By Isaac Cubillos
SAN DIEGO — Camp Pendleton has always been the place where Marines are made tough and where retraining makes them even tougher. It’s especially true for those Marines who are learning how to improvise, adapt and overcome the loss of a limb—or limbs.
Some of these Marines are so driven to excel despite their injuries they have been selected to be part of the All-Marine Warrior Team that will participate in the upcoming Warrior Games from May 16 to 27 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
The All-Marine Warrior Games Team is made up of injured Marines who will compete in various events such as swimming, cycling, shooting and track and field. To gear up for these Olympic-style events, some Pendleton Wounded Warriors are checking their equipment and getting tuned up. That means they turn to the best prosthetics technicians the military has to offer.At the Naval Medical Center San Diego’s Comprehensive Combat Casualty Care Center—or C5, as it is known—a team of prosthetists works to give the Marines the best.
The artificial limbs are made of carbon fiber, titanium steel, hydraulics and high-grade aircraft aluminum. Others, that are still in research and development, contain computer microprocessors, Bluetooth technology and batteries to help produce the energy.
The socket—the piece that connects the Marine with his artificial limb—is the key, said Peter Harsch, chief prosthetist at C5.
“You can have the most sophisticated prosthesis, the most expensive knee or hip joint, but if it doesn’t fit right, it’s worthless,” Harsch said. “You have to shape the [socket], feel the limb; that’s what makes or breaks the patient’s ability to walk. This is truly an art.”
The $4.4 million C5 facility opened in 2006 and provides the latest treatments and prosthetic devices for amputees to get back on their new feet. It has grown from 30 beds to about 100 since it opened. The average stay of a Wounded Warrior is about 12 months, Harsch said. The facility has helped more than 900 amputees to recover.
The center includes rehabilitation services, physical therapy, treatment for PTSD, the prosthetic lab, a dog to bring comfort when a patient is going through painful therapy, a courtyard with various ground cover and a rock-climbing wall. A virtual reality system helps patients regain their balance while wearing 3-D goggles. Families participate in the recovery process with children playing nearby and spouses learning to help their Wounded Warriors.
Private companies are invested in this as well.
“People think they’re making money hand over fist on this stuff, and they’re not. A company will spend $10 million on [research and development] and power stuff, and they’re not selling $10 million in product. This is a very small market,” Harsch said.
As an example, Harsch showed off a prosthetic built for one of about five injured service personnel in the country. The person whom it was designed for had lost both legs and part of his hip. Where thighs would be are now high-tech batteries and microprocessors. Where feet would be are carbon fiber forms that can be switched out for more specialized tasks. Where a knee used to be is computerized titanium steel to provide mobility.“It was a very complex injury,” Harsch said. “But part of it’s the mental and physical strength of these kids that makes it work. This young man could live for another 60 years, and no one wants to sit in a wheelchair for that long.”
Some of the Wounded Warriors—about 20 percent—will choose to return to active duty compared to 2 percent during the Vietnam War. That success rate is due in part to better prosthetic technology, Harsch said.
Staff Sgt. Chris Chandler is one such Pendleton Marine. He lost his left leg below the knee in Afghanistan after stepping on a landmine in 2001. After recovering and getting his artificial leg, he deployed three more times and became the first amputee to jump into the military history books by going through Airborne Jump School.
“When I arrived to check in at jump school I had to run another physical fitness test, and was examined again to double check that I was capable of attending this school,” Chandler said. “I graduated No. 1 in my class and was made honor grad.”
Today, Chandler and Harsch are friends and Ironmen, competing in triathlons that include bicyling, swimming and running.
Nate Jackson, a prosthetic technician at C5, uses a hand-held blow torch to soften a plastic socket for a Wounded Warrior. With the eyes and hands of an artisan, he made slight changes to the socket so it will fit comfortably for its new owner.
“When the patient is ready for their final socket, I’ll use nylon, carbon fiber, Dacron, fiberglass and some other material,” said Jackson, who also is an amputee.
Jackson said with the increase in the number of amputees coming from the war zones, the lab is staying busy. Before, a socket could be created in a few hours. “It now takes us about 48 hours to get a socket ready,” he said.
Sitting in the waiting area, a quiet, very young-looking Wounded Warrior was trying on his new prosthesis.
Harsch tied the vibrant green shoestrings of the Nike running shoe that was attached to the shiny metallic limb.
Walking down the hallway, the Wounded Warrior, to a casual observer, had no limp nor any sign that he was walking on a prosthesis.
“OK, I see you’re toeing out,” Harsch said.
Using a tiny screwdriver, Harsch adjusted the screws near the metallic ankle.
“It’s like balancing a tire,” said Harsch. “If it’s aligned properly, you get better efficiency, a more comfortable wear, and more power for the wearer.”
Nearby, Certified Prosthesist Brian Zalewski and hospital Corpsman Third Class Paul Burgess were working on a specialized running foot, carefully buttering filler putty onto a block that attaches to a patient’s socket. Zalewski would later attach it to what’s called a Cheetah, a carbon fiber foot and blade used by athletes such as Oscar Pistorious, known as the “fastest man with no legs.”
“These are designed for track and field events, short distance, discus and shot put,” Zalewski said.
Zalewski said the first thing a Wounded Warrior wants to do is walk. “Then it’s to find a passion or hobby and do something they have never tried before—surfing, rock climbing. Snowboarding is my passion and I’ve taken a couple guys up to Breckenridge, Colo., or Mammoth and set them up with snowboarding legs and get them trained on those.”
The prosthetics team at C5 is closely working with Pendleton’s Wounded Warriors and preparing them for the upcoming games. The passion and dedication in their work keeps them motivated each day.
“These are young, for the most part healthy and competitive people,” Harsch said. “Our job is to give them every opportunity to live long, productive lives.”
The reality is, out of sight, out of mind, Harsch added. “You don’t see it in the news, in the papers. I see the back end of the war every day. It is an honor to give them a foundation to live a happy healthy life. That’s why we’re here.”