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Military Expanding Its Amputee Center In San Diego

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SAN DIEGO, Calif. (AP) _ Where some see scarred stumps and horrific wounds, Peter Harsch sees carbon-fiber feet, hydraulic legs and bionic knees.

Harsch became the Navy Medical Center San Diego's first full-time prosthetist last fall as part of the military's push to treat troops who have lost arms and legs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The amputee center, the first major one on the West Coast, currently houses 17 patients but will expand to 40 beds in July. It could grow to 100 beds, depending on demand.

The center is a key part of a unit the Navy is building to treat traumatic brain injury, serious burns, combat stress and other debilitating battlefield injuries.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Daniel Jacobs' legs were shredded and his hands lacerated in a roadside bomb attack in Ramadi in February 2006.

Such injuries once would have ended military service. Today, between 17 percent and 20 percent of amputees remain on active duty, compared to just 3 percent in the Vietnam War, Harsch said, and there is a good chance Jacobs will be able to rejoin a Marine squad.

``Is it realistic? Absolutely,'' said Harsch, 36. ``You never know how somebody is going to do. The heart and the will overpower pretty much anything.''

After eight months of surgeries and excruciating pain, Jacobs was told his shattered left heel would never again bear weight. He decided to amputate his leg below the knee.

``They said that I would walk better on a prosthetic on my worst day than I would on the best day if they saved my leg,'' said Jacobs, 21, of Steamboat Springs, Colo.

Within days of his amputation, Jacobs took his first steps. Fitted with a super-light carbon-fiber leg, he can now run. His new foot flexes to preserve more kinetic energy than older devices.

His hands healed, Jacobs is now focused on returning to Iraq. Despite a phantom nerve pain from where his leg once was, it's the only place he wants to be.

``I just miss being with my guys,'' he said.

According to the Army, which keeps tabs for all military branches, 571 troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan underwent amputations as of April 1. About two-thirds are from the Army. More than 100 lost more than one limb.

The Navy expanded the amputee center at its San Diego hospital to allow West Coast patients be closer to their families. The military's other main centers are at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio.

After graduating from California State University, Dominguez Hills in 1998, Harsch worked as a private clinician, then at a prosthetics company. When the Iraq war began, he started consulting for the military and was offered the Navy hospital position.

He knew he could focus on patients instead of wrangling with insurance companies over expensive prosthetics. Several patients have lost both legs at a replacement cost of $120,000, a figure many insurers would balk at.

In the last four years, Harsch has seen a surge in development of artificial limbs.

One innovation is the bionic knee. The $80,000 device has an internal motor that enables the wearer to stand up more easily and walk up stairs. Microprocessor knees mimic a wearer's natural gait and make constant adjustments as terrain and walking speed change.

Harsch is not an amputee. He competed last year in the ``The Amazing Race'' reality TV show with a woman who has an artificial leg, and he coaches for the U.S. Paralymics team.

His patients include Army Spc. Alroy Billiman, who lost his right arm in November when the Humvee he was driving struck a roadside bomb in Iraq's Al Anbar province. Billiman, 27, is learning how to fire the muscles in the stump of his myoelectric arm.

``I just want to be a productive citizen,'' said Billiman, who plans to move to New Mexico with his wife.

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