Navy SEAL Lieutenant (junior grade) Brandon Myers knew something was off the day he decided to run the fabled BUD/S obstacle course over his lunch break in August 2015, while assigned to SEAL Team 7 in Coronado, California.

According to a profile in the official Naval Special Warfare (NSW) blog, Ethos Live, the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native and son of a steelworker had just begun to descend the approximately 50-foot-high cargo net on the course when he tangled a foot, lost his grip on the net, and fell to the ground. 

Myers hit hard, and instantly realized he could not feel his legs. He had become, in that brief moment, a paraplegic, told by his doctor that he would never walk again. Just like that, the SEAL’s career was over and his life was changed forever.

The 26-year-old was defiant in the face of his doctor’s claim, determined to prove the physician wrong. Today, he is quite literally one step closer to that goal, as he becomes the first San Diego-based U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) patient to receive “robotic legs.” These will allow him to walk upright for a few hours per day. The story was first reported in the San Diego Union-Tribune on April 19, 2017.

Called the ReWalk Exoskeleton, the device was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for VA patients with paralysis in December of 2015. The device is made by ReWalk Robotics, based in Massachusetts, Israel, and Germany, and costs $77,000 on the open market. This cost is out of reach for most disabled veterans, absent the VA’s help.

The ReWalk was invented by a paraplegic Israeli man, which seems fitting: Who better to understand the needs of such a device, as well as the importance of functionality and simplicity in its design? It works by using motors and sensors to help an individual achieve a level of mobility similar to a person walking on crutches. 

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In simple terms, the exoskeleton works in the following way: A sensor worn on the waist is triggered by the individual leaning forward, indicating a coming step. A small computer worn on the back then sends signals to motors located at the individual’s hips and legs, which move the wearer’s legs by use of the exoskeleton. The wearer also uses crutches for balance, and a watch that allows the user to switch between sitting, standing, and walking.

ReWalk Personal 6.0 (courtesy of ReWalk Robotics)

ReWalk estimates that as many as 10,000 paralyzed American veterans may one day qualify to use the device. According to the Union-Tribune report, suitable candidates are only five years into their paralysis, are between 5’2″ and 6’2″, and weigh less than 220 pounds. They also require good upper-body strength and movement, among other criteria.

Myers fits all of these criteria, and has the determination in spades. He spends as much time as his body will allow working out his upper body at his home gym in Imperial Beach, California. As a former SEAL (now medically retired), and former college athlete, he knows what is required to achieve a physical goal. He also no doubt has the stubbornness and grit required to accomplish the task. Making it through BUD/S is proof of that.

The VA issued 14 ReWalk Exoskeletons to patients across the United States in 2016, said Larry Jasinski, the company’s chief executive, according to the Union-Tribune article. Per a ReWalk press release, at least 28 units were sold to the VA in 2017, for delivery in the first two quarters of the year.   

According to the same press release, ReWalk is also the first exoskeleton manufacturer in the United States to receive FDA clearance for use in the home, the community, as well as in a rehabilitation setting. The primary downside of the device appears to be its five-year lifespan (for current models). Still, five years of walking upright would appear to be worth the cost, in this author’s opinion.

While another San Diego-based paralyzed veteran is on deck to train with a second donated ReWalk, Myers’ goal, not surprisingly, “is to walk one day unassisted.” He calls the ReWalk “just a segue to that.”

I, for one, would not bet against him. It is also heartening to see a story come out about the VA successfully harnessing innovation to effectively treat wounded American veterans. Hopefully we will see more of this.

(Photo: Brandon Myers’ wheelchair, by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Timothy Heaps).