When they stepped off the Blackhawk, it was difficult to resist the urge to run over and help them. Several were limping badly, yet nobody moved. Despite the sincerity of the offer, it would be received as an insult. Still proud, and still persevering, none would consider himself crippled. They walked to the trucks unassisted and climbed in.
Four lost limbs to IEDs or rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). One suffered a hip disarticulation from an RPG attack. One is missing an arm, another an eye, and the last suffered severe Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs). All eight are back in Iraq to observe first-hand the products of their sacrifice. A number are still on active duty.
The battalion commander first showed them the Wall of Heroes, the building’s foyer dedicated to their men who have fallen in the line of duty. Before their medical evacuations, two of the Soldiers visiting were once stationed on that base. One limped over to observe their photographs. The other Soldier leaned close enough to see with his one remaining eye. The photos were all of friends. One choked back tears. Camera crews from the media pool scrambled for photos. The last unit’s section of the wall is noticeably empty. They lost none in an entire year of operations.
Next, the battalion commander drove the group to the Iraqi side of the base to meet their division general. Outside, the Iraqi troops stood at attention, while inside the general greeted each man individually, thanked each for his sacrifice, assured him that they had not served in vain, and that, “your blood having mixed with ours,” he was forever welcome and honored in Iraq. Two Soldiers, standing awkwardly on prosthetics, fought back tears. The Marine announced how much of an honor it was for him to serve with the Iraq army. Two years ago, he and I served together in Habbaniyah, Iraq. We have several of the same friends. After repeated TBIs spread over multiple attacks, he awakened one morning unable to read or write. After extensive rehabilitation, he’s working on a degree in journalism and plans to become an officer.
Following their formal greeting from the Iraqi general, the wounded warriors reconvened outside to receive a greeting from his soldiers. One-by-one, the entire Iraqi platoon walked the line of injured warriors and shook their hands. Many, in quiet, respectful English, whispered “welcome” or “thank you.” One Soldier shifted his weight uncomfortably from his one limb to his prosthetic.
The next event was a briefing in the newly-constructed joint communications center where US forces and their Iraqi counterparts coordinate joint operations, share intelligence reports and collaborate to maximize battlespace security. The US battalion commander explained just how much of his operations are now channeled through the Iraqi general before execution.
When the brief was complete, the whole group went to lunch and reassembled for an intelligence in-brief. The US commander wanted to update the wounded warriors on progress in the region. The two who had served there on previous tours listened attentively.
Years ago, to help deny Al Qaeda vehicular access to a particular area, the Soldiers had dragged old, destroyed Iraqi tanks into a few small roads. Al Qaeda would drag them off and into the canals. Each time, the Soldiers would reposition them. This July, as one of the battalion’s first projects intended to improve the area through humanitarian missions, the US removed those three tanks. One took eleven hours to load and move. A wounded Soldier apologized for the inconvenience he caused, drawing laughter.
The battalion commander responded quickly: “That’s okay, son; we still haven’t found a way to rebuild the bank you guys blew up.” Laughter again. During the heaviest fighting of 2007, the bank had been used as an insurgent position.
Back in the Wall of Heroes again, the nearly-blind Soldier removed his prosthetic eye and showed it to me. The set is a small purple heart. As he replaces it in the socket, he half grins and tells me that children often stare at him.
Operation Proper Exit, a pilot program sanctioned by the Department of the Army and Surgeon General and sponsored through private donors, the USO, and a non-profit organization called Troops First, strives to assist in the emotional rehabilitation of troops severely wounded in the line of duty. They do this by flying selected volunteers back to Iraq to their previous area of service, showing them changes and improvements, providing a degree of closure, and demonstrating that their profound sacrifice has brought about lasting change. Due to security risks today, hosts were unfortunately forbidden from giving the wounded men a tour of the areas outside the wire. Other bases throughout Iraq have permitted it.
The gym on this base is named after a US Soldier killed in 2007. His surviving wife is now married to one of the visiting wounded Soldiers. Tomorrow, he and his brothers will fly to Ramadi, and the wounded Marine will see the areas where he once patrolled and was eventually gravely injured. Ramadi, like Baqubah, is different now. The whole country is different, to varying degrees.
For thousands, it’s over now. For tens of thousands, it’s only just begun. For our nation, it still continues.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved