The scene is quiet. A few dust clouds drift up, and the sun breaks through them as a blurry haze against the horizon. It’s different from the last time.
The last time, there were bombs. There were bullets. There were cries. There were aches and pains and memories that these black and white words won’t ever do justice. But this time is different. This time the soldiers are back on their own terms.
Operation Proper Exit—a year-old initiative run by the Troops First Foundation and supported by the United Service Organizations—allows soldiers to return to Iraq as part of their recovery process, visiting the places where they were injured in combat. The veterans come from different ranks and different branches. They have different injuries, different recovery goals and different timelines. But they all have one thing in common: they each want to close the book on a chapter in their lives.
“Some of the wounded warriors had not heard or seen any blasts or gunfire since their arrivals,” said Staff Sergeant Julio Arredondo, who went on a recent mission with Operation Proper Exit to accompany his brother, Sgt. Juan Arredondo who was injured in Iraq. “Every warrior has his own reason for wanting to come back. One of the reasons that my brother wanted to return was to have the ability to walk out, rather than to be carried out. It’s really up to the individual to get out of the trip what he wants.”
Juan Arredondo lost his left hand when an improvised explosive device was detonated near his vehicle on Feb. 25, 2005. He is now retired from the Army and enjoying the outdoors while visiting other injured soldiers. A considerable part of his psychological recovery involved getting out of his hospital bed and going back to the base in al-Ramadi where he served.
Arredondo and eight other recovering soldiers were paired with host soldiers who helped armor them and carry their bags. The recovering soldiers were flown across Iraq to visit their respective injury sites—this was the fifth of six overall missions by Operation Proper Exit. In a surprise arrangement, Arredondo met up with his brother at the base and the duo toured the countryside together for the first time. It was an emotional expedition.
“The visit to the site of their injury was an aerial flyover,” Julio Arredondo said, “but the mood of the Wounded Warriors was a mixture of excitement and their own personal moments of replaying their injuries in their heads.”
Julio Arredondo today serves in the 321st Civil Affairs Brigade out of San Antonio, Texas, and works with the 486th Civil Affairs Battalion from Tulsa, Oklahoma. The nine-year veteran said watching his brother experience the fly-over provided evidence that much needed closure was taking place.
“As we flew over the site of his injury, Juan pointed out the location and then went silent for a moment,” Julio Arredondo said. “I thought to myself what it might have been like, going through what he had gone through at that time.”
Operation Proper Exit recently completed its sixth mission to return soldiers to the site of their injury. The experience is good for the healing process, said Julio Arredondo, but also carries added benefits.
“This program is important for both the injured warriors and the warriors currently serving in Iraq,” Arredondo said. “It’s important for the injured warriors that they get back a missing piece of their daily lives. They get closure by going back to get what they need, to keep going and close the book. It does assist with the healing process. The reason it’s good for warriors who are currently serving is they get to ask questions to see what’s out there as far as assistance if they should get injured.”
Julio Arredondo admits he has no first-person knowledge of how the fly-over affected his brother or the other soldiers who were injured, but says he did cherish the opportunity to be with his brother during this healing experience.
“Juan and I were given the opportunity to travel in the country together, an experience we had always talked about but were never able to make happen until April of this year,” Arredondo said. “I do not have words to begin explaining our gratitude or what this meant to us.”
by Josh Pate