SAN DIEGO — A Marine who was left paralyzed by a sniper’s bullet in Afghanistan fulfilled a promise to himself on Friday and walked using robotic leg braces in a ceremony at Camp Pendleton, where he was awarded a Bronze Star.
The crowd of 300 Marines was silent as Capt. Derek Herrera walked. All that was heard was the faint whirring of electric motors from the device.
Herrera then stood, holding onto one crutch. With his other hand, he saluted his commanding officer, who presented him the award.
“Your drive and determination are great and you will continue to do great things, ” Lt. Col. John J. Lynch, commanding officer of the Marine Corps Special Operations Command, told him at Friday’s ceremony.
Herrera had vowed to walk at the event that also marked his retirement after 8 1/2 years in the military, saying he wanted to leave the Marine Corps the same way he joined. He has gone from fighting on the battlefield to becoming a strong advocate for veterans.
“I’m not out of the fight and I’ll continue on,” he told his battalion on Friday, adding that it was “truly an honor and a pleasure to stand before you today.”
Herrera was the first person in the United States to purchase the ReWalk system recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to the company, ReWalk Robotics Ltd.
The special operations officer was honored with the Bronze Star for his actions on June 14, 2012, when the patrol he was leading came under heavy fire in Afghanistan. Herrera continued coordinating efforts while receiving treatment for his own spinal injury and collapsed left lung.
“The bravery and fortitude he displayed inspired his men to heroic feats as they valiantly fought to save the lives of their wounded team members and repel the enemy assault,” wrote Maj. Gen. M.A. Clark in recommending Herrera be recognized with a Bronze Star.
Left paralyzed from the chest down, the 30-year-old Marine sought to be allowed to remain on active duty and has pushed himself to get back to walking. His last day on active-duty is Nov. 30.
The ReWalk is a robotic exoskeleton system that allows people with spinal cord injuries to stand and walk. Several competing products that use the technology – nicknamed “electronic legs” or “powered exoskeletons” – are also being used and tested in U.S. rehab hospitals. None so far are fast enough to entirely replace wheelchairs.
ReWalk was cleared by the FDA for personal use, although it has been on the market outside the United States since 2012.
The device consists of leg braces with motion sensors and motorized joints that respond to subtle changes in upper-body movement and shifts in balance. A supportive belt around the patient’s waist keeps the suit in place, and a backpack holds the computer and rechargeable battery. Crutches are used for stability, and the FDA requires an assistant be nearby. Herrera’s wife assists him.
The MARSOC Foundation, a charitable fund for members of the Marine Corps Special Operations Command, raised the money for Herrera to buy the $69,500 device.
Herrera is working on a master’s degree in business administration at the University of California, Los Angeles and plans to start his own business.
“Every day is a choice to live, love, inspire, honor the fallen, make the world a better place and walk in the footsteps of giants,” Herrera wrote in a Thanksgiving holiday column published by UT San Diego in 2013.