CANTON, Ga. - Dusty Kirby is so ready for this next big step his life.
"It's a long time coming,” Kirby says. "I would push a button right now and make it happen, if I could."
For nearly a decade, the 32-year old Canton, Georgia, Navy vet and father of four has been trying to put the pain of a sniper's bullet behind him. Now, that dream seems within reach.
Kirby recently got a letter, confirming a team of New York City surgeons with a program called Marine Assist will repair his badly-damaged mouth and jaw.
Kirby was just 23 when, while pulling guard duty with a Marine Unit in Iraq, he was shot in the face.
It was Christmas Day, 2006.
"I was hit with a high-powered sniper rifle,” Kirby says, pointing at his chin. "It impacted right here, and made contact the middle of my tongue, and then blew my jaw out here.”
The bullet shattered Kirby’s lower face and mouth.
"I'm missing about a third of my tongue,” he says.
Military trauma surgeons saved Kirby's life, and over the last ten years, he’s endured over 30 operations.
"I didn't want to leave my house, when it first happened. I didn't want to leave my house,” he says. "Over time, though, I still reverted back to, 'People are looking at me, people are looking at me, people are looking at me.'”
A few months after he was shot, the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation invited Kirby to New York to a benefit for wounded warriors.
His mom Gail Kirby says she wanted to hear all about it.
“He's like, 'I stayed here. I did this. We met this person. And, by the way, these dentists said if I'm not happy with what the military does, they will take care of me,” she remembers. “And I said, 'Really?'"
Then, life went on. Nine years went by. Dusty left the Navy, came home to Georgia, and grew a beard.
"It doesn't completely cover up what's going on, but it makes me feel more comfortable,” he says.
But he's struggled with a traumatic brain injury, PTSD and painful headaches.
"With my jaw being, dipped in right here, this joint is offset,” he says. “ And because it's offset, it puts a lot of stress on me when I talk, when I eat, just moving my neck."
Gradually, he feels like his smile is falling apart.
"I'm losing teeth again,” he says. “It's harder and harder to keep up with them."
Last Fall, Kirby finally asked his mom for help. Right away, Gail remembered the New York doctors and their offer 9 years earlier.
But, would they still remember Dusty? The answer, yes.
"When I sent them an email, it was awesome,” Gail says. “I still have the email. 8 minutes later, 'Don't worry, Mama. We've got this.’ And they have had it. Every step of the way.”
Dr. David Hirsch,Director of Oral Oncology and Reconstruction, New York Head and Neck Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital, is part of the volunteer team with Marine Assist who will help Kirby.
"Look, here is a guy who put his life on the line for us,” says Dr. Hirsch.
The Navy vet will undergo his first surgery Monday, April 18th at Manhattan’s NorthWell Lenox Hill Hospital. Hirsch and the team will rebrake and reposition both sides of Kirby’s jaw to improve the alignment. This surgery will allow the team to replace his missing teeth down the road. After that, a plastic surgeon will repair some of the soft-tissue damage to improve Kirby’s appearance.
Hirsch says he was “riveted” by Dusty Kirby’s story. And he says he and the team are grateful for the chance to help him move on with his life.
"This is something we do every day,” says Dr. Hirsch. “But, I think this is even more special. For someone I think we can really help. I'd be willing to do anything, I'd do it anywhere."
The surgeries could allow Dusty Kirby to smile again, for the first time, without hurting.
"He has a beautiful smile,” Gail Kirby says. “I miss that smile."
Dusty Kirby feels hopeful the surgeries can improve his function, making it easier to eat and talk and laugh.
For him, Monday can’t come soon enough.
"I'm mentally prepared, I'm spiritually prepared, I'm about as physically prepared as I could possibly be,” Kirby says.
The Marine Assist program will pay all of Kirby’s surgical costs. The only thing he will have to pay for is his hospital stays after the operations.
Gail Kirby says Congressman Tom Graves helped them quickly secure a veteran-based insurance plan that will cover his hospitalizations.
She says she’s not surprised by the kindness extended to her son.
“I truly believe people want to be as good as they can be, all of the time,” she says.
For more information about Marine Assist go to: marine-assist.org