Town event looks to help paralyzed soldiers walk again

Chris Meek, in center, has moved from a table outside of Vineyard Vines to a fund-raiser at the Bruce Museum to help soldiers walk again.

Chris Meek, in center, has moved from a table outside of Vineyard Vines to a fund-raiser at the Bruce Museum to help soldiers walk again.

Greenwich has a long tradition of supporting causes that will aid soldiers and veterans, and next week residents will again have a chance to step forward and literally help paralyzed people walk again.

A special fund-raiser is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 9, at the Bruce Museum from 6 to 8 p.m. to boost the efforts of Soldier Socks, a not-for-profit group that started out trying to make sure soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan had the simple things people so easily take for granted, like clean socks, when they needed them. But the mission has expanded from there, and now the group has gotten involved with technology that could allow people who thought they would never walk again to be able to get out of their wheelchairs.

This is being done through technology called an Ekso suit developed by the company Ekso Bionics. It is a ready-to-wear, battery-powered bionic suit, which becomes a type of exoskeleton for whoever is wearing it that lets people with lower extremity paralysis stand up and walk. This could be a huge development as there are close to 100,000 combat veterans either paralyzed or with severe spinal cord injuries.

Soldier Socks was co-founded by Christopher Meek, a Stamford businessman and former congressional candidate, and it ended up sending more than 25 tons of socks, baby wipes and other basic necessities to soldiers overseas. In recent years it had adjusted its mission to help soldiers returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan readjust to civilian life and find jobs. Now it has adjusted once again and is focused on technology that might seem like something out of a movie but is offering real hope to veterans who might otherwise never be able to walk again.

The suit allows a person paralyzed through injury or a stroke to be able to walk by using the person’s forward lateral weight shift to initiate the step. Then the battery-powered motors drive the legs and replace neuromuscular functions. One could call this “next level technology,” but Mr. Meek is quick to correct that, saying it’s more accurately “three levels above next level.”

Now Mr. Meek is looking to put Soldier Socks and its supporters to work helping this company make the suits available to individuals. They had been available only at rehabilitation centers, but just last month the federal Food and Drug Administration approved the use by individuals. That’s where Soldier Socks and its Oct. 9 event at the Bruce come into play. Mr. Meek calls this a “hybrid fund-raiser and friend-raiser” to make people aware of the mission and to get them on board for an even bigger event planned for Dec. 9 at the New York Yacht Club in New York City, where an Ekso suit will be presented to a paralyzed veteran.

“If you see this suit in action and see what it’s like for someone who had thought they would never be able to walk again take those steps, then you will understand just how powerful it is,” Mr. Meek told the Post in an interview this week. “This isn’t something that can just help injured soldiers. It’s something that can help anyone who has suffered a serious spinal cord injury.”

Mr. Meek said he has seen the demonstrations himself and that people will have that chance, too, at the Oct. 9 event in Greenwich. Not only will there be a demonstration of what the suit can do at the Bruce Museum that night, but Ekso Bionics’ Chief Executive Officer, Nathaniel Harding, will be attending and there will be keynote addresses from Marine Maj. Gen. Paul Lefebvre, commanding general of Marine Special Operations, and Army Col. F. William Smullen III, who served directly under two chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The support of people for this is vital because this is, not surprisingly, not inexpensive technology. Mr. Meek said the cost for an Ekso suit is  $140,000 and a soldier on disability earns only $2,673 a month in disability pay from the government. Through its work, Soldier Socks has helped make it possible for this veteran, who has not been publicly named yet, but was introduced to the group through work at Walter Reed Hospital and Paralyzed Veterans of America, to get the suit in December but there are plenty more who need help, too. The goal right now is to fund the purchase of 10 suits.

Mr. Meek said Soldier Socks is now beginning a $4-million capital campaign that will attempt to raise $1 million to help this effort. As for the remaining $3 million that’s being sought, that’s to help another mission Soldier Socks has gotten involved with, the furthering of education for soldiers once they return from active duty.

“We have three different scholarship programs that are in place to help,” Mr. Meek said. “Under the post-9/11 GI bill, unless you go to a state school as a state resident, you’re still going to face a pretty significant tuition gap. We’ve got these programs to try and fix that.”

Under the capital campaign, the goal is to raise $1 million for each of the three scholarship programs. One allows for veterans who enlisted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to be able to attend the college or trade school of their choice. The second program is affiliated with the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University, which is considered the No. 1 public policy school in the country. The third program has a similar affiliation with the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, which is considered the best in training people to serve abroad as civilians.

“We want to support veterans who want to continue their public service but as private citizens,” Mr. Meek said. “The grants we provide through our scholarship programs do just that.”

These efforts have been made possible through the involvement of a lot of support, both through individuals and businesses. Mr. Meek said that on a major corporate level, General Electric has been a big supporter and, more locally, Vineyard Vines has also provided major boosts to Soldier Socks. Mr. Meek said that a lot of supporters have been with the organization the whole way through and that more have come aboard as the missions have changed. The hope is that the Oct. 9 event will create even more interest and involvement.

“As Soldier Socks has changed its mission, we’re hoping to help service members take their next steps forward, whether it’s on the battlefields, helping them with their education or career goals or to take literal steps out of a wheelchair,” Mr. Meek said.

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