When 20-year-old U.S. Navy hopeful Cameron Massengale lost his arm in a work accident, he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to march as a cadet at The Citadel again. But thanks to a custom prosthetic arm and his refusal to settle, Massengale has not only returned to the group but also became the first amputee to make the university’s Summerall Guards, a silent precision drill platoon, in January. Massengale is the first amputee to make the platoon at The Citadel, a military college in Charleston, S.C.
“I’m still not completely sure how I’m doing it. It just kind of happens,” Massengale told FoxNews.com. “I call it magic.”
Massengale has four prosthetics, including one myoelectric prosthetic with a bionic hand and a drill prosthetic has a two-fingered hook so he can perform quick, open-and-close movements like picking up or setting down his rifle. Creating his drill arm took some trial and error, said Jon Nottingham, a certified prosthetist orthotist and area clinic manager at the Hanger Clinic in Greenville, South Carolina.
The length of his drill prosthetic was also shortened so The Citadel senior can look uniform with his platoon, and it has a specialized wrist that he can rotate or flex in three or four positions.
The hooks on the hand are held shut with a series of rubber bands that are stacked at the base of the hand to tighten or loosen the grip of the hook. Massengale simply flexes his shoulders to open the hook, and relaxes them to very softly or firmly grip whatever he’s hoping to grab, depending on the number of rubber bands he’s using.
“People say there’s a ceiling— that there are limits— but [Cameron] doesn’t believe there are limits or ceilings just because he’s an amputee,” Nottingham told FoxNews.com.
Col. Keith Brace, a battalion TAC officer at The Citadel who supervises Massengale, said he was “a little bit skeptical” when he learned Massengale was trying out for the Summerall Guards.
“It’s a drill platoon that the best of the best compete for,” Brace, a retired lieutenant colonel, told FoxNews.com. “The tryout process is very physically demanding and strenuous, and that’s in addition to the rifle drill and the military precision, and the sharpness of their uniform and appearance.”
To compete for the honor, Massengale completed 15 training days focused on physical fitness and drills. Each year, 61 cadets are accepted to the Summerall Guards. This year, Massengale’s group started with 135 hopefuls.
Brace said he felt the primary hurdle Massengale would face was following the platoon’s rifle manual with his prosthetic, but Massengale came up with his own manual instead.
“My roommate and I were doing the same training, and when he was practicing, I would watch him to see how he was moving his rifle,” Massengale said. “I would attempt to mimic it, but I’d also try to modify him, and have him kind of watch it and see how I was doing it.”
By practicing with his fellow cadets but also on his own “for hours on end for every day of the week,” Massengale learned how to manipulate the rifle with his prosthetic without standing out. Simply learning the drills with his prosthetic was difficult, but Massengale said looking uniform among the platoon was most challenging.
“The first time I saw him,” Brace said, “and this was the actual cut’s day … when they determine who’s gonna be in the platoon, I saw him go out there and execute the rifle manual with his prosthetic, and I was just in awe because it was just something I didn’t think he was gonna be able to do, and he did it to such a high level.”
“It was clear he had worked and figured out a way to get through it,” Brace continued, “and no one else could teach him— that that was something he had to learn through his own practice. It was inspiring to watch.”
Massengale, whose uncle is a colonel in the National Guard and whose great-grandfather fought in the U.S. Army during World War II, had dreamed of flying helicopters in the Navy since he was a child. In high school, he was on the JROTC team and had planned on going to aviation school.
When Massengale’s arm needed to be amputated after an accident with a meat grinder at a butcher’s shop where he worked summer 2014, neither he nor his parents knew what to expect for his health, much less his career. Massengale underwent five reconstructive surgeries to salvage his arm and three of his fingers, but the limb eventually went septic— a life-threatening infection— and needed to be amputated. About a month after the amputation, he got his first prosthetic.
“At first, I thought my life was going to be over,” Massengale said. “I thought I was going to be sitting on my couch for the rest of my life, and I said, ‘Screw this.’ My friends pushed me to come back … I don’t think they gave me a choice.”
Mike Massengale, Cameron’s dad, 53, said he’s not surprised by his son's achievements.
“He’s always been this way,” Mike, an artist and arts professor who lives in Greenville, S.C., with his wife and Cameron’s mom, Stacey Massengale, told FoxNews.com. “My motto that I’ve shared with him is, ‘What I don’t have in talent, skill or knowledge, I make up for with hard work,’ and that’s what he does.”
Last summer, Massengale attended Camp No Limits in Newry, Maine, where adults and college students help mentor children with upper-limb differences. Massengale no longer plans on entering the Navy to fly helicopters. Instead, he plans on helping other amputees like himself adapt to their limb differences.
“I think there’s no limit to what a person can do as long as you put your heart and mind and soul into it,” Massengale said.