KABUL, Afghanistan - Operation Proper Exit is an initiative of the Troops First Foundation. The organization takes wounded warriors back into the countries where they were injured so they have the opportunity to exit the combat zone on their own terms, rather than on a medical evacuation.
The military cargo plane landed at Bagram Air Field and five soldiers with a small entourage stepped off into a distant country where four had served a previous combat tour. The other soldier, visibly missing his left arm, had served multiple tours in Iraq. There’s a smell of aircraft fuel and sewage as the Regional Command-South team and I greeted our guests.
The meeting was brief, the entourage settled their luggage in to their quarters, then we loaded onto a CH-47 Chinook helicopter bound for a forward operating base in the region.
Their return to a combat zone was not to begin another tour, but to bring closure to the last tour served. You see, each Soldier previously left on terms dictated by the enemy.
“It’s great to be in this uniform again and out here with soldiers,” said retired Sergeant Noah Galloway, a Birmingham, Ala., native, who lost most of his left arm when his patrol ran over an improvised explosive device during a tour in Yusufiyah, Iraq ,in 2006.
“I’ve never been to Afghanistan and when Rick asked me, I said yes,” said Galloway. Rick Kell, a Laurel, Md., native, is the executive director of Troops First Foundation, an organization which provides initiatives for wounded warriors.
Operation Proper Exit is one of those initiatives. The organization takes wounded warriors back into the countries where they were injured so they have the opportunity to exit the combat zone on their own terms.
“This trip is about closure for them, but it’s also about the warriors serving out here,” said Kell, who remarkably seemed unfazed by the constant movement from event to event, as we entered and exited helicopters in full combat gear during our travels. By the end of each day however, everyone was exhausted.
Accompanying our crew was Kevin Sieff, a Kabul-based journalist with the Washington Post who desired to write about their stories, and an Italian photographer, Lorenzo Tugnoli, who’s designer clothes and scarf stood out among the sea of camouflage.
Looking through biographies of these warriors, I realized four of them share a common bond- they were assigned to the same unit- 1st Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. I immediately felt a sense of pride as I’ve personally served with that unit.
We traveled throughout eastern and southern Afghanistan, taking in sites and various events planned on our modest itinerary. I wonder if these warriors feel overwhelmed by the attention they’ve received or the schedule of events, which seemed crammed.
Regardless of the camera flashes and questions, their presence to me is very impactful. My eyes well with tears as they tell their stories to groups of soldiers we meet.
Each commanding unit of the bases we visited hosted unique events which included town hall meetings with service members currently deployed, various demonstrations of capabilities, and operations briefs that highlighted current successes on the battlefield. We toured Bagram, Bastion and Kandahar’s hospitals.
Four of the soldiers participating on this trip had been brought to one of those hospitals immediately following their traumatic combat injuries in 2010.
The atmosphere was relaxed throughout our travels as each host
fielded questions from the wounded warriors and encouraged candid discussion among the audiences. None of the soldiers held back their thoughts.
I listened with intense interest, not only because I wanted to tell their stories in an article, but because their courage to come back to a war zone after experiencing a traumatic event is admirable.
Capt. Matt Anderson, a Richmond, Va., native, served as a platoon leader with the 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, 4th Inf. Div. His unit conducted operations in the Arghandab River Valley, southern Afghanistan in 2010. Three of the soldiers traveling with him on this trip served in his platoon and were injured during the same deployment.
During a patrol, then Lt. Anderson stepped on a land mine, severely injuring his right foot and lower leg, taking him away from his unit, which had suffered approximately 50 percent casualties during the deployment. He also suffered peripheral nerve damage.
His recovery process is slow, but he intends to avoid amputation by pushing himself to use his injured leg. Anderson is currently serving as the aide-de-camp to Rear Adm. Kerry Metz at Special Operations Command North.
Sgt. Ryan McIntosh, a Rifle, Colo., native, served in Anderson’s platoon in 2010. He also stepped on a land mine, injuring his right leg, which was amputated below the knee.
McIntosh continues to serve as a sprinter in the Army World Class Athlete Program.
Retired Sgt. Daniel Harrison, an Atlanta, Texas, native, served in Anderson’s platoon and was on a patrol when he was struck by an improvised explosive device. He suffered traumatic brain and facial injuries.
Harrison is a full-time student pursuing an electrical engineering degree at Texas A&M University.
Retired Spc. Andrew Miller, an Akron, Ohio, native, who also served in Anderson’s platoon, stepped on a land mine, injuring his left leg, which was amputated below the knee.
Miller is currently finishing up a finance degree from the University of Houston.
Noah Galloway, as mentioned earlier, lost his left arm to an IED. His other injury is a left leg amputation above the knee.
Although Galloway didn’t serve in Afghanistan, or with the 4th Inf. Div. as the rest of his traveling companions had, he didn’t separate himself from the group. His story is much like his companions and the bond between them developed quickly over the course of the five-day tour.
Wearing the 101st Airborne Div. shoulder sleeve insignia on both sleeves, Galloway shamelessly plugged his social media pages following his story at each place we visited. One of his pages, thenoahgalloway, has more than 17,000 likes. I admit, I’m one of them.
Galloway continues to inspire followers with motivational workout memes and photos of life events, which consist of fitness events among other notable accomplishments. He is a personal fitness trainer currently pursuing various certifications.
Our final stop brought us to Kabul International Airport, where I parted ways with these wounded warriors. As I shook their hands, thanked them and wished them well, I felt honored to spend time with them, listening to their stories as they faced adversity.
I personally believe they found closure during this trip in some way, whether it was through visiting the sites they associated their injuries with, coming to terms with past memories or seeing the progress made on the battlefield.
Regardless of their thoughts about the experiences of the past five days, each warrior lives the next chapter of their life and their stories will continue to touch the lives of every individual who hears them.
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||LAUREL, MD, US
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This work, A Proper Exit, by SFC Vin Stevens, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.