Wounded warriors come back, move forward

Story and photos by Sgt. David A. Scott
196th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) Public Affairs

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — The path to closure for those who have suffered physical or mental trauma in combat sometimes involves having the survivor return to the place where the wounds were received.

Operation Proper Exit brought 11 wounded Soldiers back to Iraq May 12 to meet with medical personnel at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, and speak to the military community here.

The 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) and the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing hosted the event. As the 13th SC(E) is scheduled to redeploy next month, this was likely their last opportunity to honor wounded veterans participating in the program.

Participation in Operation Proper Exit is completely voluntary for healing service members who are in the process of moving on or who have already moved on with their lives after major, combat-related trauma. Many participants were selected by their warrior transition units or by the staff of major Army medical commands. Altogether, a total of approximately 50 Servicemembers have participated in Operation Proper Exit.

Operation Proper Exit was started by Richard Kell, executive director of the Troops First Foundation and a Silver Springs, Md., native.

Kell said he decided to establish the program when he realized there was a need for wounded Soldiers to receive closure by returning to Iraq.

“I spent a lot of time at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (in Washington D.C.) with the foundation we’ve started and in speaking with the Soldiers over the last several years, the conversations always included I want to go back,” Kell said.

Recovering Service members who participate are carefully screened by the U.S. Army to ensure they are ready for their return to Iraq and all of its associated memories.

Some service members who participate in Operation Proper Exit have suffered several injuries—lost limbs, blunt force trauma, penetrating trauma, second and third degree burns and traumatic brain injuries—and are almost always caused by roadside bombs. Other Service members have suffered, and continue to suffer, from the less visible wounds of post-traumatic stress disorder, in addition to their physical injuries.

“I’m doing this because I wanted to be able to come back and visit the site where I passed away for about ten minutes,” said retired Staff Sgt. Christopher Bain, a Williamsport, Pa., native who was wounded in an ambush in April 2004. “I want to get some closure.”

Bain said his return allowed him to see the many changes in Iraq. He believes the changes are for the better in Iraq and mean his service here had purpose and meaning.

“Everywhere in Iraq we’ve been, we have seen a lot of changes,” he said. “All these changes are for the better. This means we are doing our job, and we didn’t do this thing (Operation Iraqi Freedom) in vain.”

Operation Proper Exit follows a planned routine at JBB. Wounded service members participating in the program return to the Air Force Theater Hospital, 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing at here via helicopter.

The participants are greeted with a ceremonial salute by hospital staff lined up at the entrance to the air evacuation staging room—normally a point of departure from Iraq for wounded warriors. The final part of the event involves a town hall style meeting.

After the initial greeting, Operation Proper Exit Soldiers are taken on a tour of the hospital operating room, followed by radiology and the intensive care unit—the reverse order of how each wounded service member left Iraq.

During the introductory greeting by Col. Mark Koeniger, commander of the AFTH, 332nd EMG, 332nd AEW, all 11 service members were given the opportunity to tell the story of their traumatic event and talk about the emergency medical care they received at the hospital.

Koeniger then handed out compact discs to four of the 11 participants, containing the X-rays taken in the hospital on the day they were wounded.

Koeniger said he is impressed with the program and is impressed by the resiliency of the wounded service members participating.

“I’ve been to all of them (OPE events at JBB) and I think Operation Proper Exit is phenomenal” he said. “The warriors who come through here, you see them open up and as the tour goes on, they open up more.”

Koeniger said he is convinced Operation Proper Exit is also a healing moment for the medical staff of the hospital.

“A majority of the medical staff here has not deployed before,” he said. “But for the ones who have, especially in the 2005 and 2006 period, they have seen some stuff and experienced a lot of wounded—a lot of blood, back then. For them to actually see these injured warriors here walking and talking, means a lot.”

After tour of the AFTH, the Operation Proper Exit participants boarded buses for the town hall meeting. Approximately 200 service members were in attendance at the afternoon meeting. During this open-forum style engagement, the wounded service membres told their stories once again.

Command Sgt. Maj. Mark D. Joseph, command sergeant major of the 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) and a Lake Charles, La., native, said he has been able to attend all but one Operation Proper Exit event.

The testimony of the wounded warriors often helps to put life at JBB in perspective, he said.

“For us here at JBB, it gives us the opportunity to see them come back, the humor they have coming back and their stories, telling us about the things they went through to recover to get back to this point,” Joseph said. “When I look back, some of our days are not as bad as theirs. We don’t have a bad day compared to some of them.”

Retired Staff Sgt. Kenneth Butler, a Braintree, Mass., a native who previously participated in the program, but served as a guide on May 12, said the return trip the second time around is easier than the first.

“I was on the first Operation Proper Exit and I was asked to come back as a peer mentor for this group,” he said.

Butler said one sign of moving on is that he didn’t feel as stressed on this visit as he did during his first return to JBB.

“The first time it was very difficult, but this time I’m playing a different role so it’s rewarding to be able to come here and watch a fresh group of guys experience what I experienced the first time around” he said.

Butler said he has moved on from the event that initially brought him to the AFTH and is trying to create a new career in education.

“I retired a month after my trip and now I’m a freshman at Norwich University in Vermont,” he said. “I’d like to be a high school teacher some day.”

At the end of the town hall meeting, the Operation Proper Exit attendees returned to the flight line of the AFTH for one final picture before setting off via UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters to their next stop. The 11 wounded warriors grouped themselves together underneath a canopy on Heroes Highway, the area of the flight line where they were once carried wounded off medevac airacraft. On May 12, they walked.

Butler said Operation Proper Exit is not the end, but rather the end of the beginning, of the healing process for wounded warriors.

“This is proof if you get injured and you get medically evacuated back to the states, you are going to get taken care of and it is not the final chapter,” he said. “You are going to move on.”

 

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Command Sgt. Maj. Mark D. Joseph, command sergeant major of the 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) and a Lake Charles, La., native guides Operation Proper Exit participants to the reception area June 12 at the Air Force Theater Hospital at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. Operation Proper Exit gives wounded service members the opportunity to return to the place where they were wounded to gain closure. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. David A. Scott)

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Retired Sgt. Andrew Butterworth greets Chief Master Sgt. Paul D. Burgess, senior enlisted advisor to the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing and a Valdosta, Ga., native, during Operation Proper Exit June 12 at the helipad of the Air Force Theater Hospital at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. Operation Proper Exit gives wounded service members the opportunity to return to the place where they were wounded to gain closure. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. David A. Scott)

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Command Sgt. Maj. Clifton H. Johnson, command sergeant major of the 3rd Sustainment Brigade, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) and a Florence, Ala., native, talks with retired Staff Sgt. Kenneth Butler, a Braintree, Mass., native, at the conclusion of town hall meeting June 12 during Operation Proper Exit at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. Operation Proper Exit gives wounded service members the opportunity to return to the place where they were wounded to gain closure. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. David A. Scott)

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Wounded service members participating gather undertneath a canopy on Hero’s Highway June 12 at Joint Base Balad, Iraq. Hero’s Highway—where the service members were once carried off medevac aircraft—is the last stop during Operation Proper Exit, a program giving wounded service members the opportunity to return to the place where they were wounded to gain closure. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. David A. Scott)