Clark & Associates gives vets limb and life.
by Pat Kinney
on Wednesday, April 24, 2019
WATERLOO – Dennis Clark’s father Dale was a man of few words. Dennis has a few of them on a hand-painted wooden American flag in his office.
In white letters, along the red stripes of the flag, are the words, “People don’t remember you for what you have, But what you gave.”
Dennis took his dad’s words to heart and his company has given new life to those who gave their all on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They have returned numerous military veterans and other patients to a meaningful life after the trauma of losing one or more limbs.
And the younger Clark, unlike his dad, is at no loss for words when he describes how his colleagues have received back more than they’ve given serving a company of heroes. They’ve had a front-row seat to a steady stream of profiles in courage of determined veterans and their families.
For that, and ongoing support of military, veterans and community service, Clark & Associates Prosthetics and Orthotics has named recipient of the Grout Museum District’s Van G. Miller Award For Outstanding Support for Our Armed Forces. The award is given annually to an Iowa business “who goes above and beyond in honoring, supporting or hiring veterans and active-duty military.”
The award will be presented at the Grout Museum District’s annual gala fundraiser 6 to 9 p.m. May 4 at the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum. The theme is “Night at the Museum: Racing for the Veterans.”
Dennis Clark is a 1972 graduate of West High School in Waterloo, who attended the University of Iowa. He purchased his dad’s business, Dale Clark Prosthetics, from his parents in 1987. He grew the company, and after one brief ownership change brought in partners and reorganized as Clark and Associates in late 2002. They operated in a couple of different locations before renovating the former Cresthaven Elementary School, on Park Lane across from the Friendship Village retirement community, into their current offices.
Clark and his partners took back the reorganized company at what would be a defining moment for his staff and for him. War had broken out in Iraq following the 9-11 attacks on America. Troops were being wounded. Many were losing limbs. Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. was filling with amputees. Clark and Associates was called to help. It was not a question of if, but when and how.
Dennis Clark of Clark and Associates works on replacing equipment on prosthetic arms for longtime patient Don Jones
“They could have asked anyone in the world. And they talked to some folks and everyone pointed them in one direction,” Clark said. “And I got a call from a colonel at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and he said, ‘Would you be willing to come help? It’ll just be for a couple of months; the war will be over. But we have a backlog of patients; would you be willing to help?
“And I said yes, not knowing what I was committing to. There were at least 80 soldiers that were needing care “ right away, Clark said. “They lined them up in the hallway outside the prosthetics offices, and said, ‘Start here, and go as far as you can. And the next day, go as far as you can. And the next day, go as far as you can.’
“We got to work with surgeons and wound care specialists and psychiatrists. Everyone as a team,” Clark said. “And the outcomes became remarkable.” They “transformed” the process by which the military treated amputees.
“We committed for three months – and stayed for 22 months” though 2005, Clark said. “We were treating, at any point in time, between 100 and 200 patients at one time,” in various stages of treatment. Some weeks, we would get as many as 12 to 18 new patients coming in. “
There a large degree of emotional and mental preparation involved, Clark said. “We would meet all of them, talk to them about concerns, talk to their families, talk to guys in their unit, talk to anybody who would be part of that support team for them and get them ready to be successful amputees.”
And about 6 percent, once fitted, returned to active duty – something Clark said didn’t happen at all in previous conflicts.
The success of the wounded warriors who lost limbs – many of them “multiple-limb amputees,” has a lot to do with their character, Clark said.
“Think about who these young men and women are,” he said. “First off, it’s all volunteer service, 100 percent,” and highly trained. “In my mind, having met so many of them, I think this is the next ‘Greatest Generation,’
“The injuries from the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are so devastating; it’s beyond just the loss of a limb. So many of the soldiers had traumatic brain injuries. And it’s a ‘dirty war’ “ -- in an area where the potential for infection is high.
But medical care has improved over previous conflicts and the survival rate is high – which makes the quality of the soldiers’ survival, and return to a productive life, with prosthetics, so imperative, Clark said.
“We’d seen a fair number of veterans because of the high veteran population especially here in Black Hawk County and surrounding counties,” Clark said. “So we have had an opportunity to work with veterans before. Not this fresh, and not this young. But when you’re given a task like that, you just go to work. You focus on the task at hand.
“If we would have pulled the lens back and looked at everything, it would have been much more daunting,” Clark said. “The cases weren’t easy. But the young men and women were so compelling. You wanted to do everything you could possibly do.”
Clark & Associates staff at Walter Reed and the firm’s manufacturing staff in Waterloo worked long hours to meet their needs. “All of our clients and our local patients understood. They knew what was going on. We just went after it and did it.”
“I would guess we treated 600 soldiers,” Clark said out of nearly 1,600 amputees since 9-11. “It was the greatest experience of my professional career, bar none,” Clark said, as it was for the entire staff. “It took a great effort. And it never felt like work. What we do for a living is not manufacture limbs. We help them have the hope they’re going to need. Then their battle is easier.”
Clark also felt an obligation to pay it forward. “I had many friends that served. I never did,” due to a knee injury playing basketball in high school. “That haunted me.” But he had many relatives who did and his late wife Susan served as a registered nurse in the Army , retiring a captain.” She also helped start Cedar Valley Hospice.
Susan passed away last year. Clark has a grown son and daughter and is a single-again dad to school-age adopted brothers who attend Kingsley Elementary School.
Clark’s semi-retired now. His staff “doesn’t need my help,” he said. “They’re helping me to stay involved and stay active, and it allows me to do what I do with veterans – Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health, and some other little projects around the United States. Almost always focused on helping active-duty personnel and veterans.”
Andy Steele of Clark and Associates works on a prosthetic leg. He himself is an amputee, having lost part of a let in a farm accident at age 12.
Locally, Clark & Associates offices are home to regular “Coffee and Camaraderie” veterans gatherings, organized by U.S. Marine Corps 1991 Persian Gulf War veteran Kris Jones, with support from the Black Hawk County Veteran Affairs Commission. Aside from his veteran services, the company also sponsors a regular snow skiing event for amputees at Sundown Mountain in Dubuque.
Clark has returned to Walter Reed periodically and has testified before Congress on behalf of wounded warriors. He contributed an exhibit to the Grout Museum of a mannequin of a returned soldier with a prosthesies mowing his lawn. The prosthesis had belonged to a partner, Don Moore, who passed away from cancer. It was a tribute to those returned soldiers, “but also to someone they never met, who made such a tremendous difference in hundreds of lives.” He’s known as “Uncle Denny” to many families of veteran patients.
“We’re not just filling the distance from the amputation to the rest of the pant leg,” Clark said. “The care we provide to all patients starts at the top of their head and goes to the ground and reaches out to their families and anybody else that can help in the rehabilitative process.”
Tickets to "A Night at the Museum: Racing for the Veterans" where Clark & Associates Prosthetics and Orthotics will be honored, are available for purchase here.