KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, AFGHANISTAN
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – Passengers emerge from the dim light of a military cargo plane into the stinging sunlight of mid-day southern Afghanistan. Outside the plane they are greeted by Soldiers clapping as they make their way off the flight line. As the passengers pass by, each Soldier renders a salute before continuing to clap. Amongst the throng of Service members, a few faces familiar to the passengers start to appear out of the crowd, which were individuals who served with the wounded warriors in years past.
These wounded warriors are in Afghanistan as a part of Operation Proper Exit which was developed by Rick Kell and the Troops First foundation to allow wounded warriors to return to the place where they were injured to help give them closure. Since Proper Exit was approved by the Army there have been 17 iterations, the latest of which came to Kandahar Airfield July 10. These five Soldiers had a chance to be with their fellow Soldiers once more and to leave a combat zone on their own terms.
One warrior walks on legs of titanium and fiberglass, adorned with an eagle on his chest and a 1st Cavalry Division combat patch on his right shoulder. This wounded warrior, Col. Timothy Karcher, still serves as the chief of staff with Operational Test Command. On the ground on Kandahar Airfield, where the 1st Cav. Div. currently commands, old friends and comrades meet him with firm embraces and briefly reminisce before the march of scheduled events forces them to move along.
Within minutes of touching down in Kandahar, Blackhawk helicopters lift the wounded warriors back into the air to take them to Forward Operating Base Pasab to speak with the Soldiers there.
Karcher, a native of Harker Heights, Texas, said that just being able to thank the Soldiers in the fight was satisfying enough for him, because he couldn’t otherwise be with Soldiers in a combat zone.
“I miss being with Soldiers more than I miss my legs, but the fact of the matter is I get to come back and see you all,” he said.
The wounded warriors enjoyed town hall meetings where they met with Soldiers. There they got the chance to answer Soldiers’ questions, both to give them insight and encouragement. Questions ranged from how they've dealt with the loss of limbs and eyesight to how their front-line care saved their lives. One question that was asked at both FOB Pasab and Kandahar Airfield was what Soldiers could do to help their injured buddies back home?
“If you guys could do one thing to increase the morale of those guys in some hospital trying to heal, contact them every now and again,” said Adam Hartswick, a State College, Pa., native who served with the 41st Infantry Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, when he was wounded, just over a year ago. “I've got to tell you, when I got a call from the guys it was the highlight of my week, because you are there lying in bed, and you want to know what's going on with your brothers and sisters over here. So just pick up the phone and call.”
One of the biggest concepts behind Proper Exit is to bring Soldiers to the region where they were injured, which allows a unique type of healing and closure for the Soldier that they wouldn’t have otherwise, and allow them to leave the war-zone on their own terms.
Karcher said each guy takes something different away from coming to Afghanistan, pointing out that he was injured in Iraq, but coming here helped him feel close to the Soldiers still fighting the fight. For others, the take away might be something else.
“Today we were flying over an area south of Kandahar, and one of the young sergeants we were with flew over the exact place where he lost his legs,” said Karcher. “What Sgt. Adam Hartswick is going to take back with him is a sense of closure, and he's going to take back a feeling that the enemy didn't win, because he was right back where he was wounded 14 months ago and he won. I think that is going to be huge for him.”
Troops First puts on Operation Proper Exit to give injured Soldiers the opportunity to heal, not just their physical wounds, but the unseen pain that comes with being forced out of the fight while their brothers and sisters forge on. Even though for some Soldiers, visiting the site of their injury is no longer an option, Proper Exit is still a way to give these Soldiers their proper leave of the battlefield, and maybe help a Soldier or two still in a combat zone.
“Rick asked me if I'd come and I said I'd love to but I would have to ask my wife first,” said Karcher. “So I waited until she was in a good mood and I asked her… She didn't understand it at first, and thought I just wanted to be near the fight. I just wanted to be around the Soldiers who are in the fight. I think at the end of it all she accepted that, and she'll understand it when I tell her all about the visit.”
An important aspect of the tour, and the second biggest highlight for Karcher, was to see and talk to the medics and doctors who patch Soldiers up so they can live another day. The last event of the day on Kandahar Airfield was a visit to the NATO Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit where Hartswick was taken after being injured near FOB Pasab.
Hartswick expressed his deepest appreciation to the staff there for the work they do, and chatted with them about what he remembered of the hospital.
“I remember the flags, and the ceiling. Not much else after that,” said Hartswick as he looked around the emergency room where they first receive patients. The Sailor he was talking to explained the drugs they typically provide also have a limited amnesia effect to help reduce the trauma afterward.
“We’ve been to a couple medical facilities here in theater, and to be able to talk to medical folks who are saving lives…” said Karcher. “I can’t describe how moving it is to talk to these people who are saving lives every day.”
At the end of a long day of flights and visits, Karcher and the other wounded warriors got to their rooms for the night and were finally able to slip off their prostheses and give their legs a rest. There he explained how easy Kell and his team had made the visit.
“It is crazy easy,” said Karcher. “I had three forms to fill out, and next thing you know I had orders.”
Grateful for the opportunity to be a part of Proper Exit, Karcher expressed his appreciation for Rick Kell and his organization. He said organizations such as his and others that serve Soldiers and their families are a blessing.
||KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, AF
||ALLENTOWN, PA, US
||CAPITAN, NM, US
||HARKER HEIGHTS, TX, US
||METAIRIE, LA, US
||RAEFORD, NC, US
||STATE COLLEGE, PA, US
This work, Operation Proper Exit: Healing warriors and inspiring Soldiers, by SGT Ariel Solomon, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.