Wounded warriors return to Iraq, find closure
June 15, 2010
BAGHDAD (Army News Service, June 15, 2010) -- When Staff Sgt. Christopher Bain was ambushed in Iraq April 8, 2004, he died - for 10 minutes. Fortunately, he received four blood transfusions from Iraqi soldiers and survived, but did not escape facing years of torment.
Bain walked out on his first medical board. With war wounds resulting in the loss of the use of his left hand and minimal use of his right, Bain felt he deserved more - at least more than the 30 percent disability the medical board offered him.
Bain spent three years in care, and like many wounded combat veterans, battled with the pervasive terror called memory.
But Bain is now one step closer to healing. A recent trip to Iraq with a program called Operation Proper Exit brought Bain back to the place where six years earlier the blast of a mortar tossed him like a rag doll yards away from his buddies. The program, which is designed to offer wounded warriors a sense of closure from the war, takes them to ground-zero of their pain. And that's where Bain knelt June 13, digging a knife into the spot where the mortar landed.
On Taji, the veterans were hosted by the Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, a unit that among other things, flies the type of medevac aircraft that evacuated many of the wounded Soldiers. CAB Soldiers led the wounded warriors on a tour of the brigade; many of the wounded warriors were unconscious during their first encounter with a medevac helicopter, and do not remember it.
"So this is what those things look like," remarked a veteran.
The wounded warriors toured Taji, making an emotional stop at Gunner Gate, the spot where Bain was injured. There, they followed Bain as he re-lived that afternoon six years ago.
When the wounded warriors arrived at the gate, it took a minute for the emotions to sink in. They joked with each other like any Soldiers would, often making light of their handicaps.
Bain stood apart from the rest of the group. Leaning with his good hand on a tree, he looked toward the gate. After a few minutes, Bain found the spot where he thinks the mortar landed. He took a knee and asked his buddies for a knife.
The mood had shifted from a seemingly incongruous cheer to sympathy, and as Bain used the knife to scrape dirt from the ground, another wounded warrior collected it in a small plastic bag.
"I came here to get closure - to feel the dirt - to walk on the ground that I couldn't walk away from before," said Bain.
Operation Proper Exit is a program of the Troops First Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in 2008 by Rick Kell and David Feherty. Bain and 11 others are participating in the program's seventh tour and will bring the total number of involved veterans to 50.
"They want to come back and see that their sacrifice is meaningful," said Kell, the executive director of the Troops First Foundation.
After visiting Gunner Gate, Bain talked to Soldiers during a town-hall-style meeting.
Bain left Iraq in 2004. Since then the number of casualties has greatly decreased. In 2004, 4,506 U.S. Soldiers were wounded in action. Halfway through the calendar year of 2010, the number of troops wounded in action is a mere 221.
Bain also described to the Soldiers the purpose of Operation Proper Exit.
"I didn't get to go home and visit my family," he said. "I woke up in a hospital room. Then I spent three years there. Now I get to return the right way."
Bain was medically retired during his sixteenth year of service, and he is now a motivational speaker and certified mentor for the Wounded Warrior Project.
"I don't need a uniform to serve," Bain told Soldiers on Taji. "I can still serve all of you."