Master Sgt. Joseph Deslauriers lost one arm and both of his legs when he stepped on a buried IED trigger in Afghanistan. ()
Col. Jim Slife, then-commander of 1st Special Operations Wing, pins a Silver Star on Master Sgt. Joseph Deslauriers in 2012. (Airman 1st Class Hayden K. Hyatt/Air Force)
Two years after losing one arm and both of his legs to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, Master Sgt. Joseph Deslauriers wields one of the most technologically advanced prosthetic limbs, enabling him to tackle one of the most important jobs.
“When you lose three limbs at once, it’s very difficult to figure out how you’re going to interact with the world around you now,” Deslauriers told lawmakers July 31. “I’m a husband, I’m a father, how am I going to hold my child? How am I going to interact?”
Deslauriers was on patrol Sept. 23, 2011, as an explosive ordnance disposal craftsman with the 1st Special Operations Civil Engineer Squadron in the New Zad District. Traveling as part of a 25-vehicle clearance patrol element in Operation Desert Tortoise, Deslauriers dismounted to disarm one improvised explosive device and conducted three post-blast analyses within four hours.
Using a hand-held detector, Deslauriers reached a disabled vehicle with an injured Marine and brought him back to safety. After ordering other personnel to stay in their vehicles while he cleared the area, Deslauriers stepped on a buried IED trigger, critically wounding him.
He didn’t give up, passing along information on nearby IEDs while teammates were treating him. His actions helped extract two injured Marines, two disabled vehicles and let his team finish their mission. For his actions, Deslauriers was awarded the Silver Star.
Last year, Deslauriers connected with a team at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory that has been working with advanced prosthetics, and jumped at the chance to help with the research.
The team began in 2005 with a Defense Advanced Research Project Agency grant aimed at providing improved prosthetics for wounded warriors. At the time, many wounded troops were using a body-powered, split-hook prosthetic or no prosthetics at all, said Michael McLoughlin, the deputy business area executive at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
The Johns Hopkins-led group of about 30 research teams have been working to develop an anthropomorphic arm that is integrated into brain and residual nerve function, McLoughlin told the House Science committee hearing on July 31.
“Today I am happy to report we have met that challenge and have prototype systems that are providing great hope to people with arm amputations and to those that have lost the ability to control their limbs due to spinal cord injury, stroke, or neuro-degenerative disease,” McLoughlin said.
One of those arms is now on Deslauriers’ left side. The size and shape of an average arm, he can move it around using residual nerve function. Moving the fingers and thumb, with the ability to grab and hold objects.
“Work with the arm has been amazing because the limbs we have now for upper extremities are not very versatile, they don’t have many degrees of movement,” Deslauriers said. “I’ll get a wrist turn, and maybe a pinch. But with this, I can open my hand, I can rotate my wrists, I can grab something, and it’s amazing to have something that you can manipulate with your residual limb and eventually with your brain. It gives you that confidence and that independence to get back into the work field and continue to serve your country.”
The limb is powered by a processor on its wrist, similar to the ones in modern smartphones, McLoughlin said. With 26 joints, it can do almost anything a natural arm does. By interfacing with peripheral nerve control in muscles on the arm, users have been able to “achieve remarkable functional improvements,” he said.
And since 2010, the research teams have been focusing on directly interfacing with the brain. Researchers have found through MRI studies that even years after an amputation, the areas of the brain associated with motor control can still be activated by the thought of moving an arm. The team has been working to interpret these brain signals in a way to move the arm as they would a natural arm, McLoughlin said.
The team is even working on ways to restore touch, using sensors on the limb to allow users to feel, in ways to allow them to walk through a dark room or reach into a bag to grab an out-of-sight object, McLoughlin said.
A final goal of the project is to create a foundation of research in the area, McLoughlin said. This could translate to use by EOD techs before the bombs go off, Deslauriers said.
The ability to control and feel with the robotic arm can be used on the devices that the teams use in the field to disarm IEDs, adding to their effectiveness, he said.
“I kind of have a perspective of both sides, being an amputee and also an explosive ordnance disposal craftsman,” he said. “I can use this on a daily basis but then I could also use that on a robot to take it out from a vehicle, send it down range, and I can take apart an IED just as easily as I would be doing it with my own hands.”
Deslauriers, who is coming up on 16 years in the Air Force in February and made master sergeant last fall, will soon pass on his experience to new EOD technicians: He will soon oversee two flights of EOD classes back at Hurlburt Field, Fla.