BASRA, Iraq - Staff Sgt. Jeffery Curtis had been telling the story for years. On Nov. 16, 2004, he was just starting a guard shift on the perimeter of Forward Operating Base Gains Mills in northern Iraq with his Avenger air missile defense team when the net came alive with chatter.

A U.S. vehicle on a counter-ambush patrol had rolled over and fell 30 feet. The crew was trapped and several were severely wounded. Curtis listened to the rescue effort develop on his radio, unable to leave his post to help.

"I was on guard the whole time while it was happening and just listening to it, wishing I could go out there and help them," said Curtis, a Kansas City, Mo. native, now serving as an air missile defense operations noncommissioned officer. "That's something that has been vividly in my head since."

Spc. Carlos Ortiz was one of the infantrymen on that counter-ambush patrol near Kirkuk. A buddy of his had recently been severely wounded in an attack, and he and his fellow Soldiers were out to prevent something similar from happening again.

With the rollover, Ortiz's mission turned tragic, killing one of his fellow Soldiers assigned to the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division and severely wounding the vehicle's crew, including Ortiz.

Now, thanks to Operation Proper Exit, Ortiz, a Toms River, N.J., native, has returned to Iraq, and Curtis, deployed to Basra, was there to greet him.

Ortiz and six other wounded service members visited United States Division-South Dec. 7, visiting Patrol Base Minden along the Iraq-Iran border and having lunch at an Iraqi Air Force cafeteria near the Basra International Airport.

Proper Exit, an initiative of the Troops First Foundation, was created to help Soldiers like Ortiz achieve peace of mind and closure with their experiences.

It's also helped younger Soldiers meet the veterans who served before them, and for Soldiers like Curtis, provided a little closure as well.

Curtis, assigned to the 1st Infantry Division Headquarters, saw the incident report next to Ortiz' name on the list of incoming Proper Exit veterans and realized he was part of the crew whose incident he remembered so vividly. He immediately volunteered to be Ortiz' escort for his tour of USD-S.

"I'm here to try to help him and help him get on with his life. Maybe it'll bring some closure to some stuff that's going on."

Ortiz said having Curtis there added to the experience.

"It feels good. He was on the same (base), he remembered me when I came off the bird so it definitely feels good because we know the same people and he remembers the whole incident," Ortiz said.

Ortiz said he had heard about the program at a naming ceremony for a Veterans of Foreign Wars facility that was being renamed for one of his fallen comrades. He knew he had to go.

"I heard about this program, and it sounded pretty cool so I decided I wanted to do it," Ortiz said. "Even talking to my friends, (we said), 'Wouldn't it be cool to go back to Iraq for like a week instead of going back for a year'' So when it came up, I had to say yeah."

While Curtis and Ortiz left Operation Proper Exit gaining some understanding of their shared experiences, Ortiz also shared some words of wisdom with other Soldiers at Patrol Base Minden.

Ortiz's message for his fellow troops was one of hope.

"Don't quit, don't give up, do your best, and we all care about you."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16