Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

A wounded warrior, walking tall

By Pat Etheridge, CNN Contributor
updated 9:18 AM EST, Tue November 12, 2013
Paralyzed since 2008, veteran Gary Linfoot took a walk around the Statue of Liberty with the help of a bionic device.
Paralyzed since 2008, veteran Gary Linfoot took a walk around the Statue of Liberty with the help of a bionic device.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gary Linfoot has been wheelchair-bound since 2008
  • On Monday, he used a new exoskeleton to walk around the Statue of Liberty
  • He's the first veteran to receive the suit for personal use

Editor's note: Former CNN correspondent Pat Etheridge is a journalist specializing in children's health and family issues. She previously hosted CNN's "Parenting Today."

Liberty Island, New York (CNN) -- On Veterans Day, former Army special ops officer Gary Linfoot took a brisk stroll around the Statue of Liberty.

That's remarkable because Linfoot is a paraplegic -- injured while on one of his many tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's been wheelchair-bound and paralyzed below the waist since 2008.

But new technology has offered Linfoot the opportunity to walk again.

The bionic suit

It's possible because of a kind of wearable robot -- a full-body apparatus developed by California-based Ekso Bionics. Built-in sensors detect the user's weight shifts and initiate steps. Battery-powered motors drive the legs and make up for deficits in neuromuscular function.

Linfoot is the first veteran to receive the Ekso suit for personal use.

It's a gift made possible through a nonprofit organization focused on mental and physical issues facing returning veterans and their families.

"We were able to surprise the heck out a great soldier of ours. He's now marching around," said Colin Baden, president of Infinite Hero Foundation.

The symbolic walk signals Linfoot's determination to move on -- and the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty National Monument represents "the freedom I fought for," said Linfoot.

Special veterans court marks 25th anniversary

One soldier's strength

A highly decorated soldier, Linfoot was a member of the U.S. Army's elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne). During his 19th combat tour in Iraq, his helicopter had a mechanical failure and crashed.

After just three months of rehabilitation, Linfoot returned to duty as the officer in charge of the Special Operations Aquatic Training Facility. Since retiring from service in 2010, he has pushed hard to overcome limitations. Linfoot now lives with his wife, Mari, in Clarksville, Tennessee.

He will provide crucial information to advance the technology of the bionic suit. It's in limited, trial use at hospitals and rehabilitation centers for patients with spinal cord injuries or those who've suffered strokes.

Fast-moving technology

Creators of the Ekso suit predict the kind of rapid availability seen with other technology in recent years. "We definitely see opportunity to reduce the cost (currently about $100,000). When you look back in time, only a few people could afford the first cell phones. Now, the masses can enjoy that technology," said Ekso Bionics co-founder Russ Angold.

The idea was originally funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the U.S. Department of Defense agency that has a history of world-changing innovations.

Today, many entities are working to broaden applications of the wearable robot. A team of engineers and medical doctors at Georgia Tech Research Institute is working to enhance sensors in the suit that would make mobility possible even in difficult terrain.

"Technology is developing not only to help people walk again, but to help retrain neural pathways and mend the ruptured spinal column so that it can regenerate," said GTRI Health Systems Technical Director Dr. Shean Phelps, a former special forces officer.

Veterans find a new way to serve -- in the kitchen

The scope of paralysis

In this country, some 6 million people -- one in 50 -- live with some degree of paralysis, according to a 2009 report by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. Actor Christopher Reeve, who was outspoken about his resolve to walk again after a paralyzing accident, died in 2004. At that time, the concept of the robotic exoskeleton was still in its infancy.

"It was science fiction technology. That is what we were working on," said Angold. "Here we are less than 10 years later, and we're helping people walk again that otherwise couldn't. And so we've brought science fiction to reality in a very short period of time."

Just five people in the world own Ekso suits. One of the pioneers is endurance athlete Mark Pollack. Though blind and paralyzed, he recently set a record -- walking the equivalent of a mile and a half in a one-hour training session.

Symbolic steps

On this day, a crisp, clear afternoon in November, Gary Linfoot stands his full 6 feet, 2 inches tall and walks again.

The site is significant on many levels. The Statue of Liberty is a universal beacon of freedom and part of the National Parks Service, which offers free, year-round access to all national parks for disabled veterans.

"Being here on Veterans Day with New York City in the background -- it's very special," says Linfoot. "It exemplifies hope for the future. One day, one day soon, we'll be able to leave that wheelchair behind."

Members of Congress thank veterans on Twitter

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:38 AM EST, Mon November 11, 2013
With high jobless rates and shrinking aid programs, these aren't the best days to be a young war veteran.
updated 12:04 PM EST, Mon November 11, 2013
Mixed in with costume jewelry and trinkets was a gold and purple heart-shaped medal bearing the image of George Washington.
updated 7:38 AM EST, Mon November 11, 2013
The problem for families trying to understand veterans' experiences, on Veterans Day and every day, is that they won't hear much about them.
updated 2:24 PM EST, Tue November 5, 2013
Most Americans will never serve in the military. Yet there are countless ways that everyone can help these veterans.
As more veterans return from overseas and seek to enter the civilian workforce, they are encountering some misguided assumptions from hiring managers.
updated 2:23 PM EST, Tue November 5, 2013
Simple tasks like going to the store were impossible for former Army Spc. Karl Fleming, whose anxiety and PTSD kept him inside -- until he got Kuchar earlier this year.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu November 7, 2013
Photojournalist Bob Crowley journeys to a legendary climbing area to see disabled civilians and vets tackle the cliffs.
updated 12:12 PM EST, Mon November 11, 2013
Here's a look at what you need to know about Veterans Day, a holiday honoring men and women who have served in the U.S. armed forces.
updated 1:10 PM EST, Sun November 10, 2013
While Army Ranger Josh Hargis was receiving his Purple Heart, he surprised everyone in his hospital room.
updated 9:26 AM EST, Mon November 4, 2013
A shaky video captured only a few moments of William D. Swenson's actions during a brutal, hours-long battle in Afghanistan.
Do you have friends or family who served in the armed forces? Share your story and a photo of a veteran who's special to you.
updated 9:23 AM EST, Mon November 4, 2013
Not a dry eye could be found when Sgt. Kelvin Munoz surprised his mom after being deployed in Afghanistan. WTAE reports.
updated 12:12 PM EST, Mon November 11, 2013
Here's a look at what you need to know about Veterans Day, a holiday honoring men and women who have served in the U.S. armed forces.
updated 12:23 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
A soldier returning from deployment in Afghanistan surprises his daughter with a clever costume disguise.
updated 9:45 AM EST, Mon November 4, 2013
The recent 16-day government shutdown hit many Americans hard. But few groups were hit harder than our troops and veterans.
updated 7:07 AM EST, Mon November 4, 2013
Veterans looking for new careers are trading their uniforms for a chef's jacket. Photojournalist Jeremy Harlan explains.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu November 7, 2013
Photojournalist Bob Crowley journeys to a legendary climbing area to see disabled civilians and vets tackle the cliffs.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT