AFGHANISTAN - “How bad is your life,” asked Army Lt. Col. Ronald Walker, the U.S. Contingent officer-in-charge at the Camp Bastion Role 3 Hospital.
For the retired and active-duty service members who sat at the front table of Camp Leatherneck’s Town Hall here March 2, life has been more than difficult since their early departures from Afghanistan. They have been presented with challenges they hope current deployed service members never have to face.
Wounded warriors Marine Corps Sgt. Corey Gritter; Army Sgts Joshua Ben, Omar Avila, Aaron Pimm, and Brian Flemming; Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Glen Silva; Sgt. 1st Class Jose Mendez; Army Capt. James Thach and Medal of Honor recipient, Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, visited Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, as part of Operation Proper Exit.
Feherty’s Troops First Foundation founded Operation Proper Exit to send wounded warriors back to the forward operating bases they were medically evacuated from. The program focuses on a service member’s recovery by giving them the opportunity to leave theater on their own terms, rather than not remembering leaving at all.
While here, the group visited the hospital and attended a town hall meeting during which deployed service members were able to ask questions about their experiences and recovery.
Silva was injured in 2007 after stepping on an improvised explosive device in Helmand province that damaged so much of his body he is now on his 42nd surgery and more to go.
“For me in particular, I had no indication that there was an IED there,” Silva said to the audience of more than 50 troops. “I had a [mine] sweeper in front of me and two other Marines right behind the sweeper. All of them stepped on the same spot, but when I stepped there it just happened to go off.”
The IED damaged many of his organs, shattered his teeth, cracked his pelvis, took his left leg above his knee and caused traumatic brain injury.
“I remember thinking I was going to [Camp] Leatherneck, then when I woke up I had nurses and doctors telling me I was at [Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda] in Maryland,” said Silva. “I argued with them, because surely they were wrong.”
It was Silva’s second trip back here since the incident, but this time as a warrior liaison for Troops First to help other wounded service members through their recovery. One of those troops was fellow Marine, Gritter.
“I was injured in 2009 in Now Zad,” said Gritter. “The guy behind me stepped on an IED, and I suffered severe shrapnel to my right arm and left leg.”
Gritter was with a scout sniper platoon and has spent the past three and a half years at WRNMMC undergoing reconstructive surgery.
“For me, it took about six months [to cope],” said Gritter. “When I got injured, I lost a fellow Marine and I took a lot of the blame. I just boxed up and didn’t want to talk to anybody, but, in the end, I found it was better to communicate with my brothers.”
“Being in a hospital and talking with everyone, you see similar injuries and it helps make the healing process that much easier,” he said. “It’s not something that you just get over the next day and you’re moving on. It takes a few months. It’s definitely a bumpy road.”
Gritter medically retired three weeks ago and has been traveling with the group to other installations in Afghanistan.
The bond formed among the group was evident. On one occasion Ben helped Mendez into his wheel chair. On another Petry fetched a tissue for Ben, whose hand was trickling blood from burn wounds.
When Petry was too humble to mention his award to the troops at the town hall, Silva didn’t let him go unrecognized. Silva stood up in the middle of introductions to let the crowd know about Petry’s medal.
Mendez was injured in a parachuting accident. His spine was shattered, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. He said it’s his wounded friends who helped him get through the hard times.
“Some of us have been together for a while, others we just met recently,” said Mendez. “When I met Gritter, we just clicked right away. We all get along really well.”
After each warrior shared his story, the group prepared to leave, but not before Walker offered his question for the audience to ponder.
“How bad is your life,” Walker asked. “Comparatively speaking to what these [wounded warriors] endured and what they’ve lived through.”