Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans Day and carbon helping those who served

Today in the United States is Veterans' Day, a federal holiday honoring all Americans who have served in the military. Originally, this day was called Armistice Day, commemorating the end, by treaty, of hostilities on 11/11/1918 at 11:00 a.m. (in western Europe) in World War I, "the war to end all wars". However, after World War II, the day was expanded and renamed to honor all who have served in the armed forces. My grandfather served in Europe in WWI: he had been in the cavalry previously, riding a horse in the Mexican Expedition against Pancho Villa in 1916, but by the time of US involvement in WWI, his unit did not use horses, but tanks, as the "cavalry" still does today.

Googling his name online, I found my grandfather was reported to have been "wounded, degree undetermined" in September 1918. I never remember hearing about or noticing this injury, so it obviously must not have been debilitating. Hundreds of veterans of all wars, however, do live with permanent physical and mental disabilities. There is a new monument opened recently in Washington, DC, at the southwest foot of Capitol Hill, American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, that honors the sacrifice of military members severely wounded.
Looking to the south, across star-shaped and rectangular reflecting infinity pools to Voices of Veterans walls.

To the north towards the Botanic Gardens and US Capitol.

The bottom quote in the above portion of the Voices of Veterans wall is by Harold Russell, a World War II veteran who lost both his hands in a 1944 training accident. He is most famous for his portrayal of a returning wounded soldier, Homer Parrish, in "The Best Years of Our Lives" which won Best Picture at the 1947 Academy Awards. Russell won two Oscars: Best Supporting Actor and an honorary award for "bringing hope and courage to fellow veterans". I have seen the movie through at least once, but my favorite part, that I have seen several times, is at the end, when Homer, who has emotionally pushed away his fiancée since his return, accepts her love and commitment after she insists on helping him remove his prostheses getting ready for bed (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-VB9JnppAU).

In the movie, Russell's prostheses appear to be primarily metal with leather. Charlie McGonegal, quoted above Russell on the Voices of Veterans wall, lost both arms in WWI and is featured in a 1944 War Department film, "Meet McGonegal", made to show how a double amputee can successfully manage every-day tasks. From watching the film, McGonegal's prostheses may include plastic.(McGonegal visited and worked with Russell during his recovery period, described in the book, Enabling Lives, 1999.)

A 2012 article from Collector's Weekly ("War and Prothetics: How Veterans Fought for the Perfect Artificial Limb; http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/war-and-prosthetics/) describes the history of prosthetic development and how, regrettably, war injuries have driven advancements in this technology, even though there are more US amputees due to diabetes. According to the article, plastics were first used by the Germans, after WWI, in prosthetic manufacture. Among the more space-age materials now used are carbon-fiber composites which have carbon fibers for reinforcement and a polymer matrix binder. Carbon fibers are manufactured primarily from petroleum-refinery byproducts or, rarely, directly from petroleum pitch or coal tar. These carbon materials provide strength and flexibility and are relatively lightweight. Carbon composites have myriad automotive and aerospace applications and are popular materials in sports equipment. An internet search reveals that prosthetic feet seem to be the most common artificial limbs using carbon composites. Of course, an important carbon fiber in military applications is Kevlar, used in body armor to protect from injury those that volunteer to defend their countries in the armed forces.

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