The First Paralyzed American to Finish a Marathon was a Vietnam Veteran

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On Nov. 3, 2019, retired Army Sgt. Theresa Vereline crossed the finish line of the New York City Marathon at 6:35 p.m. It took her three days and the coordination of the marathon's organizers. This is because Vereline has been paralyzed from the chest down since 2011.

Vereline suffers from sarcoidosis, a disease that causes masses to form throughout her body. She likely developed the illness as a result of chemicals she was exposed to during her time in the Vietnam War, according to the New York Post.

Over the course of three days, the then 65-year-old walked the entirety of the marathon route, which goes through all five NYC boroughs. On the first and second days, she walked ten miles. The third day, the official day of the marathon, she walked the remaining 6.2 miles.

The Long Island native did it with the help of a ReWalk 5.0 exoskeleton suit, which she refers to as "Ditto," along with more than a year of training. She was the first paralyzed American to finish a marathon.

"Words cannot express the feelings I had crossing the finish line," Vereline said in a press release. "This has been a dream of mine, and I hope I can serve as an inspiration to others that you too can achieve what seems like the impossible -- especially all of the disabled children I meet across the country."

"Ditto" was issued to her by the Department of Veterans Affairs back in 2014. She was one of the first veterans to receive the device, which is the first of its kind to gain approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

According to ReWalk CEO Larry Jasinski, the exoskeleton uses motors and gears to move the body's joints while tracking upper body movement. Sensors send feedback to the lower body part of the exoskeleton to move the legs in stride.

Training on the ReWalk is time-consuming in itself. It required Vereline to go to the Bronx Veterans Affairs Hospital for one hour, three times every week. First, she trained on just how to stand up. Then, one step at a time, she trained on how to regain her balance. The machine learns how far she is able to walk.

After only one month she was able to walk without anyone else holding her up.

There are still days when Vereline is unable to even lift her head. But other days, she's extraordinarily active, engaging in various activities like swimming. She opted to attempt the New York City Marathon to be a good example for handicapped children and raise money to help make playgrounds more accessible to them.

"Schools don't have the funds to make a playground accessible to a child, it has to go to books," Vereline told CBS News. "I figured I'd do the ReWalk, do the Marathon and put it up on a GoFundMe and stuff like that. Hopefully we'd raise enough for at least one playground for the kids."

Disabled veterans with spinal cord injuries interested in getting a ReWalk exoskeleton should know that purchases can be approved through their local VA offices. Once trained on the ReWalk device, the company will send an exoskeleton fitted just to them and their needs.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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