After losing both legs in Afghanistan, he's learning to walk on power knees
US Army captain Dan Berschinski moves unsteadily. He feels as if he’s standing on stilts—even though he’s shorter on his titanium legs than he was on his natural legs.
A harness around his midsection tethers him to a metal track on the ceiling. This stops him from falling as he makes his way around the physical-therapy room at DC’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Sweat pours down Captain Berschinski’s face as he moves step by step, trying to figure out how to use these newest-generation prostheses. He stops every few steps while technicians make adjustments to his bionic legs to improve his gait and balance. A nurse follows along and mops his brow.
“It takes more effort to take one step now than it took to take ten steps with my own legs,” Berschinski says.
He is wearing two “power knees,” a technological marvel developed by Össur, an Icelandic prosthetics company. Power knees is a misnomer for Berschinski, who has prosthetic legs—he lost both of his own when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan. Of the more than 55,000 deaths and casualties in nine years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, 1,200-plus US servicemembers have suffered limb amputations.
Each of Berschinski’s prosthetic legs costs about $40,000—when the prosthesis was developed in 2006, it was almost $100,000—and comes equipped with microprocessors and a battery-driven motor, good for 12 hours, that bends and straightens the knee.
Berschinski’s right leg was blown off at the hip. Surgeons removed what remained of his shattered femur, the big bone from the hip to the knee, and gave him a carbon-fiber socket that allows the prosthetic leg to be attached. His left leg was ripped off above the knee, leaving enough leg for a prosthesis to be attached.
On this day, Berschinski keeps walking around the therapy room trying to master the use of the new prosthetics; doing so might allow him to walk with a powered gait, whereby microprocessors respond to his movement and prompt his prosthesis to take a forward step. The artificial intelligence built into the bionic device can sense when he’s walking downhill or up and make adjustments.
“It’s like owning an old Jag,” he says. “Always in the shop for a tune-up.”
Determined to walk again, Berschinski does sit-ups and leg lifts to rebuild his core strength; he spent many hours walking back and forth holding onto parallel rails to get accustomed to using traditional prosthetic legs and regain his sense of balance. The regimen is frustrating even for the upbeat Berschinski.
“If you lose one leg,” he says, “you still have the other leg to help orient you as to how high you should be. But with bilateral prosthetics, an adjustment on one leg can completely throw off the mechanics of the other leg.”
Earlier this year, Berschinski flew to Reykjavik, Iceland, and spent five days at the Össur company, where he met with two of the engineers who devised the power knee. Berschinski’s legs were hooked into computers so the engineers could analyze the minutest details.
“As I walked in the lab, they noticed that I would lean over the legs before they were fully extended,” Berschinski says. “This meant the legs were not underneath me when I needed them to be. So they rewrote the software code to increase the rate of extension.”
With his gait analyzed and adjusted for, Berschinski says he made more progress in five days in Reykjavik than he had in four months at Walter Reed.
Berschinski’s ordeal began on the afternoon of August 18, 2009, one month into his Afghanistan deployment. He had chosen the infantry when he graduated from West Point in 2007 and had asked to join a Stryker brigade because he liked the vehicle’s technology.
Berschinski’s platoon—35 soldiers in four armored Stryker vehicles—traveled on a dirt road through a desolate part of the Arghandab River Valley in Kandahar province, home of the Taliban, where locals often greeted US soldiers with a thumb down or a middle finger up. At Shuyene Sufla, a farming village of small adobe compounds, the soldiers dismounted to conduct a “presence patrol” through the village and nearby pomegranate orchards.
As they moved through an orchard, Berschinski heard an explosion and saw dust rising above the pomegranate trees. He led his men toward the blast; as they crossed an adobe bridge over an irrigation ditch, he heard and felt a loud explosion behind him. He realized that his forward observer, Jonathan Yanney, was missing.
When the dust cleared, Berschinski saw a crater at the bridge where Yanney had been standing. His lead squad fired at a man, presumably Taliban, who fired at them. Although disoriented by the explosion, Berschinski started a search for Yanney. The squad found his shredded helmet cover, pieces of a boot, a piece of his M4 rifle, and small body parts.
Berschinski called off the search as night fell, and the platoon occupied several vacant buildings. Around midnight, Berschinski went to see his company commander; they decided to look for Yanney’s body and another missing soldier before first light.
Berschinski made his way through the dark orchard along the same dirt path he’d walked earlier. Suddenly a powerful wave of pressure lifted him into the air. His ears rang. Still conscious, he knew he’d stepped on an IED. Berschinski couldn’t move his broken left arm, so he reached down with his right hand—but felt nothing where his legs should have been.
“Guys, I need help—I just hit a bomb!” he yelled through his broken jaw. “I don’t have my legs.”
Berschinski, tethered to an overhead track for support, walks on his prosthetic legs at the Walter Reed rehab unit as technicians make adjustments to smooth out his gait. Photograph by Chris Gavin Jones
Medics reached him and attached a tourniquet to what was left of his left leg. Experiencing a strange sense of peace, Berschinski closed his eyes until a sergeant came up to him and said: “Open your eyes, Two-Six”—Berschinski’s call sign.
“I thought if I closed my eyes I would die, and I didn’t want to live because I knew I’d lost my legs,” Berschinski says.
“Thinking I would die didn’t scare me. Soldiers think about these things and try to prepare for them. I didn’t have a wife or children like a lot of my soldiers, and while I love my life, I thought, ‘If this is my time, then this is my time.’ Then I thought of my parents and how distraught they’d be if I died here, so I opened my eyes again to give the medics a chance to save me. We had three medics on the ground, and that’s why I survived.”
Berschinski later learned that an adobe wall around the orchard had possibly saved his life. Being slammed into the wall by the blast is what likely broke his arm and jaw, but it prevented him from being hurled so far away that he couldn’t be found that night. If that had happened, he would have bled to death.
Medics sent him by helicopter to the Kandahar Airfield. From there he was flown to the military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, and then to Washington and Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He arrived in DC on August 25, 2009, one week after the explosion.
Berschinski spent the next four months on the orthopedic ward at Walter Reed and has been an outpatient since. His left arm remained immobilized for weeks. Despite being hit by two explosions in the same day, he suffered no serious brain damage.
“My wounds are healed now and I don’t suffer chronic pain, and I’m thankful for that,” he says. “I drive a car and I go to my job two days a week in Arlington.” He has an internship with a Defense Department program called the Joint IED Defeat Organization. “I’ve been to South Africa for the World Cup and I’ve pretty much figured out my new life, and I hope these new legs will continue to open up opportunities for me.”
After months of rehab, he’s gained confidence but knows there’s still a long way to go.
“I’m aware that if I lose my concentration and lean backwards a little bit, it’s game over because I can’t step back to regain my balance. On normal legs, you can walk and talk and chew bubblegum at the same time. But you probably can’t do all three on prosthetics. You have to focus on walking because if you fall down with robot legs, how do you get up?”
He now walks with two canes to help with balance but believes long-term he’ll need only one to give him extra stability and allow him to rest while standing.
He’s been inspired by a civilian in Seattle who was run over by a train and suffered the same leg loss. A daily walker who uses just one cane, he sent Berschinski a video of himself.
“He is really inspirational for me,” Berschinski says, “because I had thought I would always need two canes. I realize in some ways a wheelchair might be more practical for me, but I can deal with some impracticality to be able to stand up and look people in the eye.”
Berschinski wants to pursue an MBA degree. His girlfriend is also interested in getting her MBA, and they hope to go to graduate school together.
“Although I’ve grown more comfortable with my situation,” he says, “I still have my dark days. Sometimes I wake up in the morning thinking all I have to do is stand up—until I’m snapped back to reality. But I have to accept that this is what I am now and work through it because I know no amount of tears or self-pity is going to give me my old life back.
“I can still do a lot of things in life. I can enjoy many things and I can still help people, and if I had died in that orchard in Afghanistan I couldn’t do that, so I’m thankful I survived.”
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