CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait -- Operation Proper Exit, an initiative of the Troops First Foundation, was facilitated by the 35th Infantry Division along with U.S. Army Central Command during its journey through Camps Arifjan and Buehring, while en route through the Middle East in early December.
Operation Proper Exit is a driving force for wounded warriors and Gold Star families to continue to work through the trauma they've faced and to help them find their path forward.
Normally, December is a time for closing doors on the outgoing year and opening up a fresh new year full of possibility. People make plans and resolutions to implement positive changes in their lives. But if the past year's door is unhinged, it can be hard to close it and look forward.
Rick Kell, a retired advertising executive, began visiting with wounded warriors at Walter Reed Medical Center in 2005, and over the next several years, he learned a great deal about the needs of these heroes. One recurring theme among them was the need to return to that place where fragments of their lives went missing, to put those pieces back together, and to leave--this time, on their own terms, and make a 'proper exit.'
In Aug. 2008, Kell and David Feherty co-founded the Troops First Foundation and incorporated it as a non-profit organization. That same year, Ray Odierno, then commanding general in Iraq, approved OPE, and it became one of several Troops First Foundation initiatives. Now in its 10th year, and having completed more than 20 trips to the Middle East, with 10 trips to Iraq and 13 to Afghanistan, OPE has expanded to include Gold Star Families.
Master Sgt. (ret.) Leroy Petry, Medal of Honor recipient, formerly of D company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, lost his right hand to a grenade that was about to blow up next to his fellow troops in 2008. He had just been shot in both thighs, when he managed to grab the grenade and toss it away from his comrades. Although he has since retired from the military, Petry now serves as a member of the Troops First Foundation.
"I'm in phase two of the Army, taking care of veterans and our military the best way I can," said Petry. "Nothing inspires me more than coming over here and seeing you all."
Petry offered sound advice to current active duty troops.
"I hear it every time I go to Afghanistan from some of the troops, 'This isn't what I expected. There's not a lot of action. This isn't how I thought a war zone would be,'" said Petry. "And war has changed. The tempo has slowed down for U.S. troops. We're in that advisory role. I tell a lot of them, 'Be careful what you wish for, because in the blink of an eye, that could all change.'"
Soldiers injured in battle or other situations sometimes wake up in a hospital, days or even weeks later, missing those pieces of their lives. In addition, the sense of having been ripped away from their fellow Soldiers by force can leave them with feelings of guilt, anguish, and anxiety. Their choice to contribute was taken from them, perhaps along with some or all of the functionality of their area of injury.
Cpl. Matthew Bradford, U.S. Marine Corps (ret.), now on his second OPE trip, expressed the benefit he gained from being able to return to the Middle East.
"What I experienced on that trip to Iraq in 2011, it really changed my life. I felt like when I got hurt here in 2007, part of me was still here in this country, and when I came back in 2011, I had to get it home. Life changed for me then," said Bradford. "I served in the Marine Corps from 2005 to 2012. I was severely injured in 2007. I lost both my legs and my vision when I stepped on an improvised explosive device. I got hurt on January 18, 2007, and I was at Bethesda on January 21, in an ICU coma for three weeks. I was 20 years old."
Some Americans don't think much about the ongoing wars, some are even oblivious--but for those who were injured in the fight, the wars can rage on. For some, getting up every morning or being able to sleep at night is a battle of its own, and the fight to do everyday things can be daunting. Others battle unseen scars which inhibit their ability to move forward and cope in healthy ways.
"I am constantly reminded about my injuries, every morning when I wake up and put my legs on and when I open my eyes up," said Bradford. "Then, you know, I think to myself, 'Why be mad? Why be discouraged about 'now you're a legless, blind amputee.' Go out and live your life to the fullest.' Because we live in the United States of America, we have the opportunity to live our lives to the fullest, and that's what I do, and I love every minute of it."
Bradford described his devotion to the Marine Corps as something he holds most sacred.
"That's who I am," said Bradford. "It's who I was in 2005, when I raised my right hand and stood on those yellow footprints. It's who I was in 2007 when I got blown up. It's who I am today, and who I will forever be. I'm very blessed to have [not only] had the opportunity to serve in the United States of America, but to have worn the uniform as a United States Marine, Infantryman--the best of the best."
Bradford persevered and re-enlisted in the Marine Corps to continue serving and devote himself to working with other wounded warriors.
"On April 7, 2010, I re-enlisted," said Bradford. "I was the first blind, double-amputee to do that. I was assigned to the Wounded Warrior Battalion East, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Being assigned there and being around other wounded warriors, it's what I wanted to do."
According to Bradford, his active lifestyle allows him to continue to be a leader.
"Since 2007, I've participated in six Marine Corps Marathons, I've done six half marathons, I've done 7 Spartan races," said Bradford. "In November, I completed my first ever trifecta, which is the sprint, the super, and the beast, all in one year. I learned in the Marine Corps and also in therapy, that if you lead by example, they will follow, and that's what I do. Everything that I learned in the Marine Corps has helped me to get through my recovery and it's everything that I still use today."
For Gold Star families who have lost loved ones to the war, accepting what happened - how and why - is a journey of its own, with pain and emptiness that lasts a lifetime.
These families gain a deeper understanding of their loved ones' military lives, beyond just seeing them in uniform. During their travels, Gold Star family members typically wear the uniform of their loved one's service. There are some stops along the way, where all OPE participants have an opportunity to address and interact with currently serving troops.
Diana Pike, a U.S. Army veteran and Gold Star family member, lost her son, Chief Cryptologic Technician (Technical) (EXW/IDW/SW) Christian M. Pike, when he died at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany in March of 2013 from injuries sustained during combat in Afghanistan as a member of Echo Platoon, Seal Team Five, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. For his heroism in connection with combat operations against the enemy, Pike was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star with Valor. He had served more than 11 years in the Navy and had joined the special operations team in 2013.
Pike had followed in his mother's footsteps, as Diana Pike had served for more than a decade in the U.S. Army's cryptologic service and left the Army as a Sgt. 1st Class.
"Since Christian's death I have been stagnate; not 'living,' just being," said Pike. "I go to work every day and meet all my responsibilities, but I haven't been able to find joy in living. I believed that in being Christian's proxy and making his 'Proper Exit,' I might be able to find solace and comfort in walking the path he walked, and gain a greater understanding of his presence in Afghanistan. Christian was very proud of his service and really believed in our participation in Afghanistan. I wanted to feel what Christian felt."
Going to the theater of operations where their loved one was killed allows Gold Star family members to gain a depth of understanding and perspective that could not be attained in any other way. While these families can never be made entirely whole, OPE may offer greater avenues of healing and acceptance, as it allows them to profoundly touch their loved ones' world.
Pike spoke of her OPE journey with the wounded warrior veterans who became her comrades.
"I have come to love and admire these men," said Pike. "Their mere presence lifted me up -- they are miraculous, inspirational men. They demonstrate their tenacity, love, and spirit of service every day. They told their stories of victory, and how, after the worst days of their lives, they kept moving, rebuilt their lives to greater successes, greater love, and greater happiness."
Pike went on to describe her sentiments regarding the wounded warrior veteran participants she met during OPE.
"I believe these are men Christian would have loved and laughed with, as I love and have laughed with them," said Pike. "If you know these men, you know their stories and their joy for life. I couldn't thank them enough for the gift they have given me -- how can I be mired when these men shine? I cannot, it would be disrespectful. I love them for the joy they have given me, and these words fall shamefully short of the feelings I hold for them."
Wounded warrior veterans gain a sense of completion from OPE, as it bridges a gap in time and fills a void left by the circumstances of their injury and evacuation. These warriors and families can gain a sense of being back in control. The warriors come back to their area of operation and then leave it on their own terms. They are consciously present and in control from start to finish.
Because of interactions with currently serving troops, participants also understand how much they are still a part of a larger military family. The camaraderie is tangible in the genuinely warm interactions wherever they go. OPE provides warriors and Gold Star family members an opportunity to see that a difference has been made in the theater of operation where these warrior veterans served.
Senior Airman (ret.) Aubrey Hand III was injured by a bomb on a route clearance mission. Despite the injury, Hand leads an active lifestyle that includes snowboarding and hand-cycling, hobbies he acquired after his injury.
"We had to go in and out the same road," said Hand. "They knew it. They put a couple of barrels into a culvert. So now I'm a below-knee amputee. Life is definitely different. Everybody that's here, everybody that's around me, everybody that supports the military, that's the only reason that I can do what I do now."
Staff Sgt. (ret.) Luke Cifka lost both of his legs on his second deployment, in Logar Province, Afghanistan in 2013, when he stepped on a pressure plate improvised explosive, resulting in a bilateral above-knee amputation and having the bones in his hands broken.
"I tried out for the sniper effects and got picked up," said Cifka. "That's when I really fell in love with the Army. My favorite past time is that I like to shoot. I will never stop. Ever. When I was hurt, my hands were broken. Every bone in my hands was broken. I lost most of the feeling in the fingers and that created some problems for shooting. It was only because I had good leadership and good examples to follow, like Leroy [Petry]--who came to visit me in the hospital that I was able to kind of channel that into recovery and get back and shoot, which is what I do now. I am a full-time firearms instructor."
Now, on his first journey with OPE, Cifka shared his gratitude for the opportunity.
"I met Rick and some of the guys with Troops First several years ago," said Cifka. "When Rick asked me to come on this, I said 'no.' I said 'no' for about four years. I just wasn't there. I wasn't able to mentally get over that gap of going back into a war zone in a wheel chair."
But Kell continued to reach out to Cifka over the years.
"[Kell] kept at it. He kept taking guys back," said Cifka. "I am very grateful that they didn't give up on me. We've only been here a couple of hours and it is already making a difference."