The Pentagon’s Bionic Arm

When Americans are wounded in Afghanistan or Iraq, no expense is spared to save their lives. But once they’re home, if they have suffered an amputation of their arm, they usually end up wearing an artificial limb that hasn’t changed much since World War II.

In all the wonders of modern medicine, building a robotic arm with a fully functioning hand has not been remotely possible.

But as 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley reports, that is starting to change. One remarkable leap in technology is called the DEKA arm and it’s just one of the breakthroughs in a $100 million Pentagon program called “Revolutionizing Prosthetics.”

Fred Downs has been wearing the standard prosthetic arm since 1968, after he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam.

“It’s a basic hook. And I can rotate the hook like this and lock it,” Downs told Pelley, demonstrating the limited movement ability of his prosthetic arm. “In those days they didn’t have a lot of sophistication about it. They fit you and say, ‘This is your arm, this is your leg.’ And it was the best technology in those days and you just had to make yourself learn how to use it and I did.”

Today, Downs is the head of prosthetics for the Veterans Health Administration. He told Pelley the technology used for his arm was developed during the World War II era.

“There’s a hook, something out of Peter Pan. And that’s just unacceptable,” Dr. Geoffrey Ling, an Army colonel and neurologist who’s leading the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, told Pelley

Col. Ling is a physician with big dreams and little patience, especially when touring Walter Reed Army Medical Center and meeting the troops he’s working for. “We have a saying in the military, ‘Leave no one behind.’ And we are very serious about that. And that doesn’t mean just on the battlefield, but also back at home,” he said.

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