“My greatest satisfaction is showing someone the arm I’ve made, and seeing the recognition that they want one of these arms. I look forward to being able to provide one to anyone who wants one,” – John Kuniholm, Marine Corps Veteran and founder of Stumpworx
Should you randomly meet Jon Kuniholm, you will likely have no immediate understanding of the marked intelligence, talent and determination behind his low-key, down-to-earth nature.
What will be noted fairly soon, however, is his missing lower right arm that is amputated just below the elbow.
As a former Marine Corps Reserve Captain (O-3), Jon deployed to Iraq as a Combat Engineer and Platoon Leader after receiving orders to activate less than 48 hours after swearing in for Reserve service. Jon’s lower right arm was nearly severed in an improvised explosive device (IED) explosion while on patrol in Anbar Province in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom on New Year’s Day 2005.
And yet, there’s still more to Jon’s story of commitment and achievement. Prior to his Marine Corps service, he had earned degrees in industrial design and mechanical engineering from North Carolina State University, and graduated from the Ivy League research university Dartmouth College.
Honorable and Dutiful Service in Iraq
Jon possessed a world of academic knowledge but when it came to the call to duty, serving his nation came first. When the call abruptly came, he deployed to Iraq serving four-and-a-half months assigned as the Engineer Officer for the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines, in northern Anbar province.
On New Year’s Eve 2004, Jon spent the evening “rustily fingerpicking a bluegrass song for the battalion’s talent show,” a personal detail Jon shares in an article he published in IEEE Spectrum, a nonprofit that publishes research on robotics, electronics and more.
It had been a leisurely evening since over the Christmas holiday Jon had been working a long patrol, “sleeping little, getting shot at,” he shares in the account.
In the morning, New Year’s Day 2005, his planning meeting with another Marine officer was suddenly halted when they received a report that a nearby Marine boat patrol had been attacked. As a committed Marine leader, Jon joined the platoon sent to respond.
Arriving at the site, the Marines debarked their boat and patrolled the area on foot, only finding evidence of the reported firefight. The Marine patrol began securing the site.
“I was on the ground before I was even aware of the sound of an explosion,” Jon shares in his account. “The blast from the improvised explosive device in an olive oil can broke my M4 carbine in two and nearly severed my right arm. Before the Blackhawk helicopter took me away, I remember telling the Executive Officer, ‘I guess my guitar-playing days are over,’” he adds.
Jon fortunately survived the surprise explosion, ultimately being airlifted to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany before being transferred to Walter Reed National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The military hospital is also known as Bethesda Naval Hospital, and is where Jon began his daunting but also haunting personal journey of learning to live after severe injury, trauma and loss.
Earlier during his medevac, Jon learned a fellow Marine on the patrol, 19-year-old Brian Parrello of West Milford, N.J., did not return home.
“I immediately began to feel guilty about the early ticket home, despite its price,” Jon shares in his personal account of his return to the U.S.
He notes that by mid-2004 Marines knew IEDs were their enemy’s preferred weapon and spent considerable time preparing against them. “We were to some extent prepared for the possibility of death, but I hadn’t given much thought to how my life might change if an IED took one of my limbs,” he adds.
Urgent Return to U.S. for Amputation, Rehabilitation and Recovery
After his severe injury, Jon was transported to the U.S. on Jan. 5. “I was injured at the same time as the Marines were engaged in Fallujah, and when I arrived at Bethesda Naval Hospital, all the rooms were at double occupancy and there were actually some people in the hallway,” Jon says.
At the hospital, the nature of Jon’s severe arm injury initiated lengthy debate about where best to amputate and preserve its function, leading to his transfer to Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C. At Duke, part of Jon’s back was transplanted onto his arm, saving his elbow for increased arm functionality.
Before Jon deployed to Iraq, he had been a biomedical engineering graduate candidate at Duke, an elite higher education institution. During his rehabilitation at Walter Reed, his academic and natural instincts motivated him to research prosthetics technology.
In Jon’s words, he was “trying to envision what my future would look like.” He looked forward to completing his final surgeries so he could receive his “state-of-the-art myoelectric arm,” as his rehabilitation physician had informed him.
Earlier in his healing process, Jon had also been introduced to a prosthetist at Duke University, and following Jon’s successful lower arm amputation at Duke University Hospital, the two reconnected. The prosthetist showed Jon the reality of the most advanced prostheses clinically available at the time.
The prosthetist showed him a myoelectric hand and it was far less than Jon expected.
“That’s it?” Jon assesses directly from his personal account. “I was looking at a rigid, hand-shaped electric clamp,” Jon recounts.
From that moment, Jon caught his first glimpse of what his actual future – and his personal and professional aspirations – would become.
From Physically Limiting Amputation to Determined Aspiration
By the end of 2006 Jon was medically retired from the Marines, but his academic and career aspirations were just beginning to take flight. Despite his amputation, he was able to regain his pilot’s license allowing him to commute to rehabilitation at Walter Reed while resuming his graduate biomedical engineering studies at Duke in North Carolina.
“I refocused my graduate studies on prosthetics once I realized how bad the state of prosthetic arms actually was,” Jon shares. “I became determined to change that,” Jon emphasizes.
In his graduate research, Jon became deeply involved in a program to develop a fully integrated motorized prosthetic by 2009.
“As part of the project, I saw these efforts fail to deliver on most of their goals, and developed some fairly strong opinions about why, and about what might be done to take advantage of the technology,” Jon shares.
With his research observations, Jon eventually chose to pursue a more basic issue with prosthetics that focused on comfort and functionality.
“I was aware that more than half of arm amputees don’t wear a prosthetic arm at all, and of those that do, 90% choose a body-powered hook that hasn’t improved much since the 1950s,” Jon shares. “I was also aware that nine of the top 10 reasons that these patients choose not to use an arm at all come down to fit and comfort of sockets.”
In the prosthetics field, sockets are the primary contact point where an amputation must properly fit to the prosthetic to effectively function. However, user comfort is essential for frequent and prolonged use.
“It seemed obvious to me that the solution to this problem lay in the tech of the multi-billion dollar athletic shoe industry,” Jon explains, “which has spent more than half a century coming up with better solutions to essentially the same problem.”
The origins of Stumpworx developed out of Jon’s insights and observations.
“I set out to create the solution that Adidas, Nike or New Balance would have created, and I’ve done it,” Jon says. “I’m really pleased with the result, and am now working to improve it and get it on the arms of more Veterans.”
Through Jon’s prosthetics innovation and advances, Stumpworx now operates as a Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business (SDVOSB), proudly verified by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Small Business Administration.
Located in Portland, Ore., Stumpworx is committed to improving the livelihood of Veterans. The prosthetics start-up pursues serving the needs of arm amputees – particularly Veteran arm amputees – while maintaining values that surpass profit motive.
Prospering Relationship with Disabled Veterans of America and VA
As Stumpworx has grown and advanced, Jon has become more engaged with VA and other organizations that serve and support the needs of Veterans, including the Disabled American Veterans (DAV). In November 2022, Jon participated in a DAV Shark Tank pitch contest, earning the top prize among three Veterans selected from participation in the 2022 DAV Patriot Boot Camp.
“I received an invite in the mail that was a little different,” Jon says, “The invite offered an intensive few days at the DAV headquarters in Kentucky. I decided to spend the money because it seemed like a great opportunity that would be worth the expense, and I wasn’t wrong,” he emphasizes.
“The DAV is a great organization that supports disabled Veterans with somewhat less visible things that they really need—like transportation to VA appointments—and their commitment to entrepreneurship is no different.”
Looking Ahead to Improve the Lives of Others
As Jon’s severe injury entirely changed his life and his academic and professional pursuits, he is fully focused on making the lives of amputees better by directly addressing the challenges they face.
“No one knows better what people with disabilities need than themselves,” Jon shares. “They miss the two most important things, which are function and comfort.”
In his mission to improve the lives of others with severely disabling injuries, Stumpworx has accomplished major milestones in the prosthetics industry. Jon’s prosthetics start-up now has strong relationships with VA, the University of Pittsburgh, and others.
“We’ve just been awarded a VA contract to improve the arm and fit 25 Veterans over the next four years,” Jon shares. “We’re waiting to hear about a grant to create a leg version, and improve the design in some different ways,” he explains.
From his severe injury during dutiful service for his nation, Jon kept his determination to understand and address the needs of others like him, and has acquired new optimism about the possibilities ahead.
“My greatest satisfaction is showing someone the arm I’ve made, and seeing the recognition that they want one of these arms. I look forward to being able to provide one to anyone who wants one,” he emphasizes.
“As soon as I understood that prosthetic arms were an orphan medical device, I thought I could come up with something better,” Jon explains. “It’s a lot harder problem and most people, including me, are surprised at how hard it is once they really get engaged. I’ve been trying to solve this problem almost to the instant I lost my arm in 2005, and don’t intend to stop anytime soon.”