News: Brothers reunite during Operation Proper Exit
Story by Sgt. 1st Class Rhonda Lawson
VICTORY BASE COMPLEX, Iraq - For retired Sgt. Alexander Reyes, returning to Iraq as part of Operation Proper Exit would be a chance to bring closure to a traumatic chapter in his life. This would be the Miami native’s first visit to the country since being wounded in an improvised explosive device attack in Mahmoudiyah a little more than three years ago.
He also hoped that during the course of the trip, he’d run into his older brother, Spc. Euri Reyes, who works front gate security at the Joint Base Balad Container Repair Yard with the 289th Quartermaster Company, 13th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 3rd Sustainment Brigade, 103rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary). However, since he hadn’t heard from his brother in nearly two weeks, the chances seemed slim.
“I thought he was bothered, and I probably did something bad or said something incorrectly to him,” he said. “I did not know that he planned this out.”
Little did he know that the silence was part of a bigger plan. Just a few weeks earlier, Spc. Reyes had been called into his battalion command sergeant major’s office and was informed of his brother’s upcoming visit. He was then sworn to secrecy so the reunion could be a surprise.
“I had to pull a ninja and be very, very careful for him not to find out,” he said.
The plan went off without a hitch. As Sgt. Reyes, who now lives in Houston, and six other wounded warriors marched into the rotunda at Al Faw Palace for the Heroes’ Welcome, Spc. Reyes hid in the wings, awaiting the signal. Each warrior stood up and told his story to the audience, drawing tears from the eyes of many in attendance. Sgt. Reyes was the last to stand. He recalled how his platoon, part of 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, had been on a foot patrol when an IED exploded under them. He sustained injuries that included temporary hearing loss and nerve damage to his right arm. In spite of those injuries, he is determined to pursue a degree in psychology and be a counselor and mentor to other Veterans.
“No matter what happens in your life, you can overcome any obstacle that comes your way,” he said. “You will be successful.”
Once he finished his speech, Command Sgt. Maj. Arthur L. Coleman, Jr., senior enlisted advisor to the deputy commanding general for operations with United States Forces-Iraq, and III Corps command sergeant major, told him to stand again, and said someone he wanted to see was standing right behind him. Sgt. Reyes turned to find his brother standing there, smiling at him.
“It just completely shocked me,” he said. “Never did it cross my mind that he was already here at Victory Base.”
He explained that he thought he would eventually get to see Spc. Reyes when the visit reached Balad, but it took him by surprise when his brother appeared at the ceremony. It had even been arranged that Spc. Reyes would stay with him for the duration of the visit.
Operation Proper Exit is a program sponsored by the Troops First Foundation, a nonprofit organization that enables service members who were injured in combat to return to Iraq to see the changes in the country firsthand. So far, 56 service members have taken part in the program, and this particular visit was the eighth installment of the visit.
“Bottom line, up front, it gives wounded warriors a chance to leave Iraq on their own terms rather than leaving when the enemy had a vote,” said Sgt. Maj. Richard Jones, the USF-I joint operations sergeant major, and a Copperas Cove, Texas, native. “They get to visit their old stomping grounds, and they get to fly over if their [forward operating base] no longer exists.”
“In their own terms, in their own way, they will find some type of closure to know that their sacrifices were worth everything that they and their brothers put in here,” added Rick Kell, the executive director of the Troops First Foundation, and a Laurel, Md., native.
Sgt. Reyes explained that he found the organization through a computer search and requested an application so he could take part.
“I always feel that Iraq is always going to be a part of me,” he said. “And because I was injured, and because I wasn’t given a proper exit like we soldiers are meant to do at [a] time of war, this gives me the opportunity to get that proper exit and go back home, stepping off the plane instead of being carried.”
This isn’t the first time the brothers have been in Iraq at the same time. Spc. Reyes, currently on his third deployment to Iraq, had been stationed in Ramadi when Sgt. Reyes, only nine months into his first deployment, was injured. He explained that he found out about the injury through an e-mail from a friend, and was then allowed to take emergency leave to be with his brother.
“I know he’s still dealing with demons from the attack,” said Spc. Reyes. “He wishes he was in my boots.”
He added that he’s thankful that Sgt. Reyes was able to recover.
“There was always an angel in church who kept reminding me things would get better even though I doubted,” he said. “He’s more appreciative of life; he feels like he was reborn.”
Kell noted that this is the second time they’ve arranged a surprise like this.
“It was a special week for them and the family, as I’m sure it will be for the Reyes family,” he said. “To know the Army will reach out and make accommodations like this when they can, should be sending a message to a lot of people. They do walk the walk.”