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A Program to Give Soldiers Socks Looks to Give the Injured Back their Legs

A soldier, standing tall in the desert sun, loaded up with gear, backpack slung over his shoulder, weapon hanging by his hip, eyes focused and forward. 

A soldier, at home, injured in a fierce battle, confined to a wheelchair, facing a long road of uncertain recovery, having given what he could to protect his country. 

When asked to imagine a service member in your mind, which are you more likely to construct? Soldier Socks, a charitable organization created initially to provide bare essentials to soldiers in the battlefield, is working together with Ekso Bionics to make sure that second image becomes less of a frequent reality.

At a gala held Wednesday night at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, the companies unveiled their plans to provide bionic assisted-walking suits to 10 soldiers who were left paralyzed after coming home from the war. 

Christopher Meek co-founded Soldier Socks out of the garage of his Stamford home. What initially began as a mission to supply a single Marine unit with baby wipes and tube socks from New Canaan's New Balance store has grown into an organization that is seeking to put 10 paralyzed soldiers into bionic suits that give them the ability to walk again. 

"We originally thought we'd shut down once all the troops come home, but we know that unfortunately will never be the case," Meek said. "We wanted to see what we could do to help veterans with some issues they were facing back home."

First, Soldier Socks looked at education, and covering some of the gaps presented in the post-9/11 GI Bill's funding efforts. They created three scholarships, including a general scholarship fund for soldiers to attend any trade school or college they desire. The second and third are sister scholarship programs awarding scholarships to the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, the number one public policy school in the country, and the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, the number one foreign service school in the country. 

Then Soldier Socks teamed up with Ekso Bionics, who was working with the military for it's HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier, licensed to Lockheed Martin) and TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operations System) programs, which were designing weight-bearing units to assist soldiers with carrying massive loads unassisted in combat and field scenarios and bring soldiers "as close to Iron Man as possible within the next four years," respectively, according to Nathan Harding, Ekso Bionics CEO & co-founder. 

"They transferred [the HULC] suit into this miracle that literally has a person stand and walk," said Meek. "And we thought, 'There we go. There's the synergy for [the next program.]' We reached out to Ekso Bionics and told them we wanted to try for 10 suits. [...] Look at our new tag line: 'Helping service members take the next steps forward: whether it's steps on the battlefield, with equipment; whether it's steps in their careers, through education; whether it's literal steps out of a wheelchair. We're there to support our troops."

The organization is hoping to raise $4 million for it's scholarship and suit programs. The suits themselves an run anywhere from $75,000 to $150,000 depending on the hardware and software requirements necessary based on the level of a soldier's disabilities. 

Capt. Aloysius "Ish" Boyle of the Marine Corps was the former Company Commander of the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Walter Reed, said he saw the devastation caused by severe and life-altering injuries cause on the battlefield. And he saw first-hand the hope a Ekso suit could give a service member suffering through dealing with those same injuries. 

"It's game-changing. It's life-changing," he said of the suits. "For marines who are paralyzed, who can't walk but can use their arms, this suit allows them to walk again. It allows them to go for a walk with their kids. They can stand up to reach for something. They can see above the countertop again. It has a strong psychological effect on people, suddenly not being able to see above a countertop. This gives them a whole new field of view. It's groundbreaking technology that is truly going to alter the lifestyles of our wounded."

Harding said the suits are anticipated to have a 4-year lifespan, but are upgradeable as the technology and software advances. The company started in a  lab at UC Berkley, working off a DARPA grant to develop the load-carrying exoskeletons. A breakthrough in 2004 led to the founding of Ekso Bionics in 2005, Harding said. 
"We started on exoskeletons for the military and we kept speaking with doctors and doctors kept telling us we were going to be able to get paraplegics up and walking," Harding said. "We actually thought they were a little complicated. We thought it was too complicated."

A breakthrough occurred when co-founder Russ Angold's brother, a Navy SEAL, broke his neck at home and the pair monitored his rehabilitation process as the SEAL rehabilitated completely. They were able to learn a great deal about the paralyzation and recovery process and began implementing their findings into their scientific work. After viewing a video of paralyzed patients using some archaic technology to swing their legs in an alternating style to walk, they were inspired.

"We realized that maybe it wasn't as complicated as we'd initially believed," he said. "We were able to produce two different machines. One that was geared towards getting paraplegics up and walking and one that was geared toward eaching stroke patients how to walk after a stroke. What we've done recently is figured out how to combine those into one device, which can now be used in a rehab facility."

Though the company's focus thus far has been putting machines into rehab facilities for those paraplegics and stroke victims who need help reclaiming their ability to walk again, the suits Soldier Socks is looking to raise money for would go to in-home use for 10 soldiers through a study, a very important distinguishing attribute as the suits are not approved for commercial sale. So those benefiting from the added mobility would also have their data studied to improve the technology for another generation of machines. The suits can monitor how they are used, how the machine functions in a home environment and how the machines are used. 

46 units are currently out in the field right now, but not every part of the dispersal has been flawless. Harding shared with the audience during the reception a story about how a failsafe switch was included on the top-rear of the unit to shut it down in case of emergency. However, first-time users would often attend a session with family members, who would become so excited at being able to give the user a standing hug, that they would hug the person and hit the shutdown button. 

There was also the distribution of weight so none of the straps on the machine caused injury to a user wearing one for a prolonged period of time. While Harding said the design teams have taken every precaution with making sure there are minimal stress points that would not bruise a user, Ekso demonstrator Jason Gieser, a paraplegic, made light of the idea when asked if the suit was comfortable. 

"I have the added benefit of not being able to feel half my body," he said. 
The suits are currently being advanced to the point where they should be able to step up curbs, thresholds and similarly small hurdles, though lengthy trips up stairs are still a ways off. "That's what elevators and escalators are for," said Harding. 

But for the time being, a man confined to a wheelchair stood up and walked across the room. And that is a damn good start.

The event was attended by Stamford Republican mayoral candidate Michael Fedele, Greenwich First Selectman Peter Tesei, gubernational candidate Tom Foley and state Representative Fred Camillo and state Senator Scott Frantz. Even Stamford's own Kaitlyn Tarpey, Miss Connecticut, whose platform is "Our Time to Serve" in support of veterans as they return home, made an appearance. To donate to Soldier Socks and help them hit their goal, click right here for their donation page. Their main fundraising event will be held on December 9, 2013, in New York City, so keep an eye out for further details. 

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