Up in the Air

As a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division during the invasion of
Grenada, Harry Shaw was doing what he loved to do. On the third day of the
invasion, though, he was caught in a firefight and was hit by friendly fire. He
underwent transfemoral bilateral amputation as a result of his injuries.


Following his amputations, Shaw walked for 11 months on prostheses in
1983 to 1984.

“The state of technology then wasn’t far improved over World
War II, I would think,” Shaw told O&P Business News.
“The great big, heavy wooden legs didn’t even have mechanical knees.
They were mechanical in the respect that they were made out of wood but they
were still made out of wood.”

The scar tissue, specifically on his right residual limb, made it
difficult to don a prosthesis comfortably.

  Harry Shaw made his dream a reality on Oct. 23, 2010, when he made his first jump in 27 years.
  Harry Shaw made his dream a
reality on Oct. 23, 2010, when he made his first jump in 27 years.
  Image: Ben Falls/Harry Shaw

“The socket was straight suction on the skin and the suction would
tear the scar tissue,” he said. “After 11 months of dressing changes
and all that … I didn’t see an end to it.”

Shaw did not don another pair of prostheses for 26 years.

First attempt

On March 25, 2010, an unfortunate event had lit a spark within Shaw.

“There was a skydiver in Port Aransas, Texas where I live
who’d fallen through a roof and was killed. His chute collapsed,”
Shaw said. “Being a former paratrooper, I lost a friend the same way. So
it brought that home to me.”

Shaw went to pay his condolences to the skydivers who were at the
airport and spent some time talking with them.

“I was getting back in my vehicle and they saw my U.S. paratrooper
decal in my window and they asked if I ever thought about jumping again. I
said, ‘every day.’ I’d been dreaming about getting back up in
the sky for 27 years. It was the one thing I love doing. I spend a great deal
of my free time thinking about that.”

That group of individuals told Shaw about Airborne Amputees based out of
Houston and that night he looked it up and signed up for a jump.

An odyssey

Shaw scheduled his first skydive in 27 years to take place in May 2010.

“I had my good friend who saved my life in Grenada with me,”
Shaw said. “He was going to make the jump with me. He and his wife had
driven from Florida.”

The jump did not take place on May 1 due to inclement weather but was
scheduled to go off the next day, on May 2, instead.

“We went through all the training. On the second day we were
getting ready to suit up and the owner of the facility comes over and said they
couldn’t let me suit up because my legs were too short,” Shaw
explained recounting that he replied, “Isn’t that what duct tape is

“They didn’t like that response. I wasn’t going to take
no for an answer but I finally had to,” he said.

Shaw was disappointed that he was not going to be able to fulfill his
dream but was approached by one of the event organizers who asked if he’d
ever given any thought about walking again.

“I said, ‘No not really, but if it will get me back in the
air, I will certainly try,” Shaw said. “Wanting to jump out of an
airplane again kind of started me on this whole odyssey.”


So the “odyssey” as Shaw calls it, began. He was referred to
Ben Falls, CPO, LPO, lead prosthetist for the Amputee and Prosthetic Center.

“What’s really cool is how things can go terribly wrong but
something great can come out of it,” Falls said. “Harry came back to
Houston on a Monday and we did our assessment. He has a super strong upper body
as you can imagine wheeling around in a wheelchair all these years and the best
attitude ever.”

Since Shaw had not worn prostheses in 27 years, Falls did not know what
to expect.

“I wasn’t sure if we were going to see flexion contractures or
not. My guess was we were,” Falls said. “His enthusiasm kind of drags
you along with him so there was no way I was going to say this isn’t going
to happen but I certainly had reservations after he had been in a wheelchair
for 25 years. I’m always positive but realistically I didn’t know
what we were going to see. I saw his [residual limbs] were short and scarred
but when he got on the exam table, he had great range of motion. Until we got
the first fitting out of the way, I had some concerns but he understood that
there was going to be some discomfort.”

Fitting the sockets proved to be a challenge as a result of the scar
tissue and the high level of amputation. The scarring also led to some
additional pain.

Exceeding expectations

“I remember the amount of work it took in the beginning when I
walked before,” Shaw said. “When I did it the first time I was in
much better shape. Now I was starting all over after sitting down in the chair.
I didn’t have a lot of expectations in the beginning about my
capabilities. The biggest thing in the beginning is that everyone expected me
to be up the next weekend walking. It isn’t that easy. If it was,
everybody would do it. It’s a different set of muscles. Having not used a
lot of those muscles in the beginning it was extremely difficult.”

Falls was struck by Shaw’s energy and enthusiasm, especially since
he had not worn a prosthesis in so long.

“All I can say is that he has that warrior mentality and he’s
done everything he’s ever wanted to do and he’s done it on 2
wheels,” Falls said. “So we started talking about fitting him in
microprocessor knees and an ischial containment socket and he started to
understand how these things work. I am [a transfemoral] amputee.”

The day after Falls began the fitting process, Shaw walked through the
parallel bars.

“It was an emotional time,” Falls explained. “His wife
and his kids and some of the other prosthetists were all here and Harry stood
up one day after he got here and he walks in the parallel bars. Believe me
– it was more a testament to Harry’s will and fortitude than it was
to my skill although I’d like to say I had a little part of it. But it was

Before his fitting, Shaw did not know what to expect.

“I was amazed with what they are capable of. I didn’t know
really … I hadn’t kept up with the technology to know the
capabilities,” he said.

Second jump

On Oct. 23, 2010, Shaw finally got the chance to see his dream of 27
years come true with the support of a full and growing network of friends.

His family and friends once again made the trip to see him jump but
another special relationship was formed in the time leading up to the event.

Jay Stokes, owner of Skydive Greensburg began in the same unit in the
82nd Airborne Division as Shaw.

“We were in the same battalion. Jay was there 3 years before
me,” Shaw said adding that Stokes set the world record for number of jumps
in 24 hours by jumping 640 times.

“I had friends and family there. I had the right people on it. It
was fantastic,” Shaw said.

Falls shared his sentiment.

“It was unbelievable,” Falls said. “It’s humbling to
be a part of that whole thing. It feels good.”

Up next for Shaw in terms of skydiving? Shaw is in the process of
earning his skydiving license. With one jump down and 24 left to go to earn the
license, he is anxious to get back in the air and reach this goal.


Since returning home, Shaw has made several trips back to The Amputee
and Prosthetic Center for adjustments, Falls said adding that Shaw received a
scholarship for the Center for the Intrepid for additional rehabilitation.

“I’ve been here since July 29, 2010 and am probably going to
be here several months more,” Shaw said. “I walk on stubbies at the
moment. At the Center for the Intrepid, they have a regimen they start you on
in order to build balance, strength and endurance on the stubbies. It’s a
system that works and they expect you to be wearing them all the time.”

Since arriving at the Center for the Intrepid, Shaw said he’s
gotten in better shape but the work is physically and emotionally tiring.

“I’ve become very close friends with the current crop of
amputees coming out of both wars … and we’ve formed close
bonds,” he said. “At first they were wondering what kind of messed up
National Guard unit I came from since I had a beard and a mustache and I said
no, I was here before you guys,” he said. “At home I am pretty much
one-of-a-kind. Up here I am one of the guys because there isn’t anything
that sets me apart except that I am twice as old, it takes twice as long to
recover and I have to work twice as hard because I have to. I’m not going
to be beaten by a bunch of young guys.”


Shaw is somewhat of a celebrity in his home city of Port Aransas.
One-of-a-kind is an understatement.

“I think that 20% of the front page articles in the Port Aransas
newspaper had me on it and I made three Sunday front pages on the Corpus
Christi Times
,” he said. “Everybody knows who I am. I
can’t hide in the crowd.”

Falls gives a lot of credit to Shaw for his positive attitude and hard
work. He also applauds Shaw’s support network.

“These are the kind of people that you can’t get enough of and
they bowl you over with their enthusiasm,” Falls said adding that one of
the things he’s learned from working with Shaw is that it’s never too
late. “You’ve got to keep it positive. There’s not enough of
what they have going around.” — by Jennifer Hoydicz

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