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New Driving Simulator Helps Injured American Soldiers

American soldiers in combat drive tanks and Humvees. But when members of the military return to the United States to recover from critical injuries, they need help re-learning how to drive regular cars. The nation's army rehabilitation hospital, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, has a new tool to get veterans driving their own automobiles and their own destiny. VOA's Carolyn Presutti shows it to us.

Christopher Levi is driving a classic American vehicle. A Chevrolet truck. The driver's view is different from the real world. But then again, Christopher is a different driver from what he was eight months ago.

He is a double amputee. Christopher's legs were shattered by a bomb while he was riding in a humvee near Baghdad's Sadr City. This driving simulator now steers his way through rehabilitation, monitoring his heart rate through a clip on his ear. The goal is to transition from driving in combat to driving in cities.

General Motors technicians worked with army engineers and college students to modify a fullsize pick-up truck. They wired video game technology into the truck's software. They added special gadgets to compensate for disabilities and more hand controls for veterans without legs, like Christopher.

Levi explains, "Moving my hand up to signal means I have to either let go of the gas or let go of the brake."

Kenny Gallagher, the General Motors Program Lead states, "Turn signals work, steering wheel feels like you are going 30 miles per hour, and has the same resistance any vehicle would."

Gallagher led his college automotive team.

"As soon as they asked for volunteers for this, I was one of the first ones to raise my hand because I was actually...I'm always looking to be a part of something that's bigger than me," he said.

Americans are known for their love affair with cars. A set of wheels provides the freedom to go wherever we want, whenever we want. For wounded veterans, driving revives self-esteem and speeds recovery. That's what the commander of Walter Reed Army Hospital has seen.

"In rehabilitation, we say it's sort of crawl, walk, run," says Colonel Norvell Coots. "And at this point, being able to put somebody back in the cab of a vehicle, we're getting to the run point. We're returning them to full function."

The simulator lists driver error just as a patrol officer might ticket a real vehicle.

Christopher's rehab wasn't progressing as quickly as his doctors hoped. But today, in his first drive since his injury, he thinks he has found the key.

Levi exclaims, "It's like a stimulant, a boost. It's a motivational boost to know that I'll be able to get out there and have the independence that I had before."

A simulator based on video games. Helping America's veterans maneuver through the roads of life.