2017-02-24 / Neighbors

Paralyzed veteran steps forward

By Melissa Simon


STANDING TALL— Above, Gary Linfoot is pictured in front of an AH-6 helicopter in Baghdad in 2007. After an AH-6 crash the following year, Linfoot was paralyzed from the waist down. At right, Linfoot stands up at the 2016 wedding of his eldest daughter, Allyssa, with help from a robotic Ekso suit. STANDING TALL— Above, Gary Linfoot is pictured in front of an AH-6 helicopter in Baghdad in 2007. After an AH-6 crash the following year, Linfoot was paralyzed from the waist down. At right, Linfoot stands up at the 2016 wedding of his eldest daughter, Allyssa, with help from a robotic Ekso suit. Gary Linfoot stepped into an AH-6 attack helicopter and prepared to set off for a routine mission.

It was May 31, 2008. The U.S. Army pilot was on his 20th tour in Iraq.

“It was a mission that I’d done hundreds, if not thousands, of times before. We were en route to our objective and had just entered into a holding pattern while we waited to be called in if needed,” the Clarksville, Tenn. resident said. “While we were in the holding pattern, the helicopter had a mechanical malfunction and we lost power to the rotor system, causing us to lose control of the aircraft.


Photos courtesy of Gary Linfoot Photos courtesy of Gary Linfoot “We had a hard landing that broke my back on impact and I was paralyzed from the waist down.”

Since the crash nearly nine years ago, the retired pilot has struggled adapting to life in a wheelchair.

But now, the 48-year-old said, he has been blessed with the opportunity to walk again with the help of a robotic exoskeleton suit created by Ekso Bionics, a Richmond, Calif.-based company that develops wearable devices to enhance mobility, strength and endurance for soldiers and paraplegics.

As the first recipient of an Ekso suit for personal use, the highly decorated soldier will speak about his journey March 2 at the Reagan Library.

“I think my journey is a good example of persevering and overcoming the odds, and it demonstrates just how far someone can go when they have good support people helping them out,” he said.

‘Incredible journey’

Linfoot joined the Army in 1987 at the age of 19. A couple of years into his service, he went to flight school to become a pilot.

In 1997, Linfoot was accepted into the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, which provides air support for the military’s elite forces, including Delta Force, SEAL Team Six and the 75th Ranger Regiment.

He served with the division as an attack pilot until his official retirement in 2010, two years after the crash that paralyzed him.

“I spent a total of three months in the hospital for surgery and rehab before going home. And when I got home, it took a good year to adapt our home and vehicles, figure out how to get along in life and exist day-to-day,” the veteran said. “But I was still in the Army and was put in charge of a new aquatics facility (in Tennessee) while I was trying to deal with this injury.”

In the years following his injury, Linfoot connected with various veterans foundations and spoke at events. It was through these ventures that he met Jim Palmersheim, director of American Airlines’ Veterans Initiative and organizer of the agency’s annual Sky Ball.

Sky Ball is a fundraiser for the national Airpower Foundation, which funds projects impacting military personnel, veterans and their families.

Palmersheim asked Linfoot to demonstrate an Ekso suit at the October 2013 event. Linfoot and his wife, Mari, 53, spent three days training to use it.

After the successful demonstration, the retired Army pilot participated in a trial from January 2014 to January 2015 to further test the suit, where he was required to walk for at least one hour daily, five days a week.

And in June 2015, the veteran said, he stood for the National Anthem at the Bristol Dragway in Tennessee — the first time he’d done so since he was paralyzed.

“Standing for the anthem is something you take for granted, then one day you can’t do it anymore. To get that back is so special,” he said.

But even more special was being able to walk his daughter, Allyssa, down the aisle for her wedding last October.

“That was pretty incredible because you always know that your daughter is going to get married someday, but after my accident all I could think about was how I was going to walk her down the aisle,” he said. “When I got the Ekso suit, it was a no-brainer that I would use it for the ceremony.”

Linfoot said adjusting to life has been an incredible journey that he couldn’t have done without his wife and their children, Allyssa, 30; Kylie, 24; and Hayden, 23.

“My family and the other organizations I’ve worked with along the way have given me faith in humanity because they’ve been so kind, caring and generous,” he said. “To have organizations that create devices like this for veterans is truly incredible and definitely a blessing.”

IN A NUTSHELL

Gary Linfoot will share his journey to walk again at 6 p.m. March 2 at the Reagan Library, 40 Presidential Drive in Simi Valley. The event is free, but reservations are recommended. For more information, visit reaganfoundation.org/programs events.

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