Wounded veterans return to conflict zone in Iraq


Soldiers have often returned to old battlefields, to honour fallen comrades and to exorcise persistent demons. British soldiers go back to the Falklands. Normandy cemeteries are on many VFW and American Legion itineraries. Vietnam veterans can even get package tours now to the places where they were stationed.

Now, Americans wounded in the Iraq war are being ferried back to the scenes where they were maimed to help achieve psychological closure, the first time such visits have been tried while a war is still in progress.

The seven-day programme, called Operation Proper Exit, has been kept quiet previously, partly because returning to a combat zone is considered a delicate experiment. For the eight wounded men who returned to Iraq recently, including five amputees and one blinded soldier, the hope is that returning to places many of them left while unconscious or in agony might reassure them that their losses have been worth it.

That appeared to be the case for retired Lt Edwin Salau. He was one of eight wounded American veterans who lined up to meet Brig Gen Farhan Abbas, the Iraqi army brigade commander in Diyala province, where the Normandy base is located.

“It’s an honour to be here and see all the progress,” Salau, whose prosthetic left leg was hidden beneath his baggy uniform, told the Iraqi general. “We gave a lot for your country and we’re glad for it.” “You should wear your wounds like badges on your chest,” Farhan said.

Operation Proper Exit was started by a small foundation in Laurel, Troops First, supported by the USO and welcomed by the military command in Iraq. This was the second visit to Iraq since June, but the first was kept secret because no one knew for sure how the soldiers would handle their return.

Progress

“The amount of developmental growth and closure was phenomenal,” said Col David Sutherland, the former brigade commander in Diyala, who came along on that first trip and said it turned out better than hoped. “Some of them said their night terrors stopped after they went.”

Sutherland was not wounded, at least not physically, but as the brigade commander who lost more soldiers than any other in Diyala — 110 during a long tour from late 2006 until early 2008 — he, too, found the return important. “I left about 15 pounds of guilt back in Iraq after that trip,” he said, “because I saw such dramatic change.”

The operation has been approved by the army surgeon general, according to Dr John Olsen, an army surgeon who referred to it as “an important psychological step”. Olsen conceded, though, that he was not aware of any medical research that endorsed the therapeutic value of sending wounded veterans back to a conflict zone.

Rick Kell, the head of Troops First, said that the impetus came from wounded soldiers themselves. Working with them at Walter Reed Army Medical Centre, Kell said, “I kept hearing every day, ‘I want to go back, I want to go back’.” He said the programme had been careful to select only returnees who had already shown good progress in coping with their injuries.

The veterans got VIP treatment from the moment they arrived on Sunday, meeting with Iraqi and American dignitaries, including Gen Ray Odierno, the senior American commander in Iraq, attending intelligence briefings and then spending the rest of the week revisiting their old bases around Iraq.

For Sgt Luke Wilson, 29, from Hermiston, the flight was the first he had ever flown anywhere in business class.  Kell said, “Business class was important, for a 13-hour-long flight, so they could lie down, take their legs off or whatever.” He sold the Proper Exit idea to Odierno earlier this year.

“This has blown me away,” Wilson said. He lost his left leg above the knee in a grenade attack in Baghdad in 2004. “I’ve never been treated like this.” He then turned to Lawrence Wilson, the highest-ranking non-commissioned officer in the theatre, and asked, “Can I stay, Command Sergeant Major?”

The group arrived at this base, near the city of Muqdadiyah, northeast of Baghdad, because two of the eight suffered their wounds while here. When they stepped out of the Blackhawk helicopters at the base landing zone on Wednesday, they all walked under their own power to be greeted by American officers and soldiers, clapped on their backs and welcomed as if they were old friends rather than strangers. All of them were in full uniform, including the four retirees; none of their injuries or prostheses were apparent except close up.

Reconstruction

The two who had been stationed at this forward operation base were Sgt John Hyland, 38, from San Antonio, who lost his left leg and suffered back injuries when an improvised explosive device hit his Humvee in 2007, and Spc Craig Chavez, 29, from Temecula, blinded by a 2006 IED blast that destroyed his face — now reconstructed — and cost him his left eye and most of the vision in his right. To Chavez, it was a point of pride that he navigated the base without any help. “I do it,” he said, “because I have to.”

The soldiers were most struck by the lack of noise here now. “The biggest thing in the world is the silence,” Hyland said. “We haven’t heard anything all week.” Not mortar shells, once common around Normandy, nor the distant sound of an exploding IED.

Hyland had a rough time when the group came to the battalion’s memorial hall, with pictures of the 65 American soldiers who have died while based here. One was a medic, Spc Jonathan Rivadeneira, 22, from Queens, who Hyland says saved his life in the attack on his Humvee on Sept 11, 2007. Three days later, Rivadeneira was killed.

Alone before the medic’s picture for a moment, Hyland began weeping quietly and with difficulty lowered himself onto his good right knee to pray. When he came outside to join everyone for a group picture, he was still shaky, and the other wounded men gathered around him until he regained his composure.

There was some good news even in that memorial hall, however. Tim Dotson, the command sergeant major of the unit based here, the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, pointed to a blank wall to the left of the door. All the other walls were full of pictures.

“That wall is blank because the unit we just replaced lost no one,” said Dotson, 44, of San Antonio. “This is the new Iraq, and what you did here is part of that.” “Hoo-ah,” some of the guys muttered approvingly. “We’re getting ready to turn off the lights, lock it up and go home.”

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