TAKING AIM: SRT/TDI Program Helps Amputees Learn to Shoot, Move with Bionic Limbs

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By Betta Ferrendelli

Exclusive live coverage by The O&P EDGE.

Allison Brown

Allison Brown fires an AR-15 with a 10.5-inch barrel and surefire suppressor. Photographs courtesy of SRT Prosthetics and Orthotics.

Though Jourdan Smith, Rob Warner, Doug Morgan, and Allison Brown all have different backgrounds and live in different parts of the country, they share the common bonds of living with lower-limb loss and wanting to master the use of their prostheses. And for two days in mid-July, these four individuals received some specialized training to help them to do just that—traveling from a motel in Seaman, Ohio, past green rolling hills and lush meadows to the Tactical Defense Institute (TDI) in West Union, Ohio, where they participated in a pilot program designed to help them learn how to better handle firearms while using their bionic limbs.

Smith, 30, and Warner, 24, are veterans who lost their right and left leg below the knee, respectively, while on active duty. Morgan, 54, is a retired law-enforcement officer with more than 20 years of service in the Ohio area. He lost his left leg above the knee in a motorcycle accident on the way to play softball one Friday night. He was 14 years old at the time. Brown, 35, is married and a mother of four children. She lost her left leg above the knee to bone cancer when she was a teenager. She was a Paralympic swimmer from 1994 to 1998.

The pilot program was a joint effort between TDI and Fort Wayne, Indiana-based SRT Prosthetics and Orthotics. SRT owner Sam Santa-Rita, CP, LP, is also a part-time police officer and has worked closely with TDI for years. The SRT and TDI worlds came together more intimately earlier this year when Santa-Rita and TDI's owner John Benner were tossing around the question, "How would our amputee veterans benefit from a place like TDI?" Given, says the Army, that nearly one in five veteran amputees today choose to return to active duty rather than retire, the question is timely.

The U.S. Departments of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) have funded the development of advanced prosthetic devices that can help amputee veterans who want to return to active duty achieve this goal. One such device is the PowerFoot BiOM by iWalk, Bedford, Massachusetts. SRT is one of the first O&P facilities in the country with practitioners who have been certified to fit the PowerFoot. Santa-Rita understands, however, that fitting advanced prosthetics is just the first step in the process. To make optimal use of these devices—particularly if the goal is a return to active duty—users must be trained in a high-stakes environment. TDI is a perfect fit. It is a rural, 186-acre setting with seven shooting ranges, including a 400-yard rifle range, three live-fire houses, and a main range with a covered firing line and a jungle lane. TDI does more than help people learn to shoot, Benner says. It hones in on three primary skills involved in personal defense.

The first is mindset, according to Benner. "Anyone can learn to shoot. It's the stuff in between that matters," he says tapping his temple.

The second primary skill is tactics, followed by the ability to handle firearms in a variety of situations. Such training can be a benefit to anyone. "I don't care who you are, at some point in your life, you're going to feel vulnerable," he says. The tactical skills training helps participants overcome feelings of vulnerability.

Firearm and tactical training at the TDI complex in West Union, Ohio.

From left, retired police officer Doug Morgan, retired Marine Rob Warner, and Shawn Brown take a break from firearm and tactical training at the TDI complex in West Union, Ohio.

For this reason, Santa-Rita says he also wanted the SRT/TDI concept to include law-enforcement personnel and civilians.

Smith, Warner, Morgan, and Brown were the first to participate in the pilot program. The four were trained by TDI instructors to perform tactical maneuvers—getting in and out of cars and completing building-search scenarios such as searching for intruders along narrow, dark hallways and around hard corners as if they were in their own homes—all with the goal of helping them improve their mobility.

The training also included instruction in firing semi-automatic weapons at paper and metal silhouettes.

Brown says the two-day training program boosted her confidence when it comes to handling firearms and being in a confrontational situation. "As an amputee, no one wants to admit that we're more vulnerable than our able-bodied friends. New knowledge is always powerful, and this was a way of regaining some of that security," says Brown, who prior to the TDI/SRT event had only fired a handgun.

During the pilot program, Smith, an Army veteran of 14 years, and Warner, a retired Marine, wore the PowerFoot, a commercialized bionic foot and ankle prosthesis that replaces lost muscle function. The lower-leg system simulates the action of the ankle, Achilles tendon, and calf muscles by propelling the amputee upward and forward during each walking step. Unlike passive carbon-fiber feet that return about half the energy of a natural limb, the reflexive action in the PowerFoot returns 100 percent of the energy taken with each step while accommodating for real-time terrain changes, according to SRT. Whether walking over a thick, grassy slope, along gravel roads, climbing in and out of vehicles, or moving around the kitchen, SRT says the PowerFoot is designed to react to its environment.

The PowerFoot is more than an "upgrade in prosthetic technology," Santa-Rita says. "It allows an amputee to walk farther and faster while reducing muscle pain and fatigue." The device allows users to walk with less stress to the rest of their body since less physical energy is required to power the prosthesis. (Editor's note: For more information about the PowerFoot, read, "PowerFoot: The Next Step in Ankle-Foot Prostheses," The O&P EDGE, November 2007.)

"It feels like I have my leg back," says Smith, who has been wearing the PowerFoot for a little more than a year. "It gives me power. With the motor doing all the work, my legs don't have to work 20-times harder."

Warner tried the PowerFoot for the first time during the event.

Doug Morgan

Doug Morgan learns a firearm technique from a TDI instructor.

"It doesn't even compare to the others. The motor acts like a calf muscle," says Warner, who enlisted at age 19, but has since retired from active duty and lives in Texas. Now he speaks to other wounded veterans to let them know that "life ain't over."

Warner underwent a transtibial amputation two years ago. While stationed in Hawaii, he was involved in a motorcycle accident, which resulted in a lower-limb amputation. The accident happened four days before he was scheduled to return to Afghanistan for a second tour of duty. Smith remains on the active list while he recovers from his injuries.

The veterans say they felt comfortable wearing the PowerFoot because it gave them back something they had lost when they lost their legs.

"It's not hard anymore to walk up a hill," Smith says.

The PowerFoot is powered by a lithium-polymer battery and is as easy to use as a battery in a cordless drill, according to SRT. It comes with three batteries.

"The battery never gets tired," Smith says. "If it starts to die, you swap it out, then you're going right back at it. You'll never go through three in a day."

Warner says the PowerFoot is better than anything he has tried previously. "Now that I have this leg, I find my right [leg] trying to keep up with it."

Morgan and Brown each wear a hydraulic-controlled microprocessor knee—the ORION by Endolite, Centerville, Ohio, and the Power Knee™ by Ă–ssur, Reykjavik, Iceland, respectively.

Brown has been wearing her Power Knee since February.

"This knee walks on its own," says Brown, something she's enjoying but having to get used to. With all her other knees, she was the one who had to provide the power to walk; now the knee provides the power for her. "I'm having to learn to let go and let it do its thing."

Morgan says that he can walk backward with the ORION knee, a skill he demonstrated effortlessly in a TDI training classroom.

"This is the easiest I have walked in 30 years," he says.

Morgan wore a "wooden leg" until January when he was fitted with the ORION. He remembers waking up from surgery still thinking he had his leg after his accident in June 1972.

"It's not there," he remembers his father telling him.

"Yes, it is," Morgan insisted. "I can feel it."

The impact of what had happened weighed on him. He chose to use crutches over a prosthesis when high school started that fall. It was, however, the shotgun he received for Christmas that year that changed his mind.

"'If you want to go hunting, you got to put that leg on,'" Morgan remembers his father telling him. That's what he did. He went on to have a successful career in law enforcement that spanned more than two decades.

Smith says the Army left it up to him whether he wanted to return to active duty or retire. He chose the former. The two-day pilot program at TDI was designed to help him prepare for the day when he will eventually return to combat.

It has been a long journey from the day in May 2007 when Smith's unit was ambushed. He was in Iraq for a second tour when he was shot behind his knee by a sniper. He considers himself lucky, however, to have only the injuries he sustained. Others in his unit weren't as fortunate. Smith has memorialized those who died during that ambush by having their names tattooed on his right arm.

Over the next two years, Smith says he went through 25 limb-salvage surgeries before his physicians finally agreed that amputating his leg would be best.

"'Just cut it off,' I used to tell them, but they fought me the entire way," recalls Smith, whose main motive to have his leg amputated was not necessarily to return to duty, but to remain active with his four children.

His leg was amputated in June 2009, and he drove himself home from the surgery. Therapy and the passage of time have helped Smith come to terms with his amputation. He plays football and softball now and chases his children around the yard.

Smith is ready to return to work and—if all goes according to plan—hook up with his unit again next spring and become a squad leader. "I just want to get back to beating the bushes," he says, nodding his head and smiling slightly. His PowerFoot will make those steps just a little bit easier.

The SRT/TDI event was so successful that SRT and TDI have announced that their first official firearms course for individuals with amputations will take place next May.

Betta Ferrendelli can be reached at