By Amy K. Mitchell
You haven’t slept a full night in years. You return to where your life was forever changed. Death and destruction no longer dominate.
Liberty’s roots have taken hold. People come out of their homes to greet you. They no longer scatter at your approach. Instead, they thank you for having protected them.
You were forced to leave your mission incomplete. It has taken two years, maybe more, to recover. And you are finally able to sleep again. You are back in Iraq.
Operation Proper Exit, an initiative of the Troops First Foundation, sponsored by the USO, helps bring closure to lives changed mentally and physically by war.
Commanders on the ground in Iraq, in consultation with organizers in the United States, reviewed each aspect of such a journey of healing. Could six wounded soldiers, all with prosthetic limbs, travel safely in Iraq? Would the bases be able to support them with the proper housing? Would the memory of their experience trigger post-traumatic stress?
If the soldiers were medically fit to travel and wanted to go back the trip could move forward. The recruiting began. The group was built over the course of the spring as a unit. Six wounded warriors volunteered.
They were on a new mission. A mission to answer one question: Was it worth it?
Four active duty and two medically retired soldiers returned to Iraq this summer to find their answer.
Upon meeting the soldiers of Operation Proper Exit, Multi-National Force-Iraq Commanding General Ray Odierno stated, “This is the realm of the possible.” A realm where those who had been wounded could return to the battlefield.
MNF-I headquarters was the first stop on Operation Proper Exit’s itinerary. At the Al Faw Palace in Baghdad, 500 service members stood cheering to welcome their fellow soldiers. “These men are returning not as wounded, but as soldiers,” announced Colonel David Sutherland, who commanded the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq in 2007 and served as the group’s military team leader.
The team moved at a fast pace making seven stops in one week to visit the bases where each soldier had been stationed years before. The schedule also allowed time for reflection, training exercises, and catching up with old friends.
“This trip put us face-to-face with what happened,” said Army Sergeant Christopher Burrell, a military dog handler with the 108th MP Company. Burrell was wounded in Sadr City in 2007, one day after Christmas.
Sergeant Rob Brown, who lost his right leg to sniper fire while on patrol near Ramadi in 2006, concurred. “Mentally, we were able to accomplish there what we couldn’t accomplish in the States.”
Many soldiers experience night tremors during their rehabilitation back home, a psychological hurdle often difficult to overcome. The six soldiers who returned were able to sleep through the night in Iraq as they began to face what had been left unfinished.
“Coping with my injury wasn’t much of a problem, but wondering what my sacrifice was for has lingered in my head since I got home,” Staff Sergeant Kenneth Butler said of his decision to volunteer for Operation Proper Exit. Butler was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne, when he was wounded outside of Baghdad.
“Veterans of previous wars go back [to the countries where they fought] 40 or so years later. I got to come back three years later,” added Brown on being selected for this first-of-its-kind wounded warrior experience. MNF-I Command Sergeant Major Lawrence Wilson explained the support in-theater for the journey, “It was the right time for them. They chose the time. It’s the right thing to get them back our there. What we saw were soldiers who were still capable of giving back and taking the fight to wherever it needed to be taken.”
In the last two years, Iraq has changed. Much of the fighting has subsided. The Iraqi army is now in charge, supported by U.S. Forces as the transfer of power continues. Near the Al Faw Palace and in the Green Zone, markets bustle with commerce. Terror-torn provinces such as Diyala enjoy relative calm - once desperate battle zones.
During the group’s visit into Diyala, the former provincial governor and his brother (one of 17 paramount sheiks in the province who traces his ancestral roots back to the Ottoman Empire) invited the soldiers to share a meal with 50 representatives from the local government and tribal elders. The sheik welcomed them by offering the warriors lamb, a delicacy and an honor in Iraq. “You are [the] medals on our chest,” he told them.
“For a key leader of the Diyala province, not only a sheik, but the governor, to come and tell our warriors ‘thank you’ shows how far we’ve come, not only in friendship, but also partnership and the willingness to make a [more] free, secure Iraq for all,” Wilson said.
For the soldiers, the meal was in stark contrast to their last time in Iraq.
“To be able to eat with the sheik, sit down, share food with them, have a conversation with them, and actually feel somewhat relaxed - I know something like that wouldn’t have happened in my sector three years ago, two years ago, maybe not even six months ago,” said Butler of the change to Diyala. “To see it (the area) that secure, to interact with people that maybe at one point in time or another we would not have been friends with, that’s obviously huge.”
Later, en route to Ramadi along a two-mile strip of highway nicknamed Route Michigan, children chased the helicopter’s shadow, waving up to the soldiers of Operation Proper Exit. Only a few years ago the stretch had been a dangerous transit route where each remembered the fear of getting blown up. Now, gratitude accompanied the soldiers up and down the roadway reflected by the hope in young faces.
The trip brought “instant gratification to see that what they had done meant something,” Sutherland said. That gratification was the ultimate example of good triumphing over evil. The brutality and extremism of the few, overtaken by the voices of the many, yearning for peace. As they observed the improvements to Iraq and traveled freely through the country, all six men realized they had lost their limbs to build a democracy. Their sacrifice had borne freedom for the Iraqi people.
“I wanted to see the work we did, and know it was meaningful,” said Staff Sergeant Brad Gruetzner, originally from Palestine, Texas. He had been wounded on a scouting mission near Camp Warhorse in 2006. “This was a good opportunity. Iraq has changed for the better.”
“To come and see the strides of the Iraqis because of the sacrifices U.S. Forces have made … it wasn’t for nothing,” continued Butler on witnessing a country functioning. “The Iraqis are taking back what we started to give back to them,” Brown said after the visit to Ramadi. “My sacrifice wasn’t in vain, nor was it for any of the other guys I served with.”
The power of Operation Proper Exit not only had an effect on the wounded warriors, it also had a profound impact on the soldiers serving today in Iraq. The trip allowed everyone to see that “they are still alive,” Sutherland said. And this time around, “they got the chance to say goodbye to their buddies.”
While in Baghdad, the group visited a CSH (Combat Support Hospital) in the Green Zone to sit with those who had been recently wounded in action. The returning soldiers spread hope through the wards. They were walking examples that wounds can and do heal - and life continues.
The CSH visit also inspired one of the Operation Proper Exit participants to continue to serve. Wounded near Sadr al Yusifiyah in 2006, Sergeant Brandon Deaton, 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, New York, had planned to medically retire from the Army. “But after making the Operation Proper Exit trip, I have decided to remain on active duty and pursue a future working with other wounded warriors.”
It was not just at the CSH that these warriors boosted morale among the American forces. At each base they spoke with fellow soldiers about their personal experience of being wounded in battle. At the end of one townhall meeting the question was posed, “Would you return for another tour in Afghanistan or Iraq?” The answer: “Sure, we’d go back;’ Brown replied. "We’re here with you now, aren’t we?”
By returning to Iraq, Operation Proper Exit etched into the minds of both the wounded warriors and the soldiers they met that “on your worst day, we [the military community] aren’t going to leave you behind,” Sutherland stated. “Operation Proper Exit shows the bond between soldiers - those who wear a patch on their right shoulder. Iraq and Afghanistan are still dangerous places, but even in theater, their fellow soldiers back at home are not forgotten.”
Fittingly, it was the stop near the end of Operation Proper Exit that was the most fulfilling. And it occurred at the most notorious and fearsome of locations in Iraq to the American soldier: Balad, the hospital where traumatic wounds are treated.
Outside the ER, the “Hero’s Highway” can be a flurry of gurneys and activity as the fight for life replaces the fight on the battlefield. All six of the soldiers had come through Balad.
“I don’t remember getting hurt or going through there. It gave me a sense of worth going there, walking in on my own instead of being pushed in on a stretcher to the ER. I got to see the hospital,” said Sergeant Marco Robledo, who was with the 875th Engineer Battalion when his convoy hit an lED in 2007 en route to LSA Anaconda. He lost both his left arm and his left leg in the explosion.
Seeing the hospital and talking to the staff increased the respect and appreciation all held for the men and women working there. “They took really good care of my guys … (Now) I know that soldiers that are getting hurt and going through here, are being taken care of,” Robledo said.
Into bright summer sunlight, the warriors emerged from the hospital. They hugged the medical personnel on duty, thanking them for having saved their lives. Their questions had been answered, their mission was complete. The six men walked down the Hero’s Highway on their own two feet, a few prosthetics, and onto the waiting helicopters to once again begin the journey home.
“To be able to come back to Iraq and walk out on my own, it means a lot. I put a lot of hard work into this country, and I don’t even remember leaving last time. I was unconscious. So to get to do this, it’s finally going to be closure,” said Gruetzner.
“I felt defeated when I left last time,” Butler said as he stepped onto the helicopter. “I didn’t know that was an issue until I left under my own power this time.”
“And this time, I left on my terms,” said Brown. “It’s the final stepping stone to finishing the chapter of my life that I left here. I will carry this trip with me for the rest of my life. We are still in this fight.”