MONONA, Wis. — Jake Janes, who hunts, fishes and works on the family farm, broke a valve on one of his artificial legs picking corn.
B.J. Ganem cracked his prosthetic leg on a Tough Mudder obstacle course. That didn’t stop him from skydiving, rock climbing, playing football and running a 10K.
Janes, 28, of Evansville, Wis., and Ganem, 38, of Reedsburg, Wis., are among more than 1,500 U.S. soldiers who have lost limbs serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But they didn’t lose their love of adventure. Thanks to improvements in prosthetics, they are able to be more active than they expected after being injured.
They’re so active, they push the limits of what prosthetics can offer.
“These guys break stuff left and right,” said Amy Paulios, their prosthetist at Prosthetic Laboratories in Monona. “We try to help them keep going. It makes our job more challenging.”
Most people in need of artificial legs are older patients with diabetes or other medical conditions, who typically use their prostheses for routine walking. For young, active veterans such as Janes and Ganem, Paulios makes prostheses with rust-resistant materials, fewer breakable parts and extra carbon fiber for durability.
“You have to have the foresight to think about what they might do with these devices,” she said. “Sockets for these guys are twice as thick as for someone who is just going into Target and back.”
Janes and Ganem are patients at Madison’s Veterans Hospital. The VA uses several companies with Madison-area offices as vendors for prosthetics: Prosthetic Laboratories, Actra Orthotics and Prosthetics, Morfey’s Limbs and Braces, Sisson Mobility Restoration and Aljan Co.
In the past five years, the Madison VA hospital has had about 75 patients with leg or arm prostheses, spokesman Tim Donovan said. Thirty-nine of those are service connected, including 11 from Iraq or Afghanistan, Donovan said.
From 2003 to last year, 1,558 U.S. soldiers had major limb amputations from battle injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Though Janes and Ganem said living with the injuries can be a struggle, they are driven to be as active as their prostheses allow.
“It’s the military attitude,” said Paulios, the daughter of a Vietnam veteran. “They just keep going.”
Janes, who was a wrestler at Evansville High School, was near the end of his second tour of duty in 2009 when he stepped on a homemade bomb in Afghanistan.
He suffered shrapnel wounds and a brain injury, and lost both legs below the knee. With prosthetic legs crafted by Paulios, he can hunt, fish and help out on the farm.
When he’s hunting in wetlands, he also uses an Action Track Chair, an all-terrain wheelchair made by a company in Minnesota. Still, he puts his artificial legs to the test.
“He’ll come in, and I’ll take off his shoes,” Paulios said. “I’ll empty out lake water, pebbles and sand.”
This month, Janes was picking corn when he broke a valve on one of his legs. He thinks it got hooked on a tractor. The valve is needed to create a tight seal with his upper leg.
In her lab, Paulios fixed the valve. “These are the kinds of things your average 65-year-old woman wouldn’t get into,” she said.
Ganem lost his left leg below the knee after a truck he was driving struck a bomb in Iraq in 2004. He also had shrapnel wounds and a brain injury.
Ganem had been a football and basketball player. His prosthetic allowed him to return to those sports — and take up others, including snowboarding, bobsledding and ice climbing.
A native of Savannah, Ga., he hadn’t tried winter sports before.
“After the injury, I kind of became more active to prove a point,” he said.
Ganem has six prosthetic legs for various purposes. In addition to his “everyday” leg, he has a rotating leg for golf, a double-plated leg for weightlifting, and two legs for water activities. His C-shaped running leg, with a heel plate that fits into a shoe, hit the market only in recent years.
He hopes to get a firmer, J-shaped running-blade leg, like those made famous by Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius.
“I want to enter the Marine Corps Marathon,” Ganem said. “I’d like to do Boston the year after.”
He also wants to try water skiing.
“The only thing I can’t do with my prosthetic is grow toe nails,” he said.