By Sgt. Michael J. MacLeodMay 20, 2010
CAMP RAMADI, Iraq (Army News Service, May 20, 2010) -- Mothers or any family member or friend can play a pivotal role in the recovery of servicemembers severely wounded in combat, according to wounded veterans visiting here the day after Mother's Day.
Ten wounded warriors told their stories of recovery to paratroopers of 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division (Advise and Assist), May 10, in the latest tour of Operation Proper Exit, a program designed to provide closure to severely wounded veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom by returning them to the site of their injury.
"Whether it's mom or dad or a wife or a brother, the family support that wounded warriors receive helps them tremendously through the healing process and recovery," said Richard Kell, executive director of Troops First Foundation and leader of the sixth OPE tour.
"We've seen warriors less fortunate, who don't have that mom or dad or someone particularly close to them to spend time as a medical attendant in the hospital with them, and in general, those warriors without that type of support do not move as quickly through recovery," he said.
So far as OPE goes, it's a common mom thing to say, "You really don't need to go back to Iraq. Why don't you just take leave and come visit here instead'" said Staff Sgt. Brian Beem, who lost a lower leg to a highly-lethal explosively-formed projectile roadside bomb while deployed in Baghdad with 172nd Stryker Brigade out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
Beem, who returned to his former unit upon recovery, said that his wife read about OPE in a local paper and wrote Kell an email in his name that said, "Hi, my name is Brian. I am an amputee. Can I go back to Iraq'"
Beem wanted to return to Iraq to see that his sacrifices and those of his friends had made a difference.
"It's incredible doing a flyover to see how different the cities look," he said of the flight over Fallujah and Ramadi. "It's almost insulting how low we can fly without people shooting at us."
Kell told the audience of paratroopers who had come to ask questions of the wounded warriors that their own Command Sgt. Maj. LaMarquis Knowles had recently made a big difference in a servicemember's life when he took time out of his stateside leave to visit a Navy corpsman wounded by a sniper in downtown Ramadi this year.
"She said it was the best visit she's had since being injured," said Kell.
When injured warriors are contacted by people in their unit or area of operation, they are less likely to feel alienated during recovery, he said.
Retired Spc. Brent Hendrix, a cavalry scout with 172nd Stryker Brigade who had to be revived three times and endure 66 major surgeries since surviving a massive IED attack in June 2006 in Rawah, Iraq, said he continues to be inspired by people with injuries like his who have successfully transitioned to a normalized life.
"I lost my leg at the age of 22, and now I have to go the rest of my life with my amputation, but I saw this little kid who was about three years old who had lost his leg through birth," said Hendrix.
"I was six-foot-seven and he was something like two foot, and he would look at me and always shake my hand. That little kid looked up to me because I looked like him. That still inspires me," he said.
Capt. D.J. Skelton, who suffered the loss of an eye and several other injuries from a rocket-propelled grenade, said it was his sergeant who inspired him to persevere.
"He would roll his wheelchair into my room every day, but I spent five months in bed refusing to do physical therapy. Then one day he came in on prosthetic legs. The next day, I began," he said.
For retired Sgt. Noah Galloway who lost an arm and a leg from a roadside bomb, the same initiative that drove him to excel in the military helped push him as a civilian. Many wounded warriors, he noted, pursue recovery and achievement through sports.
"The Paralympics is the second-largest sporting event in the world," he said. "Every four years, it takes place a couple weeks after the Olympics at the same place. As big as it is, it's not played on TV here. You go to another country, it's a big event. It's slowly starting to creep into America because you've got all these veterans getting into these sporting events and the rest of America wants to see them compete."
Galloway credits his young children for making his amputations seem less grave.
"When my kids want to go outside, they know I have to put my leg on, so they drag my leg to me. Or if I'm hopping around the house without my leg, I'll turn around and there will be a train of kids hopping on one leg behind me."
The tour was OPE's largest to date, with 10 participants.
"We're understanding now that we can handle this size group," said Kell, who noted that the many wounded warriors who have made the trip are now recommending others.
"The reality is, I'm taking as many as possible," he said. "We just don't know how long we can keep doing this with the troop pullout at the end of 2011."
With the drawdown of troops continuing over the coming summer months, military assets used to enable the trip will be further taxed, he said.
"We want to get as many guys as we can," he said, "and we'll make it work."