Phoenix veteran in wheelchair walking again thanks to robotic exoskeleton

On Monday, Nieder went home with a new ReWalk Robotics exoskeleton, allowing him to stand and walk on his own.
Published: Sep. 12, 2022 at 4:29 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- A Phoenix veteran injured in Iraq will now be able to walk again after nearly a decade of being in a wheelchair. US Army veteran Richard “Richie” Nieder suffered a spinal cord injury during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005. Nieder then lost his ability to walk due to scar tissue complications in 2013. On Monday, Nieder went home with a new ReWalk Robotics exoskeleton, allowing him to stand and walk on his own. The veteran now plans to hit the road next year for a cross-country road trip on a motorcycle he specially engineered for himself.

Nieder was thrilled to be taking home the ReWalk. “I’m now getting to go out to the real world with it other than just training and simulating it,” he said. “Now I’m the stand-up guy!” The veteran explains the experience has been more mental than physical. “After ten years of not walking, it’s one of the most amazing feelings. You don’t forget how to walk, your brain always tells you,” he said.

Now, Nieder will be taking his new ReWalk in his sidecar for next year’s bike ride to Sturgis, Michigan with fellow combat veterans. The veteran says he’s been building and riding motorcycles since he was seven years old, and is excited for what’s in store for the trip. “I’ll have legs and be able to walk with everybody instead of rolling with everybody!” he said.

Dan Bonaroti, a physical therapist and owner of Touchstone Rehabilitation, says Nieder is the first Phoenix veteran to take home a ReWalk through the VA. “He’s breaking new ground for our program that ReWalk has established throughout the country, but Phoenix has kind of been a leader in that, in making ReWalk accessible to them,” he explained. “It allows them to try it and actually see if it’s good for them.” If it is a good fit for veterans, like in Nieder’s case, the VA can buy a ReWalk.

So how does the robotic exoskeleton work? A box on the side of the ReWalk called an angle sensor will sense when Nieder is up and standing. The box then tells the other leg to step, shifting Nieder’s weight from one side to the other, creating the walking motion. A watch initiates the movements, from standing to sitting and vice versa. Supports stabilize Nieder’s hip and knees, and the power pack is on his back. “He doesn’t necessarily feel the weight of the power pack on his back because everything is formed to his body and as the robotic exoskeleton helps him, it takes the impact of that weight away,” Bonaroti said.

Through all the trials and tribulations, Nieder says his wife has been his driving force for the past decade, and he’s looking forward to his future. “It’s more than freedom. It’s complete independence, being able to be on my feet, to be eye to eye to everybody,” he said. “The biggest disability is not my inability to walk, but the way I was looking at things. It was the mental side of it. Once I figured that out, I was able to just start moving forward and realize I can do everything everybody else is doing. I just do it a little bit differently.”