Wounded heroes persevere through hell and back

Story and photos by Sgt. Kimberly Johnson
196th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) Public Affairs

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — Seven Soldiers and three Marines, severely injured during Operation Iraqi Freedom, visited Joint Base Balad, Iraq May 11 as part of Operation Proper Exit, a program created to aid injured service members in the healing process of their wounds from battle.

Richard Kell, founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization, Troops First Foundation, created the nonprofit organization to take service members back to where their injuries happened, raising awareness of the importance of providing a better quality of life for the service members injured in combat.

The visit included a meet-and-greet with the hospital staff at JBB, a town hall meeting with service members here and the presentation of certificates of appreciation by Command Sgt. Maj. Mark D. Joseph, senior enlisted adviser with the 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) and a Lake Charles, La., native and Col. Knowles Atchison, deputy commanding officer of the 13th SC(E) and a Fort Hood, Texas, resident.

The Soldiers and Marines took the opportunity to thank the staff at the JBB hospital for what their comrades did to save their lives during their time here, while in transition to Walter Reed Medical Center.

“Us sitting in front of you today is actually (the result of) work that you all have done,” said retired Spc. Brent Hendrix, a Forest City, N.C., native who underwent a right above-knee amputation and 66 surgeries. “Now we get to come back and you get to see how much work you actually put into us, how strong we are and how we’re not going to give up. I’m proud of you all. I’ve gotten to do so much ever since I left the battlefield of Iraq. I got to still be a human being as I see fit, just being able to say that is amazing. I’m glad for what you all did to get me better.”

The visit proved therapeutic for the staff as well. Many staff members thanked the group of service members for their sacrifices and their courage to come back to Iraq, because hearing their stories is healing for them as well.

“For me and all the medical staff, when we hear how someone’s doing —just to get an update — it means a lot to us,” said Chief Master Sgt. John Elder, the chief superintendent of the hospital with the 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group and an Appomattox, Va., native. “It gives us great satisfaction knowing we are helping in their recovery in some way. We just want to know they’re alright and that they’re progressing in their care.”

The medical field has improved over the years, allowing more service members to return home as wounded Veterans instead of deaths on the battlefield.

The rate of survival is much higher now than compared to the Vietnam War. Medics receive better training and get wounded soldiers off the battlefield much faster and more efficiently, said Command Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Wilson, senior enlisted adviser with United States Forces-Iraq and an Austin, Texas, native.

“These aren’t easy wounds,” he said. “A human body, no matter how much body armor you try to put on … It’s not made to sustain an 80-pound blast. If 200 pounds of explosive from an improvised explosive device blows off the turret of a tank (and) throws it 30 meters, what’s it going to do to a human body? We are flesh and bone. There’s nothing we can put on us to make us ‘RoboCop.’ The world in which we live as combat warriors on the ground, the enemy will always have a vote. So we have to (wear) as much (armor) as we can … but still be able to maneuver to accomplish our mission,” Wilson said.

Of the ten participants of OPE, 10 suffered injuries requiring amputated limbs, including three losing more than one limb.

“Everyday it’s a challenge for us as amputees; even the guys with post-traumatic stress disorder,” Hendrix said. “Everyday, just to be able to get up and act like a normal human being and a normal guy, it’s a difficult process. I have to get up every morning and put a leg on. Then, I have to worry about putting my shorts on, then … my shirts. I’ve got that extra step.”

PTSD is not a recently discovered condition. Fresh knowledge is continually being collected with regard to it. Three service members who didn’t have anything physically wrong with them, had enough mental trauma to push them to take their own lives, Hendrix said.

Although these service members were severely injured, some remain in the military as active duty members, while others retired from the military with full retirement benefits.

“There are days I look back and think maybe I should have thought a little longer about (retiring), especially (while on) this trip, being able to put a uniform back on,” said retired Sgt. Noah Galloway, a Birmingham, Ala. native, who underwent a left above-elbow amputation and left above-knee amputation. “It’s an honor to put it back on, and then I also think of where I am today in the civilian world and I wouldn’t change that … That goes for my injuries as well. I wouldn’t change anything that’s happened to me.”

Whether or not to remain in the military is a personal decision, said retired Marine Capt. Chris Hadsall, a Bailey, Colo. native, who suffered loss of movement and sensation in his right foot, mild traumatic brain injuries and PTSD due to a suicide car bomb.

“No matter what your decision is, don’t look back,” he said. “Transition forward, because whatever you decide to do, depending on the type of person you are, you’re going to make an impact wherever you are. It’s going to be a negative impact or it’s going to be a positive impact. I think you can tell by these men standing up here today, they made the decision to make a positive impact on the lives of others.”

The choice to come back to Iraq and talk to fellow service members was a positive experience for the injured Veterans.

“It’s a privilege and an honor to stand here before you and see you guys carrying the torch for us,” said retired Marine Sgt. Eddie Wright, a Willis, Texas, native who lost both his hands from a rocket-propelled grenade attack.

The trip back to Iraq was an incredible experience for the OPE participants because of the opportunity to meet so many service members who are still fighting, Galloway said.

“Then to come here and meet some of the medical staff in areas a lot of us have come through is just outstanding and we appreciate you being here today to meet us. Thank you,” he said

Being back in theater is a great feeling, said retired Staff Sgt. Jason Kokotkiewicz, a Greenfield, Ind., native who suffered a severe traumatic brain injury when he was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

“When I got hurt and after I woke up, I was so sad I wasn’t there with my men,” he said. “Just to be able to come back has made all the difference.”

The men have had a long journey to healing and will continue the process with the support of their Family and groups like OPE.

“Everyone is changed by war, someway, some more severely than others,” Hadsall said. “The biggest thing for me and the reason why I’m here is my father is alive, but he never (mentally) came home from Vietnam. I didn’t want this place to trap me for the rest of my life. I’m glad I came back.”

 

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Retired Marine Sgt. Eddie Wright (standing), a Willis, Texas, native, who underwent the amputation of both his hands due to a rocket-propelled grenade attack, talks to medical staff May 11 at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, May 11, during Operation Proper Exit. OPE focuses on bringing service members back to where their injuries occurred and raising the awareness of the importance of providing a better quality of life for service members injured in combat. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kimberly Johnson)

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Retired Spc. Brent Hendrix (standing), a Forest City, N.C., native, speaks May 11 during a town hall meeting with service members at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, as part of Operation Proper Exit. Hendrix served his tour in Iraq in Mosul and Rawah, and underwent a right above-knee amputation after suffering injuries from a roadside bomb detonation. He is now working on his associate’s degree as part of the TRACK program with the Wounded Warrior Project. He plans to become a U.S. air marshal. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kimberly Johnson)

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Retired Marine Capt. Chris Hadsall (standing), a Bailey, Colo., native, speaks to service members May 11 during a town hall meeting at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, as part of Operation Proper Exit. Hadsall served his tour in the Anbar province of Iraq and suffered multiple soft tissue injuries, a lacerated peroneal nerve, mild traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress-disorder. He is now the executive director of VET Foundation, a program dedicated to helping wounded service members make the transition to civilian life, while working on his master’s degree in business administration. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kimberly Johnson)

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Retired Sgt. Noah Galloway, a Birmingham, Alabama, native, speaks May 11 during a town hall meeting with service members at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, during Operation Proper Exit. Galloway served two tours in Iraq and underwent a left above-elbow amputation and left above-knee amputation after suffering injuries from a roadside bomb detonation. He now works with other wounded Veterans and plans to become a school teacher. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Kimberly Johnson)