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Prosthetics advances made for war hold hope for Boston victims

Those who lost their limbs in the Boston Marathon bombing are finding support among military veterans who have gone through similar things, NBC's Lester Holt reports.

with Kim Cornett and Matthew DeLuca, NBC News

Boston Marathon spectators who lost limbs in the bombings stand to benefit from years of advances in prosthetic medicine made at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Calvin Todd, 26, is among those who have discovered a new life with the help of doctors at Walter Reed. The army medic was on foot patrol in Afghanistan in October 2012 when he stepped on an explosive.

“I stepped on a secondary and lost my lower left leg,” Todd said of the injury, which years ago might have immobilized him for good.

He is one of nearly 1,600 service members to lose limbs in combat since the start of the war in Afghanistan. Six months after his injury, Todd said he is “almost back to new,” and has even started running and playing lacrosse again.

 “I’ve got numerous prosthetics,” Todd said. “I’ve probably got four or five different feet for different activities. I got one for ice skating. I got a running leg. You know, my everyday foot. I got a foot for hiking.”

The traumatic battlefield injuries sustained by troops on the frontlines have helped change the future for all amputees, doctors at Walter Reed said.

“We have plenty of examples from our injured service members who have not only survived, you know, extraordinary blast injuries but have thrived from them,” said Col. Paul Pasquina, chair of the center’s department of rehabilitation medicine. “And there’s no reason to think that the victims in Boston won’t do the same.”

Whether it is bionic hands, knees, ankles, or feet, the advances at Walter Reed have been born of a decade of brutal conflict in which explosions have claimed lives and mangled limbs. While recovery often remains a painful process, the prospect for patients who have lost arms or legs is better than ever.

“While there have been significant advances in rehabilitation medicine and prosthetic technology over the last decade, that’s not to say recovery from a major limb loss is not extremely challenging, but there’s great hope,” Pasquina said. “And people are now able to achieve things that they weren’t able to achieve in the past.”

Among those who have overcome seemingly insuperable odds is Travis Mills, one of five quadruple amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A service member in the 82nd Airborne Division, Mills was on a walking patrol on April 10, 2012, when an improvised explosive device went off as he stopped for a break.

“I sat in the wrong spot,” Mills said. “And an IED went off.”

It was Mills’ third tour in Afghanistan. He had a wife and baby daughter not even a year old at home. Now he can help the 18-month-old girl brush her teeth in the morning.

“My daughter, that’s my biggest support,” Mills said. “The biggest thing I work for is to go every day to get better so I can be the best dad I can be for her.”

The cost of prosthetics can run from a few thousand dollars to an estimated tens of thousands and beyond. And while it’s unclear whether insurance will cover these types of prosthetics for the marathon victims, they have more options than ever.

“I’m very fortunate that the research that has been done has benefited myself due to my injuries,” Mills said. “I know that I would’ve got hurt like I did 10 years ago — I probably wouldn’t have made it off the battlefield.”

Whether the injured come from battlefields halfway around the world or a sidewalk on Boylston Street, traumatic wounds are often accompanied by deeper scars, said Dr. Harold Wain, chief of Walter Reed’s psychiatry consultation liaison service.

“They need to have a good perspective of who they are. They can feel good about themselves. They have to accept themselves,” Wain said.

“We’re constantly learning. There are new advances going on in prosthetics, in treatment, in medications,” Wain said. “The goal is to get them back as whole, as quickly as possible, and to reinforce them for their assets rather than just looking at their liabilities.”

For Calvin Todd, he only needs to look to his side for inspiration. While the landscape of Afghanistan is a long way from Massachusetts, this war veteran knows what the Boston victims have to overcome and what they have to look forward to.

“There’s a lot you can do. The sky’s the limit,” Todd said. “You can do anything you want to do, just work for it."