News: Mentors aid in optimizing wounded warrior experience
By Sgt. Lindsey Bradford
United States Forces-Iraq Public Affairs Office
IRAQ - Operation Proper Exit made its third successful trip to Iraq and back and is gearing up to return a fourth time with a new group of injured veterans, along with one Soldier who participated in the most recent trip, Dec. 28 to Jan. 3.
The program began in Iraq in the summer of 2009, sponsored by the Troops First Foundation based in Laurel, Md., and is designed to bring injured combat veterans back to the places they were wounded in an effort to help them gain emotional closure brought on from their injuries.
One important part of the program is the military mentor, said Richard Kell, Troops First Foundation executive director. He added that the military mentor is the most significant structural change to the program since its inception.
During the first trip in June, Sgt. Robert Brown returned to Iraq for the first time since he was struck by an enemy bullet Sept. 24, 2006, in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi. Brown returned in October as a mentor for six Soldiers and one Marine who were taking their first trip back to Iraq.
"I wanted to come back the first time basically because I needed closure," said Brown, a Moncks Corner, S.C., native. He said he returned a second time in October to help fellow troops get the same closure he needed.
"Hopefully, we get them that sense of closure, that feeling, not necessarily on the physical side but on the psychological side," Brown said.
That psychological closure is what the program is about, Kell explained.
When Brown returned in October, he acted as a mentor to Spokane, Wash., native, Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Olson. For Olson, who had his right leg amputated at the hip as the result of a rocket-propelled grenade attack on Oct. 27, 2003, while serving in Tall Afar, this was the first time he had returned to the place that had changed his life forever.
During the trip, Olson talked to Brown about the role as a mentor and he kept in touch with Kell, who invited him back for the third installment of OPE.
Olson returned as a mentor Dec. 28, 2009, with a group of four Soldiers. Three of the men had been injured while serving in Iraq. One Soldier had been injured in Afghanistan, but joined the group to talk to service members about his experiences and to prepare to be a mentor when the program is able to take troops into Afghanistan with the same goal in mind— closure.
"It's been a real blessing because now instead of just going through it, I've been able to kind of take a step back and watch the other reactions and share in a little of that emotion that the wounded warriors have," Olson said.
Olson explained that being a non-commissioned officer has helped him in his role as a mentor, because he likes to take care of Soldiers.
"This gives me another chance to help wounded warriors out. This is almost our little band of brothers, being wounded warriors," Olson said.
As Kell prepares for the fourth installment of Operation Proper Exit in the upcoming weeks, another Soldier will prepare for his role as a military mentor — Sgt. 1st Class Mike Schlitz of Moline, Ill.
Schlitz, an Army Ranger, was serving with Fort Drum's 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, when he was hit by an improvised explosive device Feb. 27, 2007. Schlitz suffered burns covering 85 percent of his body, lost both hands, suffers vision loss and has a limited range of motion.
His attitude had a profound impact on all the Soldiers in his group, said Kell. For that reason, he said Schlitz was good fit to return in a new role.
"His ability to reach out and want to make other people feel good is an amazing quality. This isn't to take away from the other warriors, but I think we will all leave here changed [by him]," Kell said.