs - also known as ear gauges or "tribal" ear piercings.
Doctors says once ears like Palmer's are stretched past half-an-inch in diameter, they won't shrink back or close up. Cutting away the excess skin is the only way to fix them. So Palmer had cosmetic surgery to reshape his earlobes. Plastic surgeon Adrian Richards says the procedure involves removing the excess stretched ear tissue and using internal and external stitches in the earlobe to recreate a more normal shape.
Surgeons numb the ear for the approximately 40-minute operation, but the patient stays awake. Cosmetic techniques can vary, but doctors say patients end up with a well-hidden scar along the natural contour of the reconstructed earlobe.
Palmer isn't the only one going under the knife. Richards, who performed Palmer's operation, says he's seen a surge in the number of surgeries in the past year due to the negative stigma surrounding what he calls "flash tunnels."
"We've had guys in the Army threatened with discharge if they don't have their ears repaired," says Richards, director at Aurora Clinics. He says he sees about ten new patients a month asking about the procedure, ranging from a golf pro to clergy members, school teachers to soldiers.
The U.S Army announced a crackdown on piercings larger than a standard earring on its troops in May. The Army's website highlights a new regulation banning soldiers from, "willfully mutilating the body... including... ear gauging (enlarging holes in the ear lobes greater than 1.6mm)."
Earlobe reconstruction surgery is more prevalent in the U.K. than in the United States, says Dr. Michael Edwards, president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. But he says surgeons in cities like Los Angeles and Seattle are carrying out the repair procedure. "Patients realize [ear gauges] are not becoming in terms of job hunting or work - sort of like tattoos," Edwards says.
Edwards says the surgery can range from $1,500 to $3,000 in the United States. In the U.K., the operation can average a little over $3,000.
After the surgery, Liam Palmer told CBS News he hopes changing his appearance will pay off. "This is for the Army, [I am] one step closer," he says. Palmer's bandages will come off in about a week. Then, he says, it is up to him, to make the cut to make his military dream come true.
Follow Alphonso Van Marsh on Twitter: @AlphonsoVM