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Call To Service: High-Tech Devices Help Veterans on the Road to Recovery

Armored exoskeletons that enhance human ability are rarely seen outside of Hollywood movies. But two former Wall Street traders are bringing them to reality for U.S. military veterans.

Christopher Meek and Marc Morgenthaler are the minds behind SoldierStrong, a nonprofit organization with a goal to close the gap between people in need of rehabilitative devices and the high insurance costs associated with these devices.

How it began

Formerly employed in the World Trade Center in New York City, Meek and Morgenthaler were firsthand witnesses of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Shown at a Philadelphia Union League event (left), are Marc Morgenthaler, SoldierStrong executive director, and board members Chris Meek, Rorke Denver and Jon Runyan.
Shown at a Philadelphia Union League event (left), are Marc Morgenthaler, SoldierStrong executive director, and board members Chris Meek, Rorke Denver and Jon Runyan.

All images used with permission from Morgenthaler M, SoldierStrong.

Dan Rose, a SoldierStrong ambassador, wears an Ekso Suit.
Dan Rose, a SoldierStrong ambassador, wears an Ekso Suit. Rose was paralyzed on his left side from the chest down in 2011 after being hit with an improvised explosive device while he served in the Army Reserves in Afghanistan. He is now an athlete who enjoys downhill skiing and wheelchair racing, among other activities.
Maj. Gen. Randall R. Marchi (left), asks an Ekso user a question during a SoldierStrong fundraising event. Also pictured is Andre C. McCoy.
Maj. Gen. Randall R. Marchi (left), asks an Ekso user a question during a SoldierStrong fundraising event. Also pictured is Andre C. McCoy.
A veteran with paralysis wears an Ekso suit during a donation ceremony for the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in Palo Alto, Calif.
A veteran with paralysis wears an Ekso suit during a donation ceremony for the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in Palo Alto, Calif. According to Morgenthaler, the veteran’s first words in the suit were, “This is the first time I can stand and kiss my wife again.”

“One of the things that I remember about that day is [seeing] first responders run into the towers while tens of thousands of people were running out,” Meek, co-founder and chairman of SoldierStrong, told O&P News. “I knew at some point, I was going to have to give back, but I did not know how I was going to do it.”

In the summer of 2009, a U.S. Marine and friend of Meek’s who was deployed in Afghanistan, sent him a letter detailing the poor living conditions and lack of necessities, such as fresh tube socks and baby wipes.

“I saw an opportunity to play a small role in giving back,” Meek said. “So, the original mission was sending basic supplies [and] later transitioned to supporting veterans with medical devices for when they returned.”

Offering more

SoldierStrong now funds the purchase of cutting-edge prostheses and mobility devices, then donates them to individual veterans or to rehabilitation centers for training multiple veterans. The organization currently offers four devices: two exoskeletons and two prostheses. One exoskeleton enables those with spinal cord injuries to regain mobility, and the other is an upper extremity exoskeleton for those with traumatic brain injuries. SoldierStrong also offers a lower limb prosthesis and a prosthetic arm with moving fingers, wrist and shoulders.

In addition, SoldierStrong offers educational opportunities for returning veterans. Morgenthaler, the organization’s executive director, said these are meant “to support those who want to continue life in public service, but now as private citizens.”

There are three scholarship funds available — a general fund for any trade school or college, one at the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University and the other at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Changing lives

These services, which are funded solely through individual, corporate and family foundation donations, have led to tangible benefits, according to Meek.

“We take standing and walking for granted,” he said, “but if you were talk to a [wounded] veteran and ask them how it feels or what it is like, they might say it is life-changing [they] might say it helps them stand up and look the world in the eye again.”

A look ahead

The group mainly consists of volunteers, but it is expanding. Its board of directors includes former U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan, who played for the Philadelphia Eagles; former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman; and Linda McMahon, co-founder and former chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment.

The organization is working with Dean Kamen, inventor of the DEKA Arm System, to create prototypes for amputees and paralyzed veterans who are able to regain some movement by using such devices. It also is working with Ekso Bionics to provide additional options.

Since it was created, SoldierStrong has grown from a regional organization to a national one, winning a Presidential Call to Service Award and several congressional accolades.

Last fall, SoldierStrong took part in five of the National Football League’s pre-game Salute to Service ceremonies and the organization’s leaders are looking to add similar events this year.

SoldierStrong is working to fundraise and spread awareness, Meek said, with an overall goal to “give a little back to the veterans who have given us so much already.” – by Shawn M. Carter

Disclosures: Meek and Morgenthaler report that SoldierStrong is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

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