Florida Keys News
Sunday, August 4, 2013
Military amputees help improve prosthetics
Work 'beats the hell out of whatever's in the medicine cabinet'

Army Special Forces Sgt. 1st Class Chris Corbin was searching his dive bag Sunday as his dog, Ax, raced around the water's edge barking at swimmers.

"Me and Ax did some skydiving together and got in trouble (from officers), but it was worth it," Corbin said with a smile as he fitted two specially-designed prosthetic legs poolside at the Special Forces Underwater Operations School on Fleming Key.

"Ax loves it."

Corbin and Ax, a 5-year-old Belgian Malinois assigned alongside him with 7th Special Forces Group, are inseparable. Both were looking for explosives near the town of Hyderabad in Afghanistan in 2011 when they were hit by a bomb.

In an instant Corbin lost both legs, but Ax wasn't hurt. He took the blast in stride, Corbin said.

"We're both still active duty," Corbin said with a smile as Ax continued his laps around the pool. "Eighteen years for me." Ax didn't appear to be slowing down, either.

Corbin was one of several active and retired military members -- many of them from elite Special Operations Forces units such as the Green Berets and Navy SEALs -- who are in town this week helping prosthetic engineers improve artificial limbs as well as assisting Mote Marine Laboratory researchers replanting coral fragments.

The service members are part of the nonprofit group Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge and they're looking to test the limits of prosthetic limb design by putting themselves up as guinea pigs.

The group of amputees climbs mountains -- most recently Mount Kilimanjaro -- as well as dives in the Keys looking for ways to improve their lives and those of thousands of other amputees, said the group's founder, retired Navy Capt. David Olson.

"I have a sore shoulder and I'll complain a little bit out there, but these guys -- I never hear a word from them," Olson said.

On Sunday, the group's Orthotics and Prosthetic Program Director Arlene Gillis was joined by Michael McCauley, a graduate of St. Petersburg College's Orthotics and Prosthetics program, in collecting data from the service members scuba-diving with prototype prosthetics.

"There is very limited research -- very limited -- research into underwater prosthetics," McCauley said. "There's no standard operating procedure on this. There's only four or five (medical) articles that I could find on it."

The other goal is to help all amputees financially by gathering and releasing quality data so insurance companies that otherwise might be reticent to cover water-ready prosthetics rethink their approach, Gillis said.

The group aims to prove that the new prosthetics can promote muscle growth, stability and even gait merely by wearing them while walking into a pool, Gillis said. In other words, doctors and engineers may find early water therapy with amputees superior to traditional methods, she explained.

The seriousness of that mission was not lost on the service members.

"Sir, on a scale of 1 to 10, how hard am I pushing on that first 50 meters?" asked retired Navy Master Chief Will Wilson.

"Easy, guys, just go easy -- maybe a 4 or 5," researcher McCauley said, smiling.

"Roger that," Wilson shouted back, sounding every bit like the veteran Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school instructor he is. SERE is a brutal prisoner-of-war evasion and endurance course that many elite service members considered to be at high risk of capture must complete.

Wilson lost his right leg, and broke his neck, after falling 30 feet in 2003 while working as a ordnance technician aboard the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier.

On Monday, Wilson and the wounded service members teamed up with youth group SCUBAnauts International -- also founded by Olson -- to help Mote Marine Laboratory divers replant coral near Looe Key.

The groups complement each other, as the warriors inspire youths and both help revitalize the reef, creating a "win-win for everybody," Olson said.

"You get a better understanding [that] there aren't limitations you thought you once had," 18-year-old Colin Cassick said of working with the military amputees. "They went white-water rafting in Alaska. Nothing stops them. Why should anything stop me?"

Back on land, Wilson put it a different way.

"The day I met my bride, the days my children were born and the day I lost my leg were the best days of my life," Wilson said. "I ended my Navy career on crutches. It was all I ever knew. I entered when I was 17 and got out at 49. Losing a limb allowed me to get involved in programs like this and resume that leadership role. I'm a master chief again. It's opened up so many doors."

He spoke in machine gun-like bursts.

"Today was special for me, because I didn't know -- until we were on the way back -- that a Navy-diver friend who lost both legs at 28 who I invited -- today was his first dive since his injury," Wilson said.

"He looked at me and goes, 'Thanks.' Enough said, man. When you reintroduce someone to something they love they thought was lost forever -- that's the best medicine there is. Beats the hell out of whatever's in the medicine cabinet, I'll tell you that."


Citizen intern Alex Press contributed to this report.

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