ADAMS COUNTY, Ohio - More than a thousand American servicemen and women have lost a limb in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Many are now returning to combat thanks to a change in military culture and cutting-edge bionic limbs.
Five amputees have come to Tactical Defense Institute in Adams County for a one-of-a-kind firearms training course. The students, several of them soldiers or military veterans, are part of a pilot program TDI is developing with the help of SRT Prosthetics & Orthotics , a patient care organization that fits amputees with prosthetic limbs from several manufacturers.
"My good leg gets tired before my prosthetic leg," said Sgt. Jourdan Smith. "This one's got assistance. I'm trying to keep up with it."
Sgt. Smith and his platoon were ambushed in Baghdad in May 2007. A round from an insurgent's AK-47 struck his lower leg. Others in the unit did not survive the attack.
"It's rough, it's hard," he said. "Why me? Why did I live and they didn't? Why did I get hurt? Four inches, and the bullet would have missed me."
Sgt. Smith was able to keep his leg for another two years, but ultimately doctors decided to amputate the mangled limb in 2009. That allowed him to try an experimental bionic replacement that is actually stronger than his good leg.
"It has a battery, so it doesn't get tired," said Smith. "If it dies, swap them out, and in two seconds you're going right back at it."
It's called the iWalk Biom Foot. It has a powerful piston that replaces the calf muscle and achilles tendon. Six on-board microprocessors even do the thinking for the lower leg.
Sam Santa Rita, owner of SRT Prosthetics observed, "It's the first product I've seen in 25 years that actually mimics what the human body is doing, and in some ways is superior in strength to the power that's in the human ankle."
We have entered the era of true bionics, something envisioned 30 years ago in science fiction programs like "The Six Million Dollar Man."
"We are probably going to see people that are performing at a higher level than able-bodied people," Santa Rita predicted.
A generation ago, slightly more than two percent of combat amputees returned to active duty. A recent study revealed one out of five single-limb amputees in the US Army are returning to active duty.
"Everything was left up to me," Sgt. Smith said. "Do you want to stay active duty, do you want to retire? And I chose to stay in. And you're seeing more and more amputees staying in."
Smith is on track to return to active duty this year at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. He is an infantryman, and it is likely he would be deployed to Afghanistan in the future as a squad leader.
This military technology is benefiting civilians as well. The bionic limbs developed with the help of the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration are now available to non-military amputees here at home.
Meanwhile Tactical Defense Institute and SRT Prosthetics have announced the first official amputee firearms training course already scheduled for next May.
Right before firing a shot from his handgun directly into the center of a steel target at TDI, Sgt. Jourdan Smith said, "I can do this!"
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