Center opens in Tampa for veterans in need of prosthetics

- Every step Luis Puertas takes, he remembers why he needs prosthetic legs.

In 2006, he was on patrol in Baghdad for the U.S. Army when a bomb rigged to a garage door opener detonated.

"It was a big explosion," he recalled. "Everything went dark. You couldn't see two inches in front of your face."

He knew right away everything would be different.

"I tried to get out and I realized I didn't have feet to step on the ground," Puertas remembers.

Since then he has rehabbed and then trained to become a Paralympic racer. He's been ranked in the top 10 worldwide.

"My way of life is that you always have to do as best as you can. We are here for a reason and you have to live life to the fullest."

But the faster he goes, the harder it is for prosthetics to stay on.

"It has to fit like a glove," Puertas said. "But it has to have some kind of suction, something that keeps it on tight. You want it to feel like it's a part of you."

At the Veterans International Institute of Orthotics and Prosthetics, he is learning to go faster and further.

"If one of my safeties breaks, I still have another one that helps me finish the race strong," he said.

The Tampa non-profit opened its 4,000-square-foot facility near the airport. It's the brainchild of someone who has treated wounded vets for decades.

"You are just not providing them a prosthetic and then saying goodbye," said CEO Arlene Gillis.

In the old days, war was more frequently deadly. Now, advances in transportation and medicine mean more survive, but need new kinds of help.

"They're adding 10, 20 years to these folks' lives and we have to be able to give back to them with the appropriate technology so they can be functional and active," said Gillis.

The center will help those who have lost limbs at all stages of rehab. They will also have educational and mental health programs to help them get jobs and otherwise succeed.

"Everybody is so loving and caring and it is a really tight group of people that are looking to better themselves," said Puertas.

For information on the center, visit http://www.iiofoandp.org/index.html.

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