By Staff Sgt. Tanya Thomas, 4th AAB PAODecember 16, 2010
(b>CAMP RAMADI , Iraq - Eight service members returned to Iraq-a place where they nearly lost their lives-and were welcomed back Dec. 10 by Soldiers with 4th Advise and Assist Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, upon their visit to Al Anbar, Iraq.
"Operation Proper Exit" allows wounded warriors to revisit the country they were once medically evacuated from, to find closure to a chapter of their lives that has since remained open.
"In making this journey, I hope each of you gain a perspective from this chapter of your life and these experiences will assist you in writing the next," said Command Sgt. Maj. Joe Altman, command sergeant major of 4th AAB, 3rd ID, as he spoke to the wounded heroes at Camp Ramadi, Iraq.
The warriors-six Soldiers, a Marine, and one Airman-returned to Iraq, Dec. 6, and spent a week travelling throughout the country they involuntarily left.
Marine Corporal Michael Campbell, a Pineville, La., native, deployed to Fallujah, Iraq in March 2003, with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. Two months later, he was severely wounded when an improvised explosive device detonated and left him with Traumatic Brain Injury, chronic seizures, loss of short-term memory, loss of speech for two years, but most importantly, the loss of his fellow comrades who were killed in the blast.
"I wanted to come back here, where I was injured, to say goodbye to my friends," he said.
Corporal Campbell said this visit back to the province he left more than seven years ago would help with his healing process and allow him to mentally move forward from the tragedies of war.
A little more than a year after Campbell was injured, Spc. Derek Bradshaw, a Yucca Valley, Calif. native, deployed to Kirkuk, Iraq, with the 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. While out on patrol, his vehicle rolled off a 20-foot cliff, killing the driver, Spc. Daniel McConnell and leaving Bradshaw and the other passengers disabled
"They didn't think I was going to make it," Spc. Bradshaw said, recalling the Nov. 16, 2004 incident that left him with TBI, multiple face fractures, a broken arm and nerve damage.
Specialist Bradshaw heard about Operation Proper Exit through his battle buddy, Spc. Carlos Ortiz, 1st Bat., 27th Inf. Regt., 2nd BCT, 25th Inf. Div., and a Seaside Heights, N.J., native, who also almost plummeted to his death in the same roll-over accident.
"Ortiz told me about this opportunity to come back and without hesitation I jumped onboard," Bradshaw said. "It gives Soldiers like me a chance to return, talk to the other Soldiers who are currently deployed, and gives us a chance to leave-this time, on our own two feet."
Specialist Bradshaw, Ortiz, Campbell and the other wounded warriors, met with 4th AAB, 3rd ID Soldiers and discussed the days that nearly claimed their lives.
"This is allowing us to get closure a lot of us need," Spc. Bradshaw said. "Most of this closure comes from talking one-on-one with the Soldiers-people we can relate to-and it really helps."
The wounded warriors agreed a little small talk with their brothers and sisters-in-arms helped them cope, and said it was good to see their personal sacrifices helped to make a difference for the people of America and Iraq.
"It's awesome to see how much the Iraqi forces have grown in confidence and in numbers," Spc. Bradshaw said. "It's phenomenal to be able to come back and see this first-hand."
Sergeant 1st Class Joe James, a Bethpage, Tenn., native, and returning wounded warrior, agrees.
"It's only been a few years, but I feel like Iraq is a completely different place," he said of the improvements he has seen since he last left.
Sergeant First Class James, who has deployed to combat four times, was wounded in 2008 when an IED hit his Humvee, killing one and wounding him and two others. He said it was nice to see the combat roles have finally shifted to advise and assist.
"Iraq today is nothing like it was in 2005 and 2006, and that's because of you," Command Sgt. Maj. Altman told Sgt. 1st Class James and the rest of the wounded warriors. "Our Soldiers are safer, more secure and are able to advise and assist the Iraqis, due to your hard work and sacrifice."
Command Sergeant Major Altman and Command Sgt. Maj. William Johnson, command sergeant major with 1st Armored Division, United States Division - Center, handed each of the warriors a certificate of appreciation as a small token of their gratitude toward the heroes who have helped pave the way for other service members and the Government of Iraq, today.
"Whether you realize it or not, each of you are truly an inspiration," Command Sgt. Maj. Altman said to the wounded warriors. "To return to a place where you nearly lost your lives takes courage and gives me direct insight into the type of servicemen you were and veterans you are as you are still committed to serving our country."