BAGHDAD – In past wars, wounded Soldiers, especially those recovering from severe injuries like amputated limbs, were never afforded the opportunity to re-visit the locations where they had been injured or the hospitals in theater where they had been treated when the conflict they served in was still taking place. This may soon be changing thanks to improved security.
For one of the first times in U.S. military history, a new pilot program dubbed “Operation Proper Exit” has been giving a few of those warriors the opportunity to fly from the U.S. back to their former theater of operations with the purpose of helping them ease the emotional wounds of war while also spreading a message of hope to their fellow Soldiers.
With this as their goal, six Operation Proper Exit troops took the opportunity to meet with military service members and civilians who work for the 1st Cavalry Division and Multi-National Division – Baghdad, during a visit to Camp Liberty, Iraq.
While at the MND-B headquarters, the pilot program participants took photos with Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, commanding general for 1st Cavalry Division and Multi-National Division-Baghdad and Command Sgt. Maj. Rory Malloy, senior enlisted advisor, 1st Cav. Div., MND-B, and spoke with MND-B Soldiers about their experiences.
During an operations and intelligence briefing from Multi-National Division-Baghdad’s senior leadership, the Operation Proper Exit troops said they were astounded by the security gains that have been made in Iraq since they were last in country.
“It’s a complete 180 degrees from what we’ve seen before, it’s amazing,” said Goldsboro, N.C. native, Sgt. Christopher Burrell, a military working dog handler with the 108th Military Police Company, 16th MP Brigade out of Fort Bragg, N.C. “After seeing that [Joint Security Station] Sadr City had been turned over to the ISF, I was dumfounded. It used to be a much rougher area, but this is just a testament to what the Coalition has done together with the Iraqi Security Forces.”
“When we see this, we know that our sacrifices didn’t go in vain. It’s sad that we lost our limbs, but everything we did here didn’t go to waste because you’re seeing improvements and less violence every day,” said Clarksville, Ark. native, Sgt. Marco Robledo, who lost an arm and leg when his truck was hit by an improvised explosive device in May 2007. “Being here and seeing it for ourselves, it’s really good to be here this time.”
After the brief, Command Sgt. Maj. Malloy presented the guests with the Order of the Combat Spur, an honor bestowed upon cavalry troops or those attached to cavalry units and then took the wounded warriors on a tour of MND-B headquarters.
Once the tour was complete, the Operation Proper Exit troops sat down to lunch with MND-B Soldiers at the Pegasus dining facility.
The Laurel, Md.-based Troops First Foundation, a non-profit organization that pursues projects to benefit troops who have served or are serving in the combat zone, partnered with the United Service Organization to sponsor the visit, much of the funding for which came from corporations and private donations.
“The idea for this trip came from wounded warriors and the one constant you hear from them is ‘I want to go back,'” said Richard Kell, executive director for Troops First who helped organize Operation Proper Exit. “They know that their unit may no longer be here, but they still want to come back.”
According to Kell, the name for the program comes from the fact that when the wounded Soldiers left the combat zone, they left feeling a sense that they had left their unit behind and that they had left something unfinished. The program, in essence, gives the troops a sense of closure, allowing them to ‘leave the battlefield the right way.’
Palestine, Texas native, Staff Sgt. Bradley Gruetzner, who retired from the Army, was assigned with the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cav. Div. when he was wounded and said he remembers that sense of leaving his military family behind but that he sees the pilot program as helping to ease that feeling.
“The last thing I remember about being in country was being on my way to chow [when I was injured], but I left my brothers still here,” said Gruetzner, who lost part of his right arm, suffered head injuries and received severe burns when his humvee was hit by an IED. “I didn’t see myself as being injured, I saw myself as having the good life sitting in front of the air conditioner in the U.S. while my unit was in Iraq. I was miserable, but it’s nice to finally get to close that chapter.”
Some Soldiers involved with the pilot program are retired, while others are still on active duty. But the one thing they have in common, according to Kell, is that all of them have been working on moving forward with their lives- a few with plans for college and several are active in sports with one training for the U.S. Archery Team for Paralympics and another preparing for two events in the 2012 Summer Olympics.
“[When considering Soldiers to send on the trip], we look for Soldiers who have a plan and are moving forward,” added Kell. “And these six troops are going to demonstrate that this [Operation Proper Exit trip] should happen again.”
MND-B troops said the opportunity to meet fellow brothers-in-arms who have survived through some of the roughest aspects of war was a worthwhile, inspirational and emotional experience.
“I think this program is great and it’s really good for us to see these Soldiers and how they’ve been doing after being wounded,” said Fayetteville, N.C. native, Spc. Ashley Cummings, an administrative assistant for the MND-B chief of staff’s office. “It’s wonderful and I’m happy to see they’re doing well and wish them all the best.”
“It’s very inspiring and they stuck it out in a very hard time. It meant a lot to see them because they all had such a positive outlook and are moving on with their lives,” said Spc. Michael Ellingson, a tactical data systems specialist who works for the MND-B commandant’s office and hails from Sioux Falls, S.D. “It was important for us to see them so that we’re reminded of the people who have made those very big sacrifices. It’s also good to see that they know their sacrifices didn’t go unnoticed.”
Prior to their visiting Soldiers at MND-B, the Proper Exit group also met with recently wounded Soldiers at a Combat Support Hospital where they had the opportunity to thank medical healthcare professionals for what they do to ensure that wounded troops make it home alive.
One of their goals when meeting recently wounded troops includes giving them hope as they start on the long road to recovery, said Burrell while describing a recent CSH visit to MND-B Soldiers.
“You always try to instill optimism, which is the best way to heal and move on,” said Burrell, who was severely wounded, losing a leg, during combat in Sadr City in December 2007 after insurgents detonated several explosions near him. “We learn about mentorship and about interacting. When we go see [the recently wounded] Soldiers we can build bonds with them.”
“We come in smiling and we show them where they can be in two months to eight months to one year from now,” Burrell added.
All of the visiting Operation Proper Exit troops agreed that the chance to come back to Iraq and leave ‘the right way’ was not lost on them.
“The enemy didn’t take me out of this, and we’re all going home together,” said Robledo about his fellow Operation Proper Exit troops. “This time I can sleep peacefully- I can now move on with a sense of closure.”
By Staff Sgt. Jon Cupp