Army Spc. Michael Krapels works to strengthen his leg while wearing an Intrepid Dynamic Exoskeletal Orthosis during physical therapy at the Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. (Steven Galvan / Army)
A carbon-fiber leg brace is allowing once-crippled troops to return to duty — including 14 special operations personnel who have re-engaged in their physically demanding careers.
The Return to Run program, developed at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, combines a custom-made orthotic device with a 10-week training regimen that helps troops regain function of lamed legs.
More than 200 service members and veterans have benefited from Return to Run, including at least 40 still are on active duty.
In a recent presentation at the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, BAMC researchers presented data that the flexible brace — called the Intrepid Dynamic Exoskeletal Orthosis, or IDEO — is now spec ops proven.
According to their study, 10 Army Special Forces soldiers, three Navy SEALs and one Air Force pararescue jumper have returned to their rigorous jobs — and seven have even deployed since getting their IDEOs.
Before they enrolled in Return to Run, at least three considered amputating their injured legs, said Army orthopedist Capt. Jeanne Patzkowski.
Many of the injuries were from high-velocity gunshots, causing “fractures in multiple pieces with a lot of soft tissue damage, nerve injury, muscle loss, blood vessel injuries — what we consider limb threatening,” Patzkowski said.
The flexible brace works by harnessing the energy generated by taking steps, supporting and propelling the user forward. The research team at the Center for the Intrepid included orthopedic trauma surgeon Lt. Col. Joseph Hsu, prosthetist and IDEO inventor Ryan Blanck and physical therapist Johnny Owens.
Using the IDEO, 13 of 14 troops in the study regained the ability to run, jump, stand continuously for long periods and carry loads heavier than 20 pounds.
Among them is a 39-year-old Special Forces master sergeant who considered amputation last year after six surgeries left the nerves in his lower right leg severed and paralyzed.
“My leg from the knee down is inoperable,” he said. “It’s still there, but it doesn’t work.”
He faced a medical discharge and contemplated a post-service career. But after a military physical therapist recommended IDEO, he went to San Antonio to be assessed and measured.
He returned a month later for a fitting. “The first time I put it on, they told me to try it out, so I took a little jog. I was like, ‘Holy crap, I just ran down the hall.’”
The Green Beret has three versions of the IDEO — one for jumping, one for heavy-duty wear and one for running. Each weighs about a pound, and he takes all three with him to the field.
Another soldier, a 19-year paratrooper, is outfitted with two IDEOs. When not wearing them, he uses a wheelchair. With them, he said he’s a working soldier.
“Ryan Blanck is a genius,” the soldier said of the IDEO inventor.
For now, the brace is available only to active-duty members at the BAMC Center for the Intrepid , Naval Medical Center San Diego and soon at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md. But Patzkowski said civilian trauma centers have expressed interest.
The Green Beret, who just returned from deployment and will leave again in a few months for a longer overseas stint, is optimistic that he still has quite a few days left in uniform.
“I’m up for sergeant major, so we’ll see how that turns out. But I feel like I can put in 25 years.”