WASHINGTON — Vietnam veteran John Loosen has been walking with a prosthetic leg for nearly 40 years, but this week was the first time he could step backward or comfortably shift weight from side to side.
“Just wearing this leg for a few hours, I can already tell this is going to be better for me,” said the 61-year-old Army veteran who was wounded during a mortar attack in 1968. “Before, just standing, I’d always put my weight on my right side. But now I can feel this [prosthetic] leg responding more. I’ve got more confidence in it.”
Loosen’s new leg is an X2 prosthesis system, a microprosessor-controlled device that can react to subtle changes in terrain or the wearer’s gait. The technology has been available to wounded veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan for years, but Loosen is the first Vietnam-era veteran to receive one through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
VA officials said they hope to give out between 10 and 20 of the X2 legs per month to older amputees through a program launched this month.
Dr. Joseph Miller, national director for prosthetic and orthotic services for the VA, said about 46,000 amputees are in the veterans health system now, some injured in combat but many others who’ve lost a limb to disease or diabetes.
“This is the kind of leg that’s perfect for someone who’s active, who just wants to be able to walk and do normal, everyday things,” he said. “It was developed with [the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran] population in mind, but we realized the key features it has would also benefit our entire veteran population.”
The X2 leg and a similar model also available to older veterans have a longer battery life than the C-Legs widely in use in the VA. They can be quickly programmed for running or rough terrain, and mimic a natural gait better than older models.
Prosthetics experts at Walter Reed Army Medical Center — where Loosen is getting training on his new leg — said that amputees typically replace their prosthetics every few years, upgrading when appropriate to newer materials and models.
Miller said while he expects thousands of older veterans to benefit from the program, he doesn’t expect an immediate flood of requests for the new technology. Instead, they’ll likely hear about the technology in their regular check-ups, and be offered a replacement opportunity then.
“It does require a different socket [to secure the leg to the body] and it does take some practice,” he said. “But it’s another option for those veterans, and eventually I think we’ll see a lot of them take advantage.”
Miller noted that for more advanced athletes like runners or skiers, the VA has even more adaptive prosthetics that can outperform the X2 leg. But Loosen said he’s just hoping the device will help lessen the pain in his hip brought on by years of improper posture and gait caused by his old prosthetic.
“I’m not looking to go inline skating,” he said. “But I will use this to play golf. It’ll probably affect my swing and screw up my game, but that’s OK. I really can’t get much worse.”