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New hope for U.S. veterans

September 21, 2009 - Lee Smith
"60 Minutes" ran an abbreviated show on Sunday, featuring a report by Scott Van Pelt on the Army's prosthetics lab, which is trying to take the old notion of artificial limbs into the 21st century. And boy are they. (This report ran once before, but if you haven't seen it, I'd encourage you to visit "60 Minutes" online.)

A combination of pressure pads, electronics and computers is making it possible for veterans who are missing limbs to hope for better lives. The robotic arm featured on the show allows its user to pick a grape and eat it without crushing it in the process. This was at the heart of the quest for the arm's inventor. Such a tool can then, obviously, complete a wide variety of tasks. This is life-changing stuff for veterans.

In an enjoyable coincidence, one of the veterans featured on the show was Frederick Downs, who lost his left arm in Vietnam. He now works for the Army and its prosthetics project. I just happen to be reading his book, "The Killing Zone," about his experiences as a lieutenant and platoon leader during the fall of 1967 in Vietnam. Downs' writing is harrowing and illuminating, and reveals Americans at their best, as when Downs pulled a wounded comrade out of harm's way while under intense machine-gun fire.

I hope the Army can speed the robotics products featured on "60 Minutes" to the thousands of men like Downs who deserve the very best care the country can offer.


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