CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait – The place where they narrowly avoided death is the place they’re headed for, the place with roadside bombs, firefights and bad memories. As combat troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, wounded warriors prepare to return as part of Operation Proper Exit.
The Troops First Foundation mission, Operation Proper Exit, takes wounded warriors back into theater. The nonprofit organization allows them the opportunity for closure by leaving the combat zone on their own terms.
The wounded warriors arrived at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, Dec. 17 to visit the area and meet with service members prior to returning to Afghanistan.
“We have to thank General Odierno for spearheading this initiative and having the insight as a leader and a father of a wounded warrior to know how significant this opportunity would be or could be to bring a warrior back,” said Rick Kell, executive director of the Troops First Foundation.
Leaving deployments on litters, the backs of battle buddies and in helicopters is not how these wounded warriors anticipated leaving the battlefield.
“They never wanted to be out of the fight; it wasn’t their choice,” said Kell. “This mission is about providing opportunity to someone who, along with their family, has sacrificed a great deal for our country.”
Jesse Murphree knows about sacrifice. He knows about brotherhood, firefights, the smell, the pain and the embodiment of war.
“My last vision of Afghanistan was looking up at the Abas Ghar ridgeline,” said Murphree, a medically retired infantryman who deployed with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. “I woke up about a week and a half later at Walter Reed.”
On Dec. 27, 2007 then Cpl. Jesse Murphree was pulling over watch from his vehicle – to radio back and forth between snipers – on the side of a mountain in the Korengal Valley. They finished their mission and were rolling out when a Russian anti-tank mine was command detonated beneath his vehicle.
“I got thrown out of the turret off the side of the mountain like a couple hundred feet,” said Murphree, who lost both of his legs in the blast. “It was kind of obvious my legs were pretty bad, but I didn’t want to look down for the simple fact that I couldn’t do anything about it.”
Murphree has had 58 surgeries since that unforgettable day in the Korengal Valley and despite losing both legs he walks today using his two prosthetic legs.
Now he and four other wounded warriors are on a mission back to Afghanistan. Back in uniforms and back on Black Hawks with cans of Copenhagen.
“They love the camaraderie,” said Kell. “It was in many instances taken away from them when they were removed from the battlefield.”
Operation Proper Exit has returned nearly 90 wounded warriors to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan and each has a unique story to tell.
“One of the things they like to bring back is obviously their stories,” said Kell. “Along with telling their story they certainly like to talk about the care they received. The medical care is second to none.”
Next, the group flew to Camp Buehring to visit with Soldiers at the United Service Organizations (USO). They shared war stories, how they were injured and the road leading to this point in their lives.
Retired Staff. Sgt. Robert Henline, now a stand-up comedian and motivational speaker, wasted no time getting the crowd roaring with laughter.
The wounded warriors laughed together and the significance of their trip became apparent: being back amongst the Army family, still a part of the team.
Together they flew back to Camp Arifjan for a town hall meeting to discuss their stories about facing their demons and why they signed up for a trip back to the combat zone.
“I got to be on the flight line when my guys came home and it was one of the best moments since I’ve been hurt, but it definitely wasn’t my moment,” said Murphree. “This trip, I think, will finally give me that part of what I’ve been missing for so long.”
Kell spoke of the significance of them returning and about the investment in them, because they’re always looking back for other wounded warriors who need battle buddies who understand.