Marine Corps veteran Brittany Elliott has spent years fighting for the device that helps her walk - now she hopes to do the same for other veterans.
A car accident left Marine Corps veteran Brittany Elliott a paraplegic eight years ago, but with the help of technology and her own determination, she is able to walk again thanks to a robotic exoskeleton.
Now she's telling her story to lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and working with other veterans to create the STAND Act, a bill announced last week that will make it easier for other disabled veterans who need them to access these exoskeletons.
"My mission is to raise awareness of this device," says Elliott, 33, who lives with her father in Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee. "It's not science fiction - it's real life. Getting back on your feet and moving around brings so much more to the table than just walking."
Elliott was attending a gun-carrying class on a Saturday in February 2013 when a Marine saw her shooting and asked what she did for a living and if she had thought about joining the military. He sent a recruiter to the Wal-Mart in Lenoir City, Tennessee, where she worked as a pharmaceutical technician, and she enlisted in the Marine Corps that Friday.
Six months later, Elliott was medically discharged after breaking her right femur in a training accident. She was told she would need two years to heal her leg, after which she planned to return.
"I was counting down the days," she says. "All I wanted to do was go back into the service. I really found what I thought was my place." She trained for physical fitness and combat readiness, she says, "to prove that I could get back into the service."
About a month before she was able to take the fitness test, on July 3, 2015, she was driving a car with her then-girlfriend and some friends in it when "a drunk driver ran a red light and hit us head-on," she says.
"At that moment, I knew I wouldn't be able to return to any kind of service forever," she says. "I had no idea what I was going to do."
In addition to whiplash and a concussion, Elliott suffered a spinal cord injury that left her paraplegic.
"I've lost my ability to do anything," she says.
She watched the fireworks from her hospital bed on July 4. A week later, she turned 25 and was in intensive care.
She read on the Internet about the ReWalk robotic exoskeleton, which enables quadriplegics to walk. She saw that the VA was conducting a study.
"I was bugging and bugging people until I got into the study," she says. She traveled to the VA Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, in April 2018, where she was trained on the device and took it home for 12 weeks. She loved it.
"I can walk like this," she says. She can even climb stairs.
When she's in a wheelchair, Elliott says, people tend to ignore her or ask her father directly, "What's wrong with her?"
"It's like they think it's contagious," she says. "My chair is my legs, but it doesn't define me. It's the way I walk. But when I sit in an exoskeleton, people will talk to me. They're not afraid of it - even if it sounds like a robot."
The difference in the way people treated her led to improvements in her mental health as well as her physical health. Her bone density and bladder control improved and she lost weight.
But then she had to give it back.
"It was very cruel," says her father Morgan Elliott, a former truck driver who now cares for her full time.
Elliott fought for years for her personal exoskeleton. In April 2022, she finally did.
"No veteran should ever have to fight the battle I fought to get this technology," she says. "Would you want to fight for four years to get something that has made such a difference in your life?"
She brings the exoskeleton to public places, from Disney to Disabled American Veterans meetings to the Congressional Football Game. Elliott likes to go to places where there are many other disabled veterans who have lost the ability to walk to show them the technology and give them hope.
"Some people don't even know that this is possible," she says. "They have simply resigned themselves to a chair. But that doesn't have to be the case."
Her father - who is always by her side - has noticed a remarkable difference in his daughter when she is in her ReWalk.
"It's life-changing. It really is," says her father. "When she's in her device and we're out, she never wants to stop. She just wants to go. She loves being awake, she loves going for walks ... She's happier when she's in her device and walking in her device. Her whole aura changes."
When he saw it for the first time, it made him think of Robocop, he says. People come up to her and tell her that she looks like a real Transformer.
Despite her injuries, Elliott continues to lead an active life. She and her father recently went parasailing together in Hawaii and swam with sea turtles in Aruba.
"I don't normally spend much time in the house," she says. "I normally help my vet colleagues."
She has learned to drive a car; she practices adaptive skiing and trains to ski; she snowmobiles and skydives.
"I'm living a good life," she says. "The wreck may have changed my life, but it didn't end it. It taught me what really matters. I knew that I could give up and die, or that I could make life a breathtaking adventure."
And she opted for the latter.
"It's just starting," she says, "it's getting better every day."