TIKRIT, Iraq — Soldiers of the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division out of Fort Riley, Kan., welcomed eight veterans who returned to Iraq through Operation Proper Exit, April 8.
"This is a great opportunity for Soldiers of the 'Dragon' brigade to welcome back some of our heroes who have sacrificed," said Lt. Col. L.J. Baker of Savannah, Ga., executive officer of the 'Dragon' brigade. "It's a great opportunity for us to show them our appreciation and give them a proper send off before they go back home."
Operation Proper Exit is a warrior care initiative that started in June 2009 to provide an opportunity for wounded service members to revisit the places they once served in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Rick Kell, the executive director of Troops First Foundation and creator of Operation Proper Exit, said that the idea of the program came from wounded Soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who would always talk about going back.
"Their reasons for wanting to go back [so early in their recovery] is because they're upset with themselves for getting injured," Kell said. "They feel like they left their guys [and] they want to get back into the fight, but as time progresses through their recovery, the desire to go back doesn't change; but, their reasoning changes to wanting to see the progress ... and wanting to know that the work that was done here in Iraq had validity and meaning.
"The idea came from the Soldiers," he added. "They kept telling me day in and day out that, 'I want to go back, I want to go back.' So, we [found a way] to make it happen."
This was the third visit to Iraq for Retired U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael A. Schlitz of Moline, Ill., who suffered the loss of both hands and severe burns when his vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device in February 2007.
"To come back here, makes them feel like they finished their tour," said Schlitz about the service members who return. "They get to leave on their own two feet and leave the way they were supposed to leave the first time. A lot of these guys didn't get the welcome home ceremony that everybody else gets when they [go] home. So, by coming out here, talking to the Soldiers and when we're walking into places and they clap — that's [our] welcome home ceremony."
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