JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — Eight Soldiers who were injured while serving in Iraq returned to Joint Base Balad, Iraq, Feb. 5, during Operation Proper Exit Four, to tell their stories and witness the changes the country has undergone since they last served here.
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. John A. Elder, the superintendent with the 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group, said the program gives injured Soldiers a chance to travel throughout the country and revisit once familiar locations.
Elder, an Appomattox, Va., native, said the injured Soldiers tell their stories so the service members who are here now can understand the country's improvements.
"It's a good chance for those Soldiers to come back to Iraq, see what goes on and leave the country on their own terms," he said.
The Soldiers revisited the Air Force Theater Hospital at JBB, where they were treated before they were evacuated from the country. Their tour was a chronological duplicate of their first visit to the hospital, starting with the stability room, moving through the emergency department and then to the helicopter pad, said Elder.
Some of the Soldiers had never even seen the hospital because it was a complex of tents when they were last here, he said.
"I've been looking forward to this for a long time," he said. "Proper Exit Three, last time, was supposed to come through and the weather stopped them from coming here. It was very disappointing when they didn't come. This will be one of the highlights of my tour here at the hospital."
The injured Veterans came back to tell Soldiers serving here what they have done with their lives since they were injured, using their life stories to inspire their fellow Soldiers, said Elder.
"To watch them get off that helicopter laughing, joking and just having a good time, was really, really pleasing for me," he said. "It's an honor for me to be here to help these guys."
Capt. Ferris W. Butler, former platoon leader with D Company, 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, N.Y., said it was amazing to come back.
When he was injured at the end of 2006 by an improvised explosive device, the country as a whole was in turmoil, said Butler, a Port Tobacco, Mass., native. He said the Soldiers were uncertain if America would stay as long as it has to further freedom and democracy in Iraq. It was a time of struggle and uncertainty, said Butler.
"To be able to come back a few years later, after I've suffered losing both feet from elective amputation," he said, "it just brings so much closure to the entire mission. To see the country thriving, to see the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Army take over, it really means a lot."
In 2006, there were no vehicles on the road and all of the bridges were shut down, said Butler. In the four years that have passed, the country has changed, he said.
"We've literally been all over Iraq," he said. "To see the lights on at night, to see the water running and to see all the vehicular traffic going through the streets, it's absolutely unreal. We are literally rebuilding this country, said Butler.
Staff Sgt. Allison M. Evans, a supply sergeant with the 159th Seaport Operations Company out of Fort Story, Va., 80th Ordnance Battalion, 15th Sustainment Brigade, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), said this event helped the Veterans find closure and gave the younger Soldiers a better perspective, opening their eyes to the war as a whole.
Evans, a Jacksonville, N.C., native, said they witnessed the Veterans' strength in how they live their lives and cope with their difficulties.
"It kind of makes me feel like I don't have as much to stress out about because these guys have overcome so much," she said. "I can overcome the little things I do every day."
Some Veterans have come back more than once to help out new Soldiers who participate in the event, Evans said.
Elder said Soldiers who are interested in Proper Exit, but do not want to come to Iraq, can speak with Soldiers who have participated, to get a wealth of information about the program and those Veterans' experiences.
"I really see the looks on their faces," he said. "I know they're getting a lot out of it. I just thank them for having the strength and courage to come back. These guys went through some horrific times in their lives and they fought back from almost certain death in some cases. They are much stronger men than I could ever dream of being. I have a tremendous amount of respect for these Soldiers. I'll be there for them, anything they need."