On the first day of 2005, I was living inside the Haditha hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates River in Iraq, four and a half months into a deployment as the engineer officer for 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines, in northern Anbar province. The night before, I had rustily fingerpicked my way through a bluegrass song on the guitar in the New Year’s Eve talent show. I went to bed looking forward to an easy day, a welcome change. I’d been on a long patrol over Christmas—sleeping little, getting shot at. In the morning, I made some of the Starbucks coffee my wife had been sending in her care packages, wrote an e-mail to a friend back home, and headed out to a planning meeting with another officer.
Our meeting was cut short around 9 a.m. when a report came in that one of his riverine boat patrols had been attacked from the shore. I joined the group that went out to respond. We got off the boat and started patrolling the shore on foot, but all we found was evidence of the previous firefight. The Marines began to secure the area.
I was on the ground before I was even aware of the sound of an explosion. The blast from the improvised explosive device—explosives and scrap metal hidden in an olive oil can—broke my M4 carbine in two and nearly severed my right arm. Before the Blackhawk helicopter took me away, I remember telling the executive officer, ”I guess my guitar-playing days are over.”
I stayed conscious until we reached the U.S. Navy Alpha Surgical Company at Al Asad Airbase. Then I was anesthetized and sent to the operating room, where I joined the hundreds of amputees who have lost limbs in the two wars we are currently waging.
Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) like the one that got me had become, by mid-2004, our enemies’ weapon of choice, and we had spent a lot of time preparing for the threat. We were all to some extent prepared for the possibility of death, but I hadn’t given much thought to how my life might change if an IED took one of my limbs. Ever since the first few amputees returned from Afghanistan in 2001, they have been the very public face of modern warfare as it is waged on the ground—a little different from the sterile video output of a laser-guided bomb or unmanned drone. The media coverage often emphasizes the medical care that saves their lives, and the advanced prosthetics they wear, with phrases like bionic arms and thought control .
Lying in a hospital bed in Landstuhl, Germany, I only knew that I had survived and that a young Marine named Brian Parello had not. The doctors had saved my right elbow and part of my forearm. I talked to my wife on the phone. I got a Whopper from the hospital’s Burger King. On the way back to the United States, in a morphine haze, I took pictures as we flew over Iceland. I made my first, totally unintelligible attempts to write with my left hand. I already felt worlds away from Anbar province, and I immediately began to feel guilty about the early ticket home, despite its price.
I arrived in the United States on January 5 and was home a week later on convalescent leave. Before I deployed, I was a biomedical engineering graduate student at Duke University, in Durham, N.C., so I did what any engineer would do with the time: I began scouring the Internet for articles on prosthetic technology, trying to envision what my future would look like. My doctor told me I would have to go through a few more surgeries, and once my incisions had healed I would get a state-of-the-art myoelectric arm.
Myoelectric armshave joints powered by electric motors. They are controlled by electrical signals on the surface of the skin, which are produced by the remaining muscles in the arm. According to a 2005 article, the latest and greatest myoelectric prosthetics allowed a wearer to move the limb just by thinking about it. Many articles have anticipated robotic arms that function as well as or better than their human analogues—letting an amputee shave, hold a knife or fork, button a shirt, or turn an ignition key.
I went to see Glen Hostetter, a prosthetist at Duke. I was telling him how excited I was about the arm I would get at Walter Reed Medical Center when he stopped me. ”Have you ever seen a myoelectric hand?” he asked quietly.
I had never seen a real one up close. He dug around the back of his office and brought back a demonstration model of a child’s myoelectric hand. All I could say was, ”That’s it?”