Weeklong trip to Iraq ends for eight combat vets
October 21, 2009
- Eight wounded vets returned to Iraq to seek closure
- Visited with U.S. and Iraqi Special Forces Soldiers
- Soldiers, Marine returned to places they were injured
Since their arrival to Baghdad Oct. 11, seven wounded Soldiers and one Marine have had a busy schedule making stops throughout Iraq during their week-long stay, and Friday emotions ran high as the trip came to a close.
Operation Proper Exit, sponsored by the Troops First Foundation and the United Services Organization, has allowed wounded Servicemembers to return to the places where some of these men lost their friends, their troops and their limbs.
The eight Warriors who made the trip were Marine Sgt. John Eubanks of Atlanta, Ga.; Army Cpl. Craig Chavez of Temecula, Calif.; Army Sgt. John Hyland of Charlotte, N.C.; Army Sgt. 1st Class Josh Olson of Spokane, Wash.; Army Sgt. Eric Payton of Milford, N.J.; Army 1st Lt. Ed Salau of Stella, N.C.; and Army Staff Sgt. Luke Wilson of Hermiston, Ore.
On Friday, the last day of their tour, the troops were taken to the U.S. Special Forces and Iraqi Special Operations Forces compound, on Victory Base Complex in Baghdad. The Soldiers were welcomed with flowers and praise by U.S. and Iraqi Soldiers.
Although Fridays are normally a day off for Iraqis, a group of Iraqi Soldiers demonstrated the strides they have made in their ability to engage insurgents and provide security for important members of the Iraqi Security Forces and political figures.
Shortly after, the Warriors had their chance to let bullets fly.
With the assistance of U.S. Special Forces Soldiers, the men were able to fire everything from pistols to machine guns.
Eubanks certainly stood true to the Marine Corps catch-phrase "Get some." He was the first on the range and the last one to leave, as he picked up every weapon.
"My first deployment I was an Infantry man. During my second, I was an advisor to the Iraqis," Eubanks explained. "I'm a weapons specialist, so this is definitely my 'thing'."
Eubanks, who has served two tours in Iraq, suffered a lower back injury and traumatic brain injury after being struck by an improvised explosive device and various explosives in October 2005 in Husayba, Karbala and Ramadi, Iraq.
Eubanks said that he was most happy to shoot the Sterling submachine gun, a weapon used in World War II, because of its historical significance.
Olson said he felt at home on the range since hunting and shooting are two of his favorite hobbies.
While on his first tour to Iraq, he was struck with an RPG in Tall Afar in October 2003. He suffered a right hip disarticulation, and wears a prosthetic. He remains on active duty, and is currently a member of the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, fulfilling the duties of a competitive rifle shooter and marksmanship instructor.
After all rounds were expended, Maj. Gen. Fadhil Barwari, commander of ISOF's 1st Brigade, had a traditional Iraqi meal waiting for them at his house. Barwari took a moment to thank the men for the service and dedication to building a stable and free Iraq. He added that their sacrifices were greatly appreciated by the Iraqis, and that he was honored to be sharing this day with them.
The men had one last stop to Forward Operating Base Warhorse before the day was done.
FOB Warhorse was home to 1st Cavalry Division when Chavez and Hyland served with them in 2006 and 2007, respectively. A memorial wall built on the FOB is dedicated to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and Chavez and Hyland had come to see the names of those they knew and lost.
Chavez was injured in Shakarat, Iraq, in November 2006 by an IED. He lost his left eye, is partially blind and underwent facial reconstruction. His body also suffered numerous shrapnel wounds.
On September 11, 2007, Hyland was on a rescue patrol in Muqdadiyah, Iraq, when he was struck by an IED. He suffered extensive pelvic and back injuries and his left leg was amputated below the knee.
"It was amazing to get out and see this wall," said Hyland. "Chavez and I were with this unit, so it meant a lot."
For Salau, FOB Warhorse held a different meaning. His wife's first husband, Capt. Christopher Cash, was killed in action in Baquba and, in memoriam, the FOB's gym was named after him.
Salau was injured in November 2004, 15 kilometers south of Tuz, Iraq, by a rocket propelled grenade and small arms fire during an ambush. He suffered an above the knee amputation of his left leg.
As the group flew back to Camp Victory, Baghdad, each seemed to be reflecting on the week's events as they gazed out the doors of the Blackhawk helicopter into the open Iraqi sky.
As the sun set and the air cooled, the men gathered on the rear porch of the Joint Visitors Bureau hotel on Camp Victory for a barbecue in honor of their visit. Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors and Marines came from all over VBC to meet the Warriors, shake their hand and hear their story.
The crowd was moved as Hyland sang the national anthem, while Eubanks and Chavez held the U.S. flag. Following the national anthem, Eubanks read a poem he had written about his experiences in Iraq and at home while he struggled with TBI.
The night continued on, and one by one people retired for the evening. The following day the Warrior started their journey back to the United States. Their trip back to Iraq was over.
Each Warrior embarked on this journey for personal reasons and, for some of them, the journey home will be just as profound as the week-long stay here.
"This time I will be coming home from Iraq. Not from Walter Reed, but from Iraq," said Salau.