U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Wilson, left, accompanies Army Sgt. 1st
Class Mike Schlitz, a wounded warrior returning to Iraq as part of Operation
Proper Exit, on Camp Ramadi, Iraq, Dec. 29, 2009. The program returns severely
wounded veterans to the battlefield where they were wounded to help them find
U.S. Army photo by Spc. Michael J. MacLeod
Evolving Wounded Warrior Program Returns to Iraq With Plans for MoreStory by Spc. Mike MacLeodDate: 01.02.2010
Posted: 01.02.2010 03:20
CAMP RAMADI, Iraq – Five severely wounded veterans returned to Iraq just after the 2009 Christmas holiday as part of the third installment of an evolving program to help wounded warriors heal from traumatic combat injuries.
The group, consisting of amputees and severe burn victims, visited deployed paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division as part of Operation Proper Exit, a program designed to return the injured to the scene of their battlefield injuries to help them find psychological closure.
Richard Kell, founder of the nonprofit Troops First Foundation that runs the program, estimates the number of wounded Iraq veterans who fit its criteria – those that are mentally and physically moving forward with a recovery plan – to be between 1,000 and 1,500.
In its third rendition since June, the program has now helped 18 wounded soldiers and Marines move on with their lives, said Kell.
"Can we really make a dent? We're gonna try," he said.
The goal is to make one trip per month following the Iraqi national elections in early 2010.
While Kell does not expect to get the majority to Iraq before U.S. forces leave in 2011, he and the program's other principles, Col. David Sutherland, a former brigade commander in Diyala province, and Command Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Wilson, the highest ranking enlisted soldier of United States Force – Iraq, are considering ways to multiply the reach of the program.
"Lots of 'gold star' families would like to come here to find closure as well, so see where their loved ones died," said Kell. "We've considered making our alumni available to talk to those families, so that they can tell them that their sacrifices have extreme value here in Iraq."
That kind of mentorship from prior participants has already been leveraged by Operation Proper Exit by asking one wounded warrior from each trip act as a mentor for the next, a role fulfilled on the first trip by Sutherland.
"This time we brought back Sgt. 1st Class [Joshua] Olson, who is a great [noncommissioned officer]," said Kell. "I'm learning what that's all about. He looks after his fellow soldiers very well."
Having an alum return as a military mentor with following groups is the most significant structural change to the program, he said. Additionally, the program has also reduced the number of meetings and command briefs to allow wounded warriors maximum time with soldiers on the ground.
"That's the most effective use of their time," said Kell.
However, the greatest change from trip to trip is the identity that each group takes on, he said.
"The first group viewed themselves as ambassadors to keep the door open for future trips. They made sure that, when they did talk to the press, they were very honest and truthful about their experiences," he said.
"The second group wanted to report back to families of their fallen comrades that their sacrifices were not in vain, that they had significant meaning, and that they added a great deal to the quality of life here in Iraq and potential for long term security. I think they found that to be true."
"The identity for this trip so far would have to be called 'Schlitz's Trip.' Sgt. 1st Class [Mike] Schlitz is an amazing young man who has been burned on 85 percent of his body."
Doctors harvested the remaining 15 percent for skin grafts so that Schlitz has given up 100 percent of surface of his body, he said.
"His ability to reach out and want to make other people feel good is an amazing quality. This isn't to take anything from the other warriors, but I think we will all leave here changed [by him]," said Kell.
While one of Schlitz's future goals is to continue with small venue public speaking, some participants prefer to avoid the media during the Operation Proper Exit trips.
"We let the press be the warriors' own decision," said Kell.
"If five out of five of our current group chose not to have their photographs taken or talk to the media, the reality is, that's okay," he said. "We also guarantee them that, if they do agree to talk to the press and it does become a burden, we well end it."
Kell cited an incident with a reporter who attempted to interview two wounded warriors during a visit to a war memorial at Forward Operating Base Normandy. The reporter was asked to stand down.
"Ironically, that moment of separation helped him gain greater insight into what this program is all about, and it came through in the article he wrote," said Kell.
As the five wounded warriors told their stories one by one to more than 100 paratroopers at a "town hall" meeting at Camp Ramadi, Kell made one last point.
"We're not going to make the soldiers make that decision before they get here. What you see is five soldiers in here that want to tell their stories, and they're getting encouraged to tell their stories, and they're getting comfortable with telling their stories."
"I would tell you a week ago I'm not so sure they all felt they would be sitting in there doing this."