A veteran is given new hope with a robotic arm

As a part of the PBS documentary film Military Medicine: Beyond the Battlefield, we are introduced to retired army sergeant first class Ramon Padilla. He’s turned his injury into a cutting edge continuation of this service.


Thanks to advancements in military medicine, rehabilitation, and technology, thousands of military service members who were severely wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not only surviving their injuries but are returning home to the lives they wanted to live.

In this next piece from the PBS documentary film, 'Military Medicine: Beyond the Battlefield,' we meet retired Army Sergeant First Class Ramon Padilla.

He's turned his injury into a cutting-edge continuation of his service.


Ramon Padilla is a father and husband, a retired Army Sergeant First Class who served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he is the second person in the United States to have this prosthetic arm.

The arm's technology is the first to use implanted sensors to transmit signals to the robotic hand, and its thumb moves, unlike Padilla's older prosthetics.

Before, with this hand, I would have to move my thumb over, close it and grip.

And now with this one I don't have to move my thumb over.

I can just power it over and just close it.

It's been 9 years since Padilla lost his arm, and more than 16 years since he volunteered to join the Army.

I was born in Mexico, and I got to the States when I was 2 years old.

So I grew up in Southern California, about 13 miles east of Downtown L.A.

I had two daughters at an early age.

I had my high school diploma.

And something just clicked where it's like, 'Okay, I need to give back.

I need to do something.

My family has taken advantage of everything the States has given to us,' and I just felt that I had to give back.

In May of 2007, Padilla was a Staff Sergeant with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.

He'd already done a tour in Iraq and served 7 years in the Army when he was sent to Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.

Well, it was July 8, 2007.

We just had gotten back from patrol.

Every time I came out of that hooch, I look up to the mountains.

And I looked up at some area that was known for the enemy to be there -- all the time.

All the time.

I mean, every time I pass through there, I look, I look, I look.

Well, that one time I didn't look, half second later, RPG blows up next to me, shrapnel severs my arm.

I got shot on the right side of the head.

You know, the only time I don't look, it's where they fire from.

Losing my arm was the least on my mind.

Getting shot in the right side of the head was the least on my mind.

What I cared about the most is the safety of the warriors that were there with me.

Under fire, his team got Padilla out of the valley.

Just 6 days later, Padilla was on a critical-care air transport flight from Germany to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where his recovery began with a question for his occupational therapist.

The first thing I asked them, 'Look, I want to learn how to play catch with my kid.'

Because I have a lot of fond memories of me and my dad playing catch and teaching me how to play baseball and stuff like that.

Those were a lot of special moments in my life where I do remember, and I wanted to give that to my kids.

Having one arm, I had no idea, 'How the heck am I supposed to do this?'

And he tells me, 'We will get you to catch with your kids.'

What Padilla and many young wounded warriors wanted was for medical technology to catch up with them.

Padilla now uses a modified lacrosse stick to play catch with his son and a metal grip for golf, but it started out slowly.

Well, my first hand was my dummy hand, what I call my dummy hand.

So it does not move.

It does not do anything.

It's just a passive hand you put on.

Well, what I wanted was a Luke Skywalker 'Star Wars' hand, of course.

And then later, I wanted the 'I, Robot' Will Smith hand.

And those are the two hands I really wanted because was like, 'Oh, my God, this is in the movies.

It has to be true, right?'

Offered a chance to participate in the trial of a robotic arm that would mean having surgery to implant sensors, Padilla was an eager volunteer.

They implanted electrodes inside my muscles.

So the same muscles you use to move to close your hand left to right, thumb, those are the same ones I use to power this prosthesis.

So electrodes are on the same muscles.

At the Alfred Mann Foundation in Los Angeles, scientists worked with military doctors to design the surgically implanted sensors.

The tiny devices detect signals from the existing muscles in the amputated limb, transmit the information wirelessly to the arm's controller, where the signal is translated into commands for the robotic hand and arm to move.

It's slow, of course.

It's not gonna be as fast as your hand.

But as soon as I do it, it happens.

So whatever your process is, from your brain to your muscles to your nerves and everything, however that works, it works.

Let's go this way.

This life-changing technology not only gives Padilla more independence and freedom, it also brings him a step closer to the future he wants for his family and for future generations of wounded troops.

The way I see it is, we've got to push technology.

I mean, to me, it's like giving back.

It's like serving again.

Because even though you may call me a guinea pig, or crash test dummy, whatever you want to call me, all right, I don't care.

It's fine.

I'll be that, so that way guys behind me in future wars can have something when they come back injured, something that's positive, something that will make their lives better.

To see the full documentary, 'Military Medicine: Beyond the Battlefield,' visit pbs.org/militarymedicine.