It has long been a tradition for soldiers and Marines to return to old battlefields, to honor the fallen and perhaps see how the place has changed or come to grips with their own past. Typically, these trips are taken years, even decades, later; World War II veterans still return to the beaches of Normandy, and Vietnam veterans today often take paid tours of the places where they fought.
Since June 2009, a small private foundation known as Troops First, with help from the USO (United Service Organizations), has been returning groups of Americans – 55 warriors in all, so far – to Iraq, to the scenes where they were injured and separated from military service.
The idea for the program known as Operation Proper Exit (OPE) arose at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC), where Troops First founder and president Rick Kell lunched with a group of soldiers recovering from serious combat injuries sustained in Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom) or Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom). During these meetings, Kell said, a common theme arose: A good number of these soldiers wanted to go back to where they had been wounded.
“Their reasons varied,” Kell says. “But a few were kind of universal: One, they felt they left the wrong way. They left abruptly, so they feel in many instances that they let their units down by getting injured, that they aren’t continuing on with them. Now in many instances, the units have already deployed and gone home, so what they want to do is go back and try to understand that what they did had meaning, had validity, that progress is being made. They also want to meet with the troops on the ground, whether it’s their unit or others, to tell them about their experience. Then they want to know that they can leave the right way, without giving the enemy a vote. What they get out of it beyond that is very personal.”
Of the 55 wounded service members whom Troops First and the USO have sent back to the front, in eight separate trips over the past 18 months, Kell says each has had a very distinct story and set of reasons for going.
A Team Effort
Because the groups that undertake an Operation Proper Exit tour – so far, from six to 11 in number – are relatively small, Kell hasn’t had to do any recruiting for the program – warriors typically reach out to Troops First. The program includes both active-duty and medically retired personnel, Kell says, and is open to both men and women, but there is a single, broad criterion for participation: “We want to take somebody who is thriving in their recovery,” Kell says, “someone who has dealt with their injuries and embraced the next phase of their life, whether it’s returning back to duty, medically retiring, going back to school, or getting a job. They’ve had to demonstrate that they’re moving forward. This isn’t a trip to take somebody off a hospital ward and take them back and try to fix them. This is something that’s a little bit more refined, and we’re looking for somebody who can handle this trip, both physically and mentally.”
Logistically, Operation Proper Exit has been assisted on the ground by United States Forces Iraq, which, once Troops First and the USO get participants to Kuwait, helps get warriors back to where they were stationed, if the field of battle is still operational. The participation of the military has been indispensable, and has allowed for OPE’s repeat trips.
In February 2011, Troops First began working to arrange the first Operation Proper Exit excursion to Afghanistan, even as it schedules additional trips to Iraq. According to Kell, the first Afghanistan trip will, if arranged, include the program’s first woman participant, an amputee being treated at WRAMC.
The wounds suffered by Operation Proper Exit participants have been serious, often life-threatening – many have lost limbs, been blinded, or been burned over significant areas of their bodies by explosives. As successful as many have been in looking forward to the next challenges of their lives, their returns to the fields of battle are almost always emotional. On the first trip, OPE 1, Kell recalls traveling with a young sergeant who’d had an arm amputated at the shoulder but had remained active – skiing, cycling, and mentoring other soldiers at Walter Reed as he prepared to launch a teaching career.
“About two nights before we were scheduled to come home,” Kell remembers, “he said, ‘I need to tell you something.’” Ever since leaving Iraq, the sergeant told Kell, he had been nagged by a voice telling him he had been defeated. “He said, ‘I was never able to fully articulate or understand that until I came on this trip. Now I can explain it. I can tell anybody what it was, and I can also say that it’s gone. I’m not defeated, and I don’t hear it anymore.’”
For more information about Operation Proper Exit, call the Troops First Foundation at 301-875-8199.