Craig Hall: Heading Into the Next Turn

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By Laura Fonda Hochnadel

 

Hall's prosthesis allows him to keep up with his active life. Photographs courtesty of Craig Hall.

 

"It's almost like having your foot back. No lie," says Craig Hall. Hall, 37, is the first veteran in Massachusetts to be fitted with the emPOWR bionic ankle-foot, BionX Medical Technologies, Bedford, Massachusetts (Editor's note: BionX was purchased by Ottobock, Duderstadt, Germany, in March). He received the prosthesis in January, and says that in addition to feeling like his biological foot, the emPOWER has improved his gait, which has reduced his hip pain. He also has more energy, which has allowed him to walk faster and farther. Furthermore, the emPOWER's battery lasts all day compared to the BionX BiOM that he was fitted with in November 2016, which is important since he wears his prosthesis from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. "I'm able to do a lot more than I used to," he says.

While Hall lauds the device, the great socket fit that allows him to wear his prosthesis for such long periods is equally important. He has had his current socket, which was fitted by Tom Mesick, CP, Hanger Clinic, Springfield, Massachusetts, since 2013. Since first receiving this socket, he has experienced weight fluctuations and has had different prosthetic feet, but the only change to his socket fit has been to increase the liner ply from 6mm to 9mm, he says. "These last eight years [with Tom Mesick as my prosthetist] have been awesome," Hall says. "It's nice to know that when he makes me a leg it's not going to suck."

A Call to Service

Hall joined the U.S. Army in 2005. He says he had found himself spending time with a "bad group of people," so he enlisted to separate himself from that crowd. That decision was fueled by the call of duty he had felt since the September 11 attacks four years prior. Hall says he wanted to do something more—to do something bigger than himself.

After completing basic combat training and advanced individual training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, Hall was assigned to D Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, out of Fort Hood, Texas. He deployed to Iraq in October 2006, where it was his job to travel a supply route searching for improved explosive devices (IEDs) and send soldiers to detonate them with robots.

 

Hall pursues his racing hobby at Wachusett Valley Riders Club in Winchendon, Massachusetts, part of the New England Dirt Track Series.

 

During a routine mission in April 2007, an IED exploded underneath his tank. The blast shattered most of the bones in his left foot and lower part of his leg. He was transported to Germany where he stayed for about ten days until he was stabilized, and was then flown back to the United States. Given the extensive damage to his limb, he was faced with the choice of salvaging it, which would have left him with a poorly functioning leg and in lifelong pain, or undergoing a transtibial amputation followed by prosthetic rehabilitation. Hall chose the latter, and by September 2007 he had been fitted with a prosthetic leg. Hall spent the next year in rehabilitation at the Center for the Intrepid (CFI), Brooke Army Medical Center, San Antonio, Texas.

At CFI, "they have all kinds of different activities to get you out…" Hall says. "They always encouraged you to do whatever you wanted to do. They want you to get out and do what makes you happy." For Hall, that included getting back on his motorcycle, which he did shortly after receiving his first prosthetic leg.

After rehabilitation and a medical military discharge, Hall moved back to Massachusetts to be near his family, including his 16-year-old son and nineyear- old daughter, and to start a new chapter in his life.

Persistence Pays Off

When Hall returned to Massachusetts, he went to the VA Boston Healthcare System for his prosthetic care. Initially he was satisfied. However, as time passed, his prosthetic socket fit declined and it became painful to wear. The prosthetist made several prostheses for Hall, but the fit continued to be painful, so he sought out a new prosthetist.

"I cold-called a Hanger Clinic [that was] close to where I worked at the time," he says, adding that it was Mesick with whom he talked that day. "He actually came to my house…," Hall says.

Mesick works closely with the VA to ensure that Hall gets the prosthetic devices he needs to stay mobile and active, Hall says. "Everything Tom does for me, it works perfectly."

For example, Hall had his eye on BionX anklefoot prosthetic technology for over four years before he was fitted with the BiOM and then the emPOWER. He learned about the technology while attending a Boston Red Sox baseball camp in 2012. "I met this guy who had graduated from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], and he knew about Hugh Herr," Hall explains.

Hugh Herr, PhD, is the founder and chief technology officer of BionX and an associate professor of media arts and sciences heading the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab. He also has bilateral transtibial amputations. Herr began the company to produce the BiOM bionic anklefoot technology that he originally made for his own use.

The fellow baseball camp attendee was enthused about Herr's advances and encouraged Hall to ask his prosthetist about them. Hall was equally excited and reached out to Mesick. Since the technology was in its early stages of development at the time, Mesick wanted to wait until it was further refined. But Hall continued to follow up with Mesick, and Hall's persistence paid off last year. After seeing the BiOM in action at a conference, Mesick told Hall, "I think you are perfect for it. Let's go ahead and do it."

Mesick worked with the VA's Springfield Community-based Outpatient Clinic to have the prosthesis approved for Hall.

Hall praises the support and care he has received from the VA, which includes accommodating his prosthetic requests. "I've never been declined," he says, adding that he was also provided with a Biodapt Versa Foot that he uses for skiing, riding dirt bikes, and flat-track racing (motorcycle racing on an oval dirt track). His passion, aside from his children, is motocross, he says, and the Versa foot makes riding easier. "It's awesome," he says. "It has compression rebound adjustment and everything. It's really neat and…it really sucks up [the impact] better than your regular foot, really."

Continuing to Serve

 

Hall takes a tour of the Factory Husqvarna and KTM race team buildings while shooting some film for Warfighter Made.

 

In his transition to the civilian world, Hall has continued his call to service—for the past 17 months he has been serving fellow veterans, working for the Springfield Mobile Vet Center's outreach program. The center offers readjustment and reintegration counseling, spousal and marriage therapy, bereavement counseling, aid in accessing veterans' benefits, and more.

"I'm able to go to different events that are veteran-oriented or veterans will be attending, and I'll go out there and locate these people and let them know the services we provide at the vet center and try to get them to come in," he explains. "It took over a year to get into [the job] and it's been one of the best decisions I've ever made."

Hall is attending community college with plans to study occupational or physical therapy. He also has had the opportunity to support and participate with fellow veterans in nonprofit organizations that are dedicated to helping wounded warriors.

He is a co-driver under the Race for the Wounded banner, a nonprofit organization that trains, funds, equips, and supports veterans in some of the most difficult off-road car, truck, dune buggy, ATV, and dirt bike races, according to its website. Through that affiliation, in 2015 he competed in the Mexican 1000, a 1,300-mile-long desert race from Ensenada to Cabo San Juan. Hall and his teammate, Tony Scott, who is the Race for the Wounded truck program manager and a wounded veteran, took first in their class and seventh overall.

This year, Hall also became a celebrity of sorts when he appeared in several episodes of the Warfighter Made series that was aired during the Monster Energy Supercross race season. Warfighter Made is a nonprofit organization that adapts and customizes vehicles for severely injured warfighters and provides recreational therapy in off-road vehicles. During 16 episodes, a team that included veterans and wounded warriors adapted a 2017 Toyota Tacoma with modifications for easy loading of a dirt bike, gear storage, and improved suspension for off-roading. Throughout the series, wounded warriors shared their inspirational stories of recovering from their injuries; Hall was featured in Episode 8—and in the final episode he was given the truck in recognition of his work with veterans.

Finding Your Niche

More than anything, Hall likes being with his children, going to their soccer games and taking them to movies, he says. Motocross comes second.

"You don't think about your bills, you don't think about what you have to do later, you don't think about anything. When you are out there, it's the next turn, the next turn, the next turn. It's kind of like tunnel vision," he says.

The importance of a temporary escape into a sport or hobby—something that takes energy, is fun, requires focus, and takes your mind off your worries—is something he discusses with the veterans he counsels through his work.

"I tell them you have to find your niche, find something that when you do it, you don't think about anything else," he says. Find something "that makes you feel good, that makes you feel whole."