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Navy Prosthetics Lab Looks Back At A Generation Of War

Hospital Corpsman Michael Diez is in the prosthetic lab at the Naval Hospital, Aug. 13, 2021.
Steve Walsh
Hospital Corpsman Michael Diez is in the prosthetic lab at the Naval Hospital, Aug. 13, 2021.

As the war in Afghanistan comes to an abrupt end, combat veterans and the people who serve them look back at 20 years of advancements, including people who run the prosthetics lab at the Balboa Naval Medical Center.

The prosthetics lab at the Naval Hospital is quieter than when it first opened 15 years ago, during the height of the two wars. Nathaniel Randell Leoncio runs the center. He was also one of its first patients. A Navy corpsman, Leoncio lost his leg in Ramadi, Iraq when a roadside bomb exploded under his humvee.

Navy Prosthetics Lab Looks Back At A Generation Of War
Listen to this story by Steve Walsh.

“It went off around the motor on the driver's side. Made the humvee (do) a backflip and I got partially ejected and the door landed on my leg,” he said.

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He was placed in an induced coma and didn’t wake up until he reached Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland, but he eventually transferred to his hometown, San Diego.

In September 2006, San Diego became the third major military center for handling complex injuries, called Comprehensive Combat and Complex Casualty Care facilities or C5 facilities. The Pentagon estimates 1,500 troops lost at least one limb in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each one of them has had to adapt.

“Some people have thrived,” Leoncio said. “Some people go back to school, go back to work. Some people haven’t done so well.”

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Suicide is an issue among veterans in general, and there have been suicides among the patients who have come through this clinic.

“What we’ve found over the years,” he said, “Especially getting guys up on their feet as soon as possible. I remember when I got my first leg. It was a big thing. It’s a big boost mentally.”

There have been advances in materials. Lightweight carbon fiber makes the limbs easier to use and more durable joints give patients a better range of motion. But a lot of what makes these prosthetics so useful is the art of molding each device to its user, which is still largely done by hand, Leoncio said.

The number of combat injuries had fallen to almost zero, even before the war in Afghanistan ended. Over time, limbs change, so some of the clients are combat veterans, who need a new prosthetic or to refit an old one. Most new clients are training accidents or people injured off duty.

“And as soon as the ambulance showed up, I gave him the rundown old what happened,” said Michael Diez, a hospital corpsman, talking about his motorcycle accident in 2019.

Losing his leg changed in life drastically, he said.

“There is some adapting that I've had to go through,” he said. “I'm still adapting to everyday life now. But I can run, I can lift, I can row. I'm playing wheelchair rugby and wheelchair basketball.”

Diez is about to medically retire from the Navy. Rather than stick with medicine, he wants to retro-fit motorcycles to enhance the quality of life of other amputees. Part of a legacy that started on a battlefield decades earlier.

Navy Prosthetics Lab Looks Back At A Generation Of War