By Sgt. Tom Wade, U.S. Army CentralAugust 16, 2017
CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait -- History tells us of a time when we believed that heroes were not created, but born. Through many sacrifices, it became easy for people to instill the ideals of never giving up, never giving in. Generations later, Operation Proper Exit brings these born heroes here, for one last challenge to overcome.
Wounded veterans, who are thriving in recovery, began their journey by talking to deployed service members, Aug. 8, at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. Operation Proper Exit, under the Troop's First Foundation, grants wounded veterans the unique opportunity to get closure, from their incident, by traveling to the battlefield and leaving on their own accord.
The trip back to the combat zone starts off with the OPE participants sharing stories of how they were injured, what the recovery was like, and what they are doing with their lives now.
"On November 20, 2011, I was out on patrol with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines Fox Company, in Korengal, broadcasting live messages for people to stay away from the area, because we were helping the locals, gathering intel and clearing (improvised explosive devices), when suddenly I was approached by an Afghani who wanted to show me where an IED was," said U.S. Army retired Staff Sgt. Daniel Burgess, formerly with the 350th Tactical Psychological Operations Company. "As I turned, that's when I stepped on an IED … which caused me to suffer a traumatic amputation and multiple other injuries."
Burgess lost his right leg, below the knee, and injured his left leg. He spent the next three years recovering at Fort Sam Houston military medical center where they would salvage his left leg, so he could walk out with his wife and kids. These days, he spends time passionately quilting with his wife, playing video games with family and friends, and making sure his kids get to dance classes.
"I wound up taking quilting classes with my wife as a way to spend time with her," said Burgess. "I wound up falling in love with it, as a hobby, because it helps relax my mind. It allows me to see something that I can easily produce, especially on days I am wheelchair bound."
The audience shares a laugh with Burgess when he described his passion for quilting. His story uplifted the spirit of the rest of the speakers, who also came to Camp Arifjan to describe what they believe was the worst and best day of their life.
"On September 25, 2011 … in the Faryab Province … we were doing a valley clearing operation and began to take pretty heavy fire, one hour into the mission," said U.S. Army retired Staff Sgt. Kevin Flike, formerly with the 3rd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group. "Over the next 10 hours, we fought back and forth, in the valley. It was in the 10th hour, I came off a roof, and went around the corner of a building to reorganize my squad when I got shot in the stomach, right underneath the body armor."
The bullet fractured Flike's hip, damaged his femoral nerve in his left leg and caused him to lose 20 percent of his colon. Due to an experimental surgery at the Mayo Clinic and hundreds of hours of rehab, Filke was able to regain some strength in his leg, but he still suffers with chronic pain and imbalance when walking.
"I medically retired from the U.S. Army in the fall of 2013, and started working on a dual master's degree from Harvard and MIT," said Flike. "I finished those degrees in three years … and I currently work in Boston for Goldman Sachs as an investment manager."
When not working, Flike spends most of his free time with his wife and two girls. Flike also actively pursues a hobby as a motivational speaker, discussing the lesson he learned from his injuries and the recovery process.
Stories like these propelled Rick Kell, the co-sponsor of Troops First Foundation, to a call to action. TFF initiative provides meaningful assistance, such as relationship building, mentoring and reintegration, for military personnel who have been wounded while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"This is the 22nd trip I have made since 2009," said Rick Kell, executive director, Troops First Foundation. "I keep doing this because the warriors want to come back and I will keep doing that as long as the funding and support from their chain of command is there."
As the wounded veterans continue to tell their stories, laughter covered up the thought of what was soon to come. Speaking about the incidents that have caused great pain may be difficult to many, but heroes are born from these moments.
"My military service has been the best part of my life, besides my family," said U.S. Army retired Master Sgt. Leroy Petry, and Medal of Honor recipient, formerly with D company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. "I enjoy coming back on these Operation Proper Exits because these Soldiers keep inspiring me to keep giving back."