Christopher Meek knew on 9/11 that he would one day give back to the people who risk their lives on behalf of other Americans.
Almost 16 years later, Meek gives back over and over again, helping many courageous citizens walk or stand, through his group that provides exoskeleton devices to paralyzed veterans.
“I was in the shadows of the Twin Towers on 9/11,” says Meek, 46, a finance officer who worked inside the World Trade Center. “One of my biggest memories of this day is the hundreds of people rushing into the buildings when others were running out.”
The sight of the gallant rescuers left a profound impression.
“I knew I had to give back to first responders,” Meek tells PEOPLE.
Today, Meek and his organization, SoldierStrong, have donated or funded more than $2 million worth of medical devices, allowing 25,000 spinal cord-injured veterans access to equipment that helps them use their arms or legs.
The appliances collectively are known as the Soldier Suit. They include high-tech robotic arms, a foot and an exoskeleton.
The project is an outgrowth of an earlier effort to help soldiers in the field.
A friend showed Meek a letter in 2009 from a deployed Marine whose unit lived in austere surroundings. Meek rallied to help, forming a group that shipped more than 50,000 pounds of baby wipes, bandages, socks and other items to overseas forces.
In 2012, with less need to support deployed troops, Meek looked for other ways to help.
“I came across an article about a company that makes exoskeleton devices,” Meek says.
The mission was on. Meek and SoldierStrong focused on buying and donating the appliances. Meek and his group supply the devices at no cost to veterans’ hospitals, where patients use them during therapy under medical supervision.
The suits function like wearable robots.
“It’s basically like leg braces that go into a backpack, with electric motors that guide my foot,” says former Army Reservist Dan Rose, who was paralyzed in 2011 after being hit by an explosion in Afghanistan.
“It has sensors on the feet that tell it where my center of gravity is,” says Rose, who uses his suit at home as part of a special study. “Once I get where my center of gravity needs to be, I take the next step.”
Exoskeleton devices overall are a boon to veterans who live with impaired mobility, Paralyzed Veterans of America Executive Director Sherman Gillums, Jr. tells PEOPLE
The machines are part of evolving technology that offers “new solutions to helping veterans and the entire disability community overcome barriers to living on their own terms,” says Gillums, Jr
Each device presents a cool, sci-fi vibe, but offers good old fashioned elation.
“The first time I stood up, it honestly felt like I was standing on top of a mountain,” Rose says. “I went from being seated all the time to being able to stand. I imagine that is the feeling people get when they get to the top of Mount Everest.”
The first stand-up always in an emotional event, both for the veterans and their benefactor.
“I’ve seen people walk for the first time,” Meek says. “It’s a special emotional moment each time you see it. Most of them cry the first time they stand up.”
How would Rose describe the journey to his personal Everest?
“It’s life changing,” Rose says. “It’s changed my life for the better. It’s been amazing.”
To Meek, that represents a significant reward.
“One of my life’s regrets is that I never served, and I’m trying to make up for it today,” Meek says. “For me personally, the big takeaway is giving back.”