Wounded warriors return to combat zone
July 22, 2011
He remembered everything: the initial blast, the most thunderous noise imaginable, the smell, the smoke, and the radiant heat after the blast. He could even remember being tossed to the top of the crow’s nest, then being slammed back down into the Humvee before his vehicle began rolling. And, he could even remember the vehicle stopping, and then being medically evacuated from Iraq.
Even after his traumatic incident and the injuries he sustained, Martinez willingly made a trip back here along with six other wounded service members who also share similar experiences as him.
Six Soldiers and one Marine returned to Iraq for Operation Proper Exit June 26. OPE is a program which provides service members who were injured during their deployment in Iraq the opportunity to return and see the changes that have occurred because of their sacrifice, and affords them a chance to continue their healing process.
“It has real meaning and real value,” said Rick Kell, the executive director of Troops First Foundation, who escorts the wounded warriors back to Iraq. “What the program does is provides them with the opportunity to see the changes in person. It also allows them to come and talk to the boots on the ground here.”
The other topic people talk about with this program is closure.
“This trip now gets us to 77 men that have been back on the program, and there are 77 different stories about closure and what it means to them individually,” Kell said. “There are a lot of good stories and a lot of good results, but closure is an individual thing.”
During the weeklong visit, the seven wounded warriors traveled the country visiting the three United States division headquarters, a few outlying bases, and the location where each of their incidents occurred. Upon arriving at each location, the wounded warriors shared their stories with service members who are currently deployed here.
Most people would assume that returning to the combat site where they were injured would be the highlight of their trip. In fact, most of the veterans agreed that something as simple as wearing the uniform again, listening and learning from the other wounded warrior’s stories, and just talking to troops was by far the best part of their OPE experience.
“As great as it was going back to my site, I’d be lying if I said that was the best part of the trip,” said Martinez, who was previously deployed with the Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division. “Being in uniform, being called sergeant again, and being in the other Soldiers’ presence [and] talking to them one on one here in this theater where my life changed, was the best part of my trip.”
Retired Sgt. Kurtis Edelman shared the same views on the trip as well.
“For me, I thought my healing point would be the grid, but it wasn’t,” said Edelman, previously with the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. “It was wearing the uniform, and also being here on the ground is what really solved it for me.”
One of the things this program has done is help change some of the veterans’ liveliness through bonding with the other wounded warriors, hearing their individual stories, how they are dealing with it and what they are going through.
“Although it’s a horrific event, sharing that horrific event with someone who gets it is absolutely immeasurable,” said retired Marine 1st Lt. Denis Oliverio, who was previously with the 1st Tank Battalion, Bravo Company. “I can talk about this at work, but I quickly out talk the audience, they don’t understand or know what it’s like. But in this crowd, with these six other guys, they understand, and it is so helpful and beneficial to do that with these guys.”
For most of the wounded warriors, being back in country and seeing first hand how all of their hard work, effort and sacrifice was a relief in the long run.
“Seeing the technological advancement and the [reposture], which is a good thing, means that it worked and we were successful,” Oliverio said.
For other wounded warriors it was great to see and hear the commitment that their sacrifice had achieved.
“Being able to come back here and see the progress, and hear everybody’s reassurance that they are going to complete the mission is one of the best parts of this trip,” Martinez said.
Although they all have a different story to tell, OPE provided each and every one of the combat veterans with the same thing, something they weren’t able to get the last time they were here: a proper exit, on their own terms.