Aided by robotic leg braces, a Marine paralyzed from the chest down by a sniper in Afghanistan walked across a parade ground Friday at Camp Pendleton to receive a Bronze Star for bravery.
Capt. Derek Herrera had vowed to leave the Marine Corps the same way he enterred it: on his own feet. Herrera, 30, a Naval Academy graduate, is set to retire next week. He is studying for an MBA at UCLA and plans to become involved in helping veterans.
"Your drive and determination are great and you will continue to do great things," Lt. Col. John Lynch told Herrera. Some 300 Marines and other guests watched in respectful silence as Herrera, his wife Maura, and his service dog Shaggy arrived at the ceremony. The only sound was the soft whirring of the robotic system's motors.
Herrera is the first person in the country to purchase a ReWalk system, according to the manufacturer, ReWalk Robotics Ltd.
An account in the Associated Press described ReWalk as a robotic exoskeleton system aimed at allowing people with spinal cord injuries to stand and walk. 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," the AP said.
The MARSOC Foundation, which helps members of the Marine Corps Special Operations Command, raised money to buy the $69,500 system for Herrera. Other companies are working on competing products that are in the testing phase.
Herrera was leading a patrol in Helmand province in June 2012 that was attacked. He was awarded the Bronze Star for continuing to lead his Marines when they came under fire and he was wounded.
"The bravery and fortitude he displayed inspired his men to heroic feats," wrote Maj. Gen. M.A. Clark. Despite his injury, Herrera said he is convinced that "I can still have an impact and positively affect society, so that is what I am focusing my energy and time on."