Recovering from the Wounds of War

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have filled our minds with images of wounded warriors coming home missing an arm or leg – and sometimes missing multiple appendages. The enemy in these wars discovered that one of their most effective means of warfare was to scavenge unexploded ordinance and from it make incredibly powerful improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

The IEDs are positioned where US troops might pass by, usually in vehicle convoy, and then detonated at the moment the convoy vehicles arrive. The sheer concussive force of these explosions leads to horrific injuries—most loss-of-limb injuries occur in this way.

According to new data released Wednesday, more than 1,500 Americans have lost a leg or arm in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan; hundreds more have suffered the amputation of multiple limbs. Since 2001, when the war in Afghanistan was launched in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 5,225 American military personnel have been killed in action in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The casualty statistics are the tip of the iceberg when representing the suffering of the injured and of the families of those killed or injured. Many of the wounded are 25 years old or younger, meaning they and their families face a lifetime of medical expenses.

These grave statistics, not even mentioning the thousands and thousands with psychological wounds and social trauma, explains why the Department of Veterans Affairs is rushing to expand its medical and mental health services for the new generation of veterans.

Recent statistics compiled by the VA show that nearly 45% of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are seeking some kind of compensation for injuries or disabilities they claim are a result of their war-time service. This staggering statistic hints and the billions and billions it will eventually cost to attend to and care for these war veterans.

There is room to be grateful. In other times and with other generations the loss of a limb often proved fatal in the war arena. Modern advances in technology, treatment, and heightened response times have dramatically increased the survival rates for loss of limb injuries. The overall survival rate for the general population of wounded WWII soldiers was 60 percent, compared to 70 percent in the Vietnam War and 95 percent in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Prosthetic technology has advanced significantly since WWII. A vast body of research gained from treating American soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to robotic knees and ankles that adjust to terrain and activity. Leg amputees now run marathons, climb mountains and even skydive. And a new bionic arm powered by the thoughts of the person wearing it can mimic almost all the movements of a real hand.

Earlier this year Air Force Tech Sgt. Joe Deslauriers became the first patient at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to begin using the Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL). The MPL has nearly as much dexterity as a natural limb, 22 degrees of motion, and independent movement of fingers; it was developed as part of a four-year program by Johns Hopkins University.

Seeing the MPL in action, you get the sense that the future has arrived. While the expense of such prosthesis is currently prohibitive, it shows that a robotic replacement arm and hand can function for real in a way that was once the stuff of science fiction, purely imagination.

When you see a photo of an athlete competing in a competitive sport or in a physically challenging activity, remember the price of freedom.  Remember those who have sacrificed so much that we might continue to have the wonderful liberties that have come to represent the United States of America.

You may have missed my article on dogs for wounded vets. It is good to see that the US is standing behind its wounded and disabled veterans, seeking solutions to ensure quality of life and reintegration into society. These things give us all hope.

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