Cycles of Freedom

By Kelly Kolhagen

It’s a crisp 46 degrees on an October Sunday morning in Detroit. The euphoria from the Tigers’ pennant victory days earlier still hangs in the air, mixed with the new adrenaline of 24,000 athletes who’ve come to run, walk, and roll in the Detroit Free Press/Talmer Bank International Marathon.

A block from the finish line, Ben Maenza, 24, of Brentwood, Tennessee, is relaxing in his wheelchair, smoking a cigarette. A half-hour earlier, the retired Marine lance corporal completed his fourth marathon, cranking his bright orange hand cycle (a three-wheel, hand-driven cycle) 26.2 miles to a fifth-place category finish.

Two years earlier to the day—on October 21, 2010, just three weeks after arriving in Afghanistan—Maenza was crossing a flooded cornfield on foot with his unit when a bomb exploded beside him. He lost both his legs above the knee and sustained several injuries to his arms, which is probably why no one has had the nerve to tell him smoking is hazardous to his health.

Following eighteen months of recovery, Maenza is channeling his competitive spirit as a member of the Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans. He and his teammates, many of them fellow amputees, are rebuilding their lives through hand-cycling events, including marathons.

Gathering military intelligence

The day before the Detroit marathon, Josiah Hooker, a Michigan Tech senior majoring in mechanical engineering, is on a fact-finding mission with Maenza and other members of the Achilles Freedom Team, who are serving as expert consultants on a very different kind of engineering project.

Hooker is among twenty-one students on five teams participating in Michigan Tech’s Huskies Helping Heroes program. Sponsored by General Motors, it is aimed at producing a more durable and comfortable hand cycle for wounded veterans. Each team works with an athlete advisor to ensure a steady source of feedback. Today is their first face-to-face meeting.

The students are producing prototypes of two winning team designs in time for their reveal at the Army-Navy Game. One is a recreational model named the Keweenaw Cruiser. It was developed by the Peleus Solutions team, to which Hooker belongs.

The other, by the Patriot Powered Performance team, is a competition cycle named Tomahawk.

Brett Jenkins of Troy, the Copper Country Solutions team leader, called the Huskies Helping Heroes project “the most rewarding assignment I’ve ever worked on.”

“The athletes need a better cycle, and right now they’re not getting what they need,” said Jenkins. “For this project to be successful, we need to know what the athletes like—and don’t like—and see first-hand how they use the cycles in marathons.”

James Cook of Lexington, Kentucky, who leads the Patriot Powered Performance team, agreed: “The athletes aren’t shy about sharing their opinions. That’s good, because all feedback is good feedback.”

A big challenge in designing a “perfect” cycle is that the athletes’ physical issues vary. Some are amputees who need certain restraints for when they suffer spasms; others sustained injuries that affect their ability to grip a handle for 26.2 miles. Some athletes like to sit upright; others prefer to ride almost recumbent, or lying down.

The athletes aren’t shy about describing their injuries and how they affect their ability to ride. Some have used humor as part of the healing process with tattoos like “I had a blast in Afghanistan.”

Steve Schaenzer of Flat Rock and Laura Larsen of Charlevoix, members of the Copper Country Solutions team, are showing athletes a hand brace that accommodates a clip that can attach directly to the cycle handles, for those with grip issues.

For the Patriot Powered Performance prototype, they showed lower leg restraints made of smart materials that can be custom-molded using heat, and upper leg restraint supports that use Boa-brand closure system technology for a custom fit.

All athletes agree that the cycles, which sit close to the ground, need equipment so that runners, motorists, and motorcyclists can see them. Retired National Guard Staff Sgt. Travis Wood, 29, of Cedar City, Utah, who lost his right leg above the knee during a 2007 bomb blast in Afghanistan, experienced a white-knuckle moment a year ago when a motorcycle cop cut in front of him during a marathon in Los Angeles.

“Another issue is transportability,” says Hooker. “We’ll build a frame out of aluminum, which is lightweight and durable, and stronger forks out of chromoly steel—an alloy with an excellent strength-to-weight ratio. This fork-to-frame attachment can rotate and lay upon the seat assembly for easier transport.”

The new war scar: amputations

The Achilles Freedom Team athletes belong to a fraternity they didn’t ask to join.

According to the US Department of Defense, about 1,600 servicemen and women have suffered injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan that required amputation of one or more limbs. The number reached an all-time high in 2011 with the troop surge in Afghanistan and its accompanying foot patrols.

In March, the Army Times cited a report from the Army’s Dismounted Complex Blast Injury Task Force that found the most dramatic changes in the wounds coming out of Afghanistan were the increased number of troops with above-the-knee amputation of both legs, as well as triple and even quadruple amputations.

As a result, the Army is testing advanced, cutting-edge prosthetics powered by microprocessors and designed expressly for above-the-knee amputations.

“Just as prosthetics have improved, ten years from now we could see better cycles because of the work these students are doing today,” says Dick Traum. The first amputee to compete in the New York City Marathon (in 1976), Traum founded Achilles International in 1983 and the Achilles Freedom Team in 2004 as a way to support injured vets from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now 71, Traum came to Detroit to cheer on the Achilles athletes and compete in his forty-seventh marathon, this day in a hand cycle. It is largely through Achilles’s efforts that hand cycles are permitted in major marathons throughout the country, including New York, Boston, Chicago, and Detroit.

Engineering is about improving lives

Because of Michigan Tech’s rigorous curriculum and excellent reputation, nearly every mechanical engineering graduate is offered a job upon graduation. In fact, many of the seniors who traveled to Detroit are juggling multiple job interviews.

Before graduating, however, every mechanical engineering degree candidate must successfully complete a Senior Capstone Design project. All are challenging and worthy, but the Huskies Helping Heroes project is the most popular.

Faculty advisor Paul van Susante attributes the program’s appeal to the fact that the students connect emotionally with the athletes and experience first-hand how their work will make a difference.

“People think engineers care only about math and science, but at its core, engineering is really about improving people’s lives,” says van Susante.

Huskies Helping Heroes began with Linda Stouffer of GM, whose role as manager of vehicle purchase programs has evolved into a deeply personal labor of love on behalf of military causes. She sought help from Terry Woychowski ’78, who, until his recent retirement, was a GM vice president in charge of quality and vehicle launch programs.

Stouffer told Woychowski that the GM Military Discount Program donated cycles to the Achilles Freedom Team, but the cycles were breaking down under the demands of competition.

Woychowski suggested a Senior Capstone Design activity around the Achilles project, and Stouffer contacted its coordinator, Robert DeJonge.

Because the sheer scope of the project was beyond what a typical team could handle, the students were organized into four teams for work that began in January. A fifth team was added in September. Advising the teams are DeJonge, along with Michele Miller, director of undergraduate programs, van Susante, and instructor Adam Loukus ’01 ’08.

With Stouffer’s support, GM is underwriting a documentary on the Huskies Helping Heroes program that will debut early next year.

“Achilles is giving these athletes the gift of racing and competing, and we’re so glad to be part of it,” she says.

“More than a grade”

Jackie Kukulski of Grand Haven is a dual biomedical–mechanical engineering major who joined Team Five in September. Her team will take the two prototypes and develop a third “beta” cycle that combines the best attributes of both. The goal is to then turn the cycle over to an Achilles athlete for competition testing.

“For me, this is about more than a grade,” said Kukulski, who is developing solutions for rerouting the cycles’ brake lines. Now, they are attached to the cranks and are prone to failure because of the constant motion.

GM engineers Alexa Ellswood and Sarah (Pearson) Cohen ’07 meet weekly with the Huskies Helping Heroes teams via web conferencing and travel frequently to Houghton to check progress and recruit new talent for GM’s engineering ranks.

“I love working with Alexa and Sarah,” said Kukulski, adding, “GM has been an awesome sponsor.”

With a management style that is equal parts mentor and taskmaster, Ellswood and Cohen ask tough questions, expecting the students to explain their designs and how they solve the athletes’ usability issues.

“I love working with the students and seeing their energy and passion,” said Ellswood. “This isn’t their last class. It’s their first job.”

At 5 a.m. on race day, the students are on the job, checking cycle adjustments and talking to the athletes before escorting them around the long city block to the starting gate. As Detroit R&B legend Thornetta Davis sings the national anthem, some pause silently in the cold, heads bowed, eyes glistening.

Soon, they hope, their work will result in more than a grade—it will produce hand cycles as tough and competition-worthy as the brave heroes who inspired them.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.